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Strengthening the Core to Alleviate Back Pain and Improve Posture

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Just about every health professional has fielded this question at some point, “What can I do to get rid of the fat around my stomach?”

There is no way to strategically “spot reduce.” But you can greatly improve your chances of overall inch loss by implementing a few simple changes in your exercise programs. Most people are familiar with the term “core muscles” and we know they’re important. Do you know why they’re important, and do you know how to train them? To understand how to effectively work the core, you must first know how it’s built and what it does. 

First, it’s important to realize that “core” and “abs” are not one in the same. The abdominal wall—and its many parts—is only one piece of the core puzzle. Simply put, the core is made up of what we call the inner unit—our deep skeletal muscles that generally work involuntarily in a stabilizing role (for example, internal obliques, transversus abdominus and quadratus lumborum)—and the external spinal flexors (that is rectus abdominus, also known as the “six-pack” muscles and external obliques). Each muscle has a specific job, but they all perform synergistically to achieve the same goal: efficient stabilization of the spine as we move without pain.

All movement originates from the center and radiates out to our extremities. Since we live in a three-dimensional world, our bodies find ways to compensate for our lack of core strength usually by overusing other parts of our bodies such as the shoulders, low back and knees. This hasn’t gotten us very far. In fact, most of us are closer to injury and farther away from our health and fitness goals.

Often we make the mistake of not building the proper foundation. We place aesthetics over function when considering our goals. Having a chiseled stomach where tone is visible is more about having low body fat than it is about being strong. While there is certainly no shame in working towards reducing lower body fat, we need to remember that our system is only as strong as its weakest link. We need to stop thinking of the body as separate parts and begin working it as a whole. Before performing an exercise, imagine how it relates to how you move in real life. If the exercise doesn’t integrate the core with the movement of your limbs, it can’t be considered functional.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to incorporate core work into your existing exercise program.  It requires no special skills and no special equipment. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your core workout.

  1. Stand up. You want to make sure you are doing the majority, if not all, of your exercises standing up. The less you have to help you stabilize, the harder your abs and back have to work by themselves.

  2. Stand tall. Always think about staying long in the spine and maintaining your natural “S” curve.

  3. Try a balance challenge. If you choose to sit for a particular movement, try using a stability ball versus a chair or bench. You’ll reinforce the natural opposite shoulder/opposite hip relationship that keeps us balanced as well as force the weaker side to do its job.

  4. Work it into your routine. Brace the lower abdomen while sitting in traffic or stand on one leg while washing dishes (be sure and do it on both sides!).

  5. Close your eyes. Even closing your eyes when performing a movement makes it more challenging. The idea is to create instability in a controlled manner in order to force your trunk to be more reactive and aware. This leads to better balance, better posture and better strength.

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