Keeping core muscles limber is as important as keeping them strong.
The average person generally does not do enough strengthening and stretching exercises for the back and abdominal muscles. Research tells us that we can expect four out of five people to experience painful back issues at some point in their lifetime. As we age, these two key muscle groups in the core tend to suffer as they become weakened from lack of strength and range-of-motion movements, increasing the probability of back issues.
Some core muscles, such as the gluteals, receive attention through everyday activities such as walking or stair climbing, but the deep back and abdominal muscles are not as fortunate. They require a more direct approach through specific exercises that target the muscles.
WORDS of caution
• Avoid overindulging in abdominal work, believing that more is better. Overtraining ab muscles while ignoring the muscles of the back is a setup for injuries.
• Standing toe touches can place added stress on the discs and ligaments in your spine. They can also overstretch the lower back muscles and back of thighs (hamstrings).
• Lying on your back while you raise and lower both straight legs is a stressor for the back.
• Avoid all-the-way-up situps. When you bring yourself from the floor to a sitting position, you put too much stress on the lower back. Instead, try partial situps where you lift to shoulder level.
Stretching and strengthening
• In addition to walking and stair climbing, the buttock muscles, which help support the back when walking, standing and sitting, should be included in stretch-strength workouts.
• Upper leg muscles need a healthy dose of strengthening and stretching. When they're weak and tight, they put a strain on backs.
• Avoid bouncing into a stretch. Bouncing, known as ballistic stretching, can cause tissue injuries.
• To maximize stretch benefits and avoid potential injuries, only stretch to the point of mild tension. Stretching should never hurt.
• Strive to hold the basic static stretch, often used at the end of a workout, for 20 or 30 seconds.
Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but can't respond to individual inquiries. Contact her at email@example.com.
Cobra: This relaxing movement stretches the abdominals and opens up your chest and shoulders. It also increases flexibility in the spine and strengthens back muscles.
Lie on your stomach, with legs extended behind you about hip width apart, tops of feet resting on the floor. With palms on the floor, bend your elbows, keeping both hands and elbows close to your shoulders. You will be using your arms to help push you upward. Straighten your arms to what is comfortable for you. Avoid straining. Contract abdominals and inhale as you slowly lift head and chest off the floor, keeping front of the pelvis on the floor. Hold for several breaths, then exhale as you slowly lower to the floor, repeating three to four times.
Tips: If you have lower back issues, open your legs a little wider than hip width. And if you want a modified cobra, instead of the extended arm position, keep your forearms pressed to the floor.
The bird dog: This classic core exercise targets back strength and balance.
Begin on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips, neck in alignment with upper back. Contracting abdominals, extend one arm shoulder height and opposite leg hip height. Focus on keeping your back steady and flat. Hold the pose for eight to 10 seconds, slowly return to original position, then repeat the movement on the opposite side. Repeat four to five times on each side.
Tip: If being on the floor bothers your knee, place a folded towel under it.
Seated straddle stretch: This stretches the lower back, inner thighs and the back of your legs.
Sitting tall, so that your back and neck are held straight, place your legs into a wide V position with legs straight and toes pointed upward, hands placed on the floor in front of you. Abdominals contracted, inhale to lengthen the spine and, without rounding your back, exhale while you slowly fold forward from the hips, sliding your hands forward. Without lifting hips off the floor, continue the stretch as far as you can. Hold the stretch position for three or four deep breaths, then slowly return to original position, repeating two to four times.
Tips: Do not force the stretch. Remember that it is better to understretch than to overstretch. Stretch to only mild tension. In the beginning you may have to slightly bend your knees. Make sure you keep your spine long and avoid any round shoulders.