Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Working the Core

Most of us will never achieve 6-pack abs like my nephews - I doubt I ever will. Hence his having his shirt off in this photo, and my leaving my shirt on. But, most of us will have lower back pain at some point. Picking up something heavy, or picking it up with poor technique, packing excess body weight, even cardiovascular workouts can make our lower backs hurt. The important thing to realize is that excess stress on your lower lumbar regions (lower back) can be reduced if you have a strong core. As Wikipedia puts it “lack of core development can result in a predisposition to injury”.

The standard fare for developing the core are sit-ups, crunches, leg lifts and hyperextensions. If you need to, just type in any of these terms into your favorite search engine and you will find pictures and videos showing you how to do them.

All of these exercises work - and I do all of them. In addition I try to find ways to incorporate a “core element” in many of my other exercises. I do this by finding ways to do things with one hand rather than with both hands. For example, most folk do curls with either barbell they can hold in both hands, or they use a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand. They then curl with both arms at the same time, or curl with one arm while letting the other hang at their side. Either way, their core is not fighting an imbalance. But, if they only pick up one dumbbell and do curls with one arm at a time, then the core has to work to maintain balance when only one side of the body is curling a weight. This is the basis for my making curls into core exercises. Bench presses are an even better example. When you are laying on a bench and using only one barbell to do presses your core is responsible for keeping you from falling off the bench. The work your core does is directly proportional to the weight you are using, so, as you slowly increase the amount you can curl or press, you also increase the work your core is doing.

Even exercises done with machines can be changed to incorporate a core element - if you forgo the two-handed approach and instead find ways to do each exercise with only one hand at a time. This will force your core to stabilize your body and increase your core strength.

The other thing I like about doing unbalanced exercises is they are harder to do - so you use lighter weights - thereby reducing strain on joints. I typically find that people have to reduce the weight they use in each hand when doing a balanced exercise by as much as 25 percent when they switch to using only one hand.

As with any change in your workout routine, be careful. Unbalanced exercises, whether sitting or laying on a bench, or standing, pose more of a risk for falling than do balanced exercises. That is the whole point of unbalanced exercises. Start with light weights, and low reps, build the number of reps until you are comfortable with 25 or 30 repetitions, then increase the weight by small increments. And, if you have a history of back problems, talk to a trainer and/or your doctor. And always remember, start light and have someone spotting you when you first try an unbalanced exercise.

I was thinking about Lenny - the gentleman who damaged his shoulder recently. And I was thinking about how sustainable his exercise routine is - as in how he can continue to improve his strength as he ages when his focus is lifting ever heavier weights. Tomorrow I want to talk a bit about sustainability.

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