Monthly Archives: May 2012

Shape-Up Series – Anterior core

I’ve written about this before, and I want to stress again that the true definition of the body’s core is more than just a certain muscle or muscles that you can see in the mirror. Your core is a complex system involving numerous muscles in different layers, as well as other soft tissues and the bony structures they attach to. This also includes body systems like breathing, as well as your strategy of contraction, recruitment and integration.

To try to accurately and comprehensively relay this information through a few words and pictures is difficult, but I strongly believe that a little awareness and understanding is better than none. To train the muscles in your mid-section without this awareness is like driving a car with a flat tire. You might get where you’re going, but you’ll have very little control and probably cause costly damage along the way.

Anterior Core Setting

 In almost any movement you do, there is the potential for your body to be either strong and stable, or weak and unstable. Strong and stable is always better. This starts with good inner unit core activation, which provides stability for your pelvis and lower spine and initiates good firing patterns and sequencing for your muscles. On a daily basis, and before any core training or athletic activity, it’s good to practice this movement. Start on your back with your legs bent and heels on the floor. Place your fingertips flat on your lower abdomen so you can feel if it domes upward or flares wide. Take a deep breath in and exhale, allowing your abdomen to rise and fall. Once it has fallen inward, ‘set’ your inner-unit core system by contracting your pelvic floor muscles (as if you were gently trying to stop going to the bathroom). You should be able to feel your lower tummy flatten slightly. Now slowly perform a curl-up movement, leading with your lower ribcage rather than your head, while keeping your lower abdomen flat and narrow. Try to leave your legs (especially your hamstrings) relaxed as you go through this movement. Attempt 2-3 holds of 20-30 seconds, breathing comfortably and improving your core engagement throughout.

Ball Plank

Doing a plank on the floor is an excellent exercise, and performing it on a ball adds a whole new dimension. Start with your forearms on a ball and your hips, knees and ankles flexed. Your spine should be parallel to the floor with neutral curves. Good core activation will hold you strong in this starting position, which is more than challenging enough for beginning exercisers. To increase the leverage, slowly push the ball 2” forward and back, moving only the arms, without losing any quality in your spinal position or core engagement.  As you get stronger, increase the movement of the ball, and incorporate opening at the shoulders and hips at the same time. Perform 3 sets of 30-60 seconds in a smooth, controlled fashion. For increased instability and greater difficulty, try putting your hands on the ball instead of your forearms. As you get more comfortable, you can also increase the speed of the movements, or add side to side action to the ball. Always use your core engagement and neutral spinal alignment as your measure of quality and stop before you lose control.

Twisting Ball Crunch

When you’ve established the ability to maintain proper core activation, exercises like this ball crunch will be much more effective. Start by sitting on a ball and roll your hips forward until your lower back is on the dome of the ball. Have your feet hip to shoulder width apart and maintain a good core set. Place your fingertips behind your ears and lean back until your spine is in straight, neutral alignment. Crunch upward and twist to one side, moving your head, arms and shoulders as a single unit. Lower to the center and repeat to the other side. Perform 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions per side. If this is too challenging, try keeping your arms folded across your chest.

Push/Pull Summer Shape Up

Often in the training industry we’ll look at exercises, or training programs, in terms of which movements are being performed rather than which specific muscles are being worked. One common example of this is the development of a ‘push/pull’ workout.

Of course, most pushing movements with the upper body involve the major muscles of the chest, anterior shoulders and triceps, while most pulling movements require the participation of the back, posterior shoulders and some biceps. The benefit of taking the movement perspective when it comes to training is that it is sometimes easier to develop a program that is balanced.

As an example of what I mean by this, many fitness enthusiasts are following a program that is based on training specific muscle groups, like chest, shoulders, triceps, etc. This can be an excellent approach, but what often happens by the time they’ve put their program together is that they select a total of 5 or 6 pushing exercises, but only 2 or 3 pulling exercises. When you perform twice the training volume in one direction as the other, you’re bound to develop imbalance, which can lead to injury. Just be careful to do as much pulling as pushing when you train.

Again this week I’ve recruited Catlin Carruthers, a kinesiologist at my studio, to demonstrate exercises that can be performed with very little equipment. These training tools are inexpensive and readily available, which means they’re perfect for this kind of workout.

As always, technique is important, so watch your core engagement and posture throughout the workout. Remember to perform a dynamic warm-up before each session and check with your physician before starting a fitness program.

Seated Toner Row

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More often than not, it’s pulling or rowing movements that get neglected in training programs. Maybe this is because the back muscles targeted by these exercises aren’t visible to you on a daily basis, so it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Whatever the reason, these exercises shouldn’t be ignored. For this exercise, use a relatively short, firm toner if possible. Start by sitting with your feet against the base of a wall and your legs extended, with a slight bend in your knees. Loop the toner over and pinch it against the wall with your feet. Holding the handles in each hand, sit tall, with a long spine and strong core engagement. Begin pulling on the handles of the toner, keeping your elbows out wide from the sides of your body and ensuring that your shoulders stay low, away from your ears. Pull your elbows back as far as you can, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Pause in this position, then release slowly to a position where your arms are in front of you, and repeat. If your toner is long, just shorten up on the handles, or pinch some slack between your feet. Perform 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions, resting about one minute between sets. Always breathe comfortably, exhaling on exertion.

