Tag Archives: abdominal strength

Scooping the abdominals in sit ups

Last week we delved into what it means to  “scoop” the abdominals in Pilates. If you haven’t, I recommend starting with the previous post here.

Continuing the abdominal scoop adventure, today’s saga crosses paths with the #1 exercise culprit which, when done incorrectly, can lead to back pain and neck and shoulder tension…it’s the sit-up.

Don't do this

Try one, looking for these foreboding signs: Does your back tense? Do your legs pop up? Do your neck and shoulders round forward into your ears? Do you hold your breath? These are all signs your core is skipping out on the work. You may feel some ab muscles working, but, as mentioned in the last post, there are many muscles that make up the trunk.

Up. Up and away…

Try these deconstructed versions of sit ups for a few weeks. You may notice your core pulling in better, supporting your back and lengthening your posture.  The key is to scoop the abs and stretch and breathe while moving. Phew, that’s a tall order! Small and slow movements win this race, no matter your athletic ability.

The chest curl

The Chest Curl

How high can you curl your chest up while keeping the low back and belly down?

Lie on the back. Stretch and curl your chest up off the floor, keeping the low back on the ground and the abs scooped in. Push the back of your thighs into the floor.  Hold this lift for two breaths and then stretch back down.  Do not let the belly push out. (If the belly pushes out, you’ve gone to far and chances are your legs have popped up a bit and the shoulders are tensing forward.)

Keep it small! Focus on stretching the back and neck muscles alone the spine. If your neck is tensing, support your head with your hands. Try 10 of these.

The modified roll down

The Modified Roll Down

Sit up as tall as possible, As though your spine is lifting up by a string from the top of the head. (This alone should be work). If your back is strong the legs are straight out in front and together. If your back is tight and you feel leg strain, bend your knees and squeeze them together. Holding a tennis ball or pillow between the knees helps.

More challenging Roll down

From this lift, begin rolling back by curling the tailbone towards the back of the knees. Roll back one bone at a time to stretch the spine. Only go back as far as you can keeping the feet firmly planted on the floor, the legs from moving, and the shoulders relaxed. Hold this position and take two breaths. Curl back up into the upright position.  Again, it is important to keep belly scooped in towards the spine. If the belly is pushing out it is an indicator your spinal posture is crunched and not staying long and lifted. Try 10 of theses.

In either of the above moves, if you feel pain or pinching, STOP. It might be time for professional help.

Remember, the best way to get the most work from the trunk muscles is twofold: (1)  simultaneously lengthen while in motion. (2) Coordinate your breath with any movement.  The combination of stretch and strength with diaphram work produces a flowing, smooth, safer movement.

I didn’t say it was going to be easy…

What it means to scoop the abdominals

Wrong kind of scoop

You are in a Pilates class and the instructor says. “scoop your belly!”, do you:

A. Think, “What the heck does that mean?! I can’t scoop anything.

B. Suck in your gut, and hold your breath.

C. Give up on this weird Pilates stuff and take kickboxing next week instead.

This “scoop” is not only an essential part of traditional Pilates, but a fundamental muscular awareness for all types of sports and activities, including sitting at your desk.

To scoop the abdominals one must engage their transverse abdominal muscle, often referred to by movement therapists as the TVA. This is the deepest abdominal muscle. When engaged the TVA muscle contracts like a corset around the waist. It supports the pelvis and spine creating the “pulled-in” look.

The Transverse is like a corset, pulling the waist in

Too often I meet people who exercise, but still complain of belly bulge and back pain. While chasing the perfect “6-pack”, we focus on building the top abdominal layer – the rectus abdominal muscle. Although feeling the burn of this outer layer of muscle, if you are unable to engage deeper muscle support the back moves unsupported, and the belly pushes out…and you are actually a few steps further from a 6-pack, than when you started.

A 6-pack cannot exist on one muscle alone, it takes the whole body. The TVA  is just one of many muscles that makes up the core, however it is the muscle that creates the scoop.

Here are a few suggestions to help you master your scoop:

Belly in/Belly Out Quadruped

Step 1. Allow belly and organs to drape towards the floor. Keep the spine straight and still. No arching

Step 2. Draw the belly and organs in and up towards the spine. Again, don't move the spine. It remains planked.

On all fours (if it bothers your wrist, a forearm position is fine) Plank the spine. Do not allow the back to sag or round. Holding this table position, allow the belly muscles to relax towards the floor. AGAIN,  no spine movement, only the belly. Exhale and draw the belly muscles in and up towards the chest – like you are scooping your guts up and into the back of the ribcage. Hold this scoop for 3 breaths and then allow the belly to release down towards the floor again, maintaining a flat spine. Try this 5 – 10 times.