Medicine Ball Pushup

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Pushups are an excellent pushing exercise that can be modified for exercisers of all abilities. Those who aren’t as strong yet can do pushups against a wall or on the edge of a desk. For those looking for a bit more of a challenge, try this version. Start in a full push-up position, with good spinal alignment and core support. Place one hand on a firm ball. This will increase the instability during the movement and challenge more muscles in your body. When performing the pushup motion, try to maintain equal weight distribution on both hands, while keeping the ball still. Be careful not to go too low, which could overload the shoulder that’s on the ball. Perform 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions on each side. If this is too challenging, try putting your knees on the floor.

Toner Crossover Punch

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Pulling and pushing movements like those described in the previous exercises are pretty common, and are fairly easy to perform. The Toner Crossover Punch is a bit more complicated and uses many more muscles of the body. Start by holding the handles of your toner and stand on the center, with your feet about hip width apart. Now cross the handles to your opposite hands and drop into a slightly flexed, athletic position. Keeping good core engagement and postural alignment, raise your hands to the level of your chest and hold this starting position. Without tilting or twisting your body, or allowing your hips and knees to move, push one hand forward in a punching motion. Work hard to keep your arm from dropping as you stretch the toner. Draw the arm back and repeat with the other arm. Perform 3 sets of 20-30 repetitions in a smooth, controlled fashion, alternating arms. To challenge different muscles, try holding your hands wider or punching in a slightly different direction on each repetition, sometimes going wider, higher, etc. As you get more comfortable with the movement, you can also increase the speed of the punch.

Active Gardener-Strength Exercises

It’s been another excellent weekend, and I’m sure many of you have put in more long hours in the garden. I’ve talked with my neighbor, and exercise model Marg Tingley and I know she’s been regularly performing the exercises I showed her. It won’t be very long before she’s feeling the benefits.

As discussed in last week’s column where I focused on flexibility, it’s also very important to make sure that your muscles are strong to help stabilize your joints and make every movement you do easier and less stressful on your body. If every bend, squat and lift is easier, imagine how much more energy you’ll have left over after a day of working in the garden, playing sports or performing other favorite activities.

Muscular strength and endurance can be developed in many ways, and you certainly don’t need to go to the gym to build up your gardening muscles. It was easy to come up with a number of great exercises for Marg that used objects found in most yards or gardens. The important thing to remember when you begin to strengthen your body is to use common sense and pay attention to your body position and joint alignment. For example, you don’t have to be a kinesiologist to know that your knee joint is supposed to hinge forward and backward, and shouldn’t really be twisting or bending sideways. When you do your leg exercises, or when you move around in your daily activities, try to keep this in mind.

Following are 3 good strength exercises you can do in the garden on a daily basis. I’ve chosen exercises that will engage the upper and lower body, and also involve the core muscles. Always consult your physician before undertaking a fitness program or making changes to your current routine, and remember to do these when your body is properly warmed up.

Chair squat

When we don’t use our muscles, they atrophy and lose strength quite quickly. The silver lining is that the muscles bounce back when you start using them again. If your legs have lost muscle mass and don’t feel as strong as they used to, rest assured that regular strengthening exercises will bring quick results. A simple exercise that uses many of the muscles of the lower body is the chair squat. Stand with your back to the chair, and your feet about shoulder width apart. Initiate the movement by reaching your hips back as if you were about to sit down. Keep your feet flat on the ground and your knees aligned over your toes as you slowly lower your hips. Hold your arms in front of you to help with your balance, and keep your core engaged to protect your lower back. Go down about half way to the chair, pause for a moment, then return to the top position. Repeat this for 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions. If this is too easy, go a little lower the next time. If you get pain in your knees, try to limit the movement to a pain-free range of motion. Breathe comfortably throughout the exercise.

Front raise

To strengthen many of your lifting muscles, including your spinal stabilizers, find a small plant, or other light object that you can lift. Hold the object with both hands in front of your body, and stand in a strong, balanced position with your hips and knees slightly flexed and your body slightly forward. Keeping your core muscles engaged and your head and chest upright and in good posture, slowly raise the object in front of you at arms length. Try to extend and lengthen through your upper spine to reverse the effects of ‘stooping’ when you’re gardening. When the object has reached the height of your chest, pause momentarily and lower it back to the bottom. Perform 2 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Try to keep your shoulders back and down throughout the movement.

Wallclimber

This full-body exercise is excellent for developing core control when you’re crawling around on your hands and knees in the garden. Start by finding a low wall or railing and lean forward onto your hands. Keep your body in good alignment with your core system engaged. You should be leaning far enough forward that you can feel your body working to hold itself in position. Starting with your feet close together, bring one knee up toward your chest, trying to prevent your pelvis from twisting or shifting at all. Switch legs, and repeat for 20-30 repetitions. The further forward you lean, the more stable you keep your body, and the wider you position your feet, the more difficult the exercise. Be constantly aware of maintaining good posture and core stability. Eventually you’ll be strong enough to do this with your hands on the ground!

Rob Williams is a kinesiologist, elite personal trainer and posture specialist. He has been practicing for 20 years and currently operates an exclusive private training studio Mixx Fitness Studio, with a team of 10 trainers, as well as a multi-disciplinary posture facility, Performance Posture Clinic. Rob’s parent company is Williams Health Group. Rob is an accomplished writer and speaker in the fields of fitness, posture and nutrition. He is a sought-after posture and performance coach for professional and amateur athletes and celebrities.