Leg extension Quadruped for Core

Add a leg extension for a more difficult core challenge

Once you feel the scoop,  try maintaining it while sliding one leg back and stretching it out. Hold this position for three breaths, while keeping the spine planked (no sagging back). Hold 5-10 seconds. Switch legs. Press into all the finger joints to help lift out of the wrists. Can also be done on fists or the forarms. Try doing 5 sets.

Deep belly sitting

Practice scooping while sitting at your desk

This one can be done sitting at home, at your desk, or at the opera. No one will know you are working out, but they might comment on your good posture.

Sit up tall, and imagine vacuuming in the abdominal wall. Hold while taking 3 gentle breaths. Release.

The vacuuming feeling is akin to a pair of tight pants as you pull up the last bit of the tight zipper. That is your TVA. Another image is if someone were to give you an upper cut to the belly button, punching in and hooking up…not a pleasant thought, but it works.

Scooping pulls in and up - like an upper cut to the belly. ewww

You never want to overwork just one muscle. It takes a coordinated effort from all muscles to keep the body balanced and strong. There is some debate over what the TVA does and how important it is to work. No matter, the awareness of the muscle is extremely valuable to a better understanding of yourself and how you move.

Practice!

Four exercises in under 10 minutes to firm your core

How fit is your center?

It’s not about how many crunches you can do. Did you know if you overwork your abs, you could end up with back pain and no flatter a front? Your center is not just the muscles you look down at and sigh, but your whole trunk: front, back, sides, top and bottom. A fine balance in all of these muscles is necessary for a strong core.

Here’s a simple test to determine how you measure up:  Hold a forearm plank as long as you can. 1 minute is good. 2 minutes is excellent. Less than 1 minute? We have some work to do.

During the above test, really pay attention to what you are feeling. These feelings speak volumes about what and where you are weak, strong, tense, etc.

Do you feel your low back? Then your abdominals and deeper core muscles are not lifting to support your trunk and they need to be strengthened.

Do you feel your neck tension or elbow pressure? Then you upper core muscles, like the lattisimus dorsi,  (ie the muscles that push your armpits down towards your hips) need to be strengthened.

What’s your body telling you? Different pains and strains mean different muscles are out of balance. Tuning into your body and developing the awareness of what is being felt is the first big step to finding core balance and strength.

To build overall trunk strength, try this simple core challenge.

Performing these exercises at least 5 days a week. It should take less than 10 minutes. Even after a few weeks, you will feel the difference:

#1. THE FOREARM PLANK

Up to 2 minutes. Pinch glut muscle together. Lift abdominals up towards the spine. Keep your neck long (front and back), and maintain an open chest, with the collar bones trying to peek out.  Balance forearms on a stability ball to mix up the challenge. Starting on the knees is a-ok!

#2. SIDE FOREARM PLANK:

1 minute each side. Keep hips lifted. Belly pulled in (tighten the waist muscles all around like a corset), and chest stretched open.

#3. BACK EXTENSIONS: Keeping hips and top of thighs on the floor. Hands under armpits. Press into palms and lengthen chest and back up and out, away from legs. No pinching in the low back  nor strain in the neck allowed. If you feel this, angle your arch less.

#4. BIRD DOG:

On hands and knees, scoop the abdominals up and in towards the spine. (Think of putting on a tight pair of pants, trying to get the last bit of zipper up).  Extend the opposite arm and leg away from the contracted center.  If both arm and leg together is too hard to balance, start with extending just the legs. Hold the extended position for 10 seconds then switch sides. 5 -10 sets.

That’s it. Start simple and slow. 4 exercises. Less than 10 minutes a day. 5 days a week.  It will make a noticeable  difference within a few weeks, and who knows…maybe those 10 minutes will inspire you to add more activity throughout the day. Good luck!


127 years of electrocuting your waist won’t help.

Every few years, a journalist delves into the validity of electric belts for toning abdominals.

Since the invention of electricity, there have been those seeking out its health related powers, usually in the name of making a buck.  Decades of time, money, and hope all wrapped in a belt that shoots painful shocks into your body. Somehow electric weight loss still sparks with promise.

The collective desire to believe in the power of weight loss while doing as little as possible is so strong, it’s borderline religious in fervor.

So if you wish to worship at the alter of Saint Electric Belt, here’s my advice::

If the electric belt prayers weren’t answered in the 1800s or the 1900s, why would they be now? Could 127 years of stringing people along be wrong? Yeah, probably.

Electricity has not evolved into anything new in the past 100 years. In fact, neither have these belts. Worst-case scneario you happen to be the unlucky soul who purchased the first generation electric corset in 1883, prior to alternating currents AC/DC…you might have had a few more problems, or at least a few more burnt ends…

To sum up:

Yes. Along with a good amount of exercise, electric stimulation, used in physical therapy, potentially helps build intrinsic small muscles to aid in overall recovery.

No. Using an electric belt with no other health and/or fitness regime will not help in weight loss.

Any questions?

Next time we will explore the lives of Saint Shake Weight and Saint Diet of Milk…

You are really getting on my Sciatic Nerve.

Does your back make you feel like this?

Back pain universally blows. It destroys postures, mental states, and days all around the world without visible wounds displaying the immense internal pain…except for the furrowed brow. Pure torture.

Sciatica is a subset of back pain mostly felt in the legs. The sciatic nerve is a long cord of nervy fun that goes through the spine, separating down into the legs and ending in the feet.  Sciatica occurs when something close to the sciatic nerve impinges upon it. The muscles around the nerve, in an attempt to protect it, seize up causing sharp, shooting pain through the buttocks and the back of the leg. Muscle atrophy can result from the stress of seizing up. Big nervy fun, indeed.

The sciatic nerve

Sciatica and back pain can attack anyone at anytime. A young athletic person with muscular imbalances is as likely to feel back pain as an older person with a sedentary lifestyle.

If ignored, sciatica and back pain often gets worse. With a bulging disc at 25 and an acute onset of sciatica, I know. Without proper care, I was forced to lay on the floor for a week, unable to sit or stand for long. My leg would buckle underneath me, and even as the pain lessened, I could barely stand up for more than an hour or two at a time. It took a year of constant work to become pain free. The year was crucial for understanding proper care of my body, preventing further back problems for years to come.

Every body is different. Back problems are relative to the individual. Proper core strength, self-knowledge and self-care are golden tickets to recovery, from the first pang to post spine surgery.

Below are suggestions to help ease sciatica, but always consult your physician regarding any prolonged back pain.

#1. R-I-C-E – It’s the physical therapy stand-by for acute pain. Practiced everywhere from the school nurse’s office to NBA courts.

REST– After an acute back injury, rest is the best medicine. Allow the spine and muscles to relax and to heal on their own terms. Listen to your body.

ICE– When in doubt, go with ice to help relieve inflammation and numb the pain. My favorite ice pack is a super large bag of corn or peas from the grocer, just don’t eat it later. ewww.

COMPRESSION– Wearing a back brace or wrapping an ace bandage in a corset-like fashion can temporarily aid in supporting the spine and muscle strain.

ELEVATION – Rest flat on the back, allowing the legs to be propped up at an ELEVATED angle. Either with a pillow below the knees or lying on the floor with calves draped on the couch or a chair.

#2. Stretch out the spasm.

Stretching out cramping muscles provides temporary relief. Proper stretching is crucial. Do not stretch the leg past a 90 degree angle, causing the low back to curl forward or twist. While this might feel good at the time, it can make the pain worse later by straining the low back.  Keep the spine neutral while stretching the legs. Again, when stretching the leg do not allow the low back to round or tuck under.

hamstring stretch. turn the leg in and out

Piriformis stretch: This stretch releases the muscle spasm temporarily around part of the sciatic nerve.  Lie on your back. Cross one foot over the opposite thigh. Pull the thigh in towards your chest, but keep your backside on the floor (do not allow it to curl up off the floor).

Piriformis stretch

#3. Build a better core

Begin to work on slow, controlled movements that allow you to find your core muscles. No crunches or sit ups. Without proper awareness these movement can create further muscular imbalance and continued back pain. I recommend trying the dead bug exercise, which is explained here.

dead bug exercise

#4. McKenzie Exercises

Physical therapists either approve or condemn this method. There is no in between. After 6 months of pain, the McKenzie extension exercises helped correct my spine and strengthen my back muscles.

 

Named after a physical therapist in New Zealand, McKenzie exercises are primarily extension (arching) exercises that could help reduce the symptoms of herniated disc by reducing pressure on a nerve root. For acute pain, the McKenzie exercises should be done frequently, at least once every two hours. For more information, you can buy the book, or check out their website. Although many back and sciatica problems could be helped by these exercises, it is not for everybody. Consult a therapist or a doctor to determine if this method is for you.

#5. Get moving with strength and balance

Once back pain is under control, it’s time to consider exercises to make sure the pain stays away. Understand your body’s muscular balance and how it works: Which muscles need to be strengthened? Which are overdeveloped or strained? A strong core includes the back and side muscles too, not just the abdominal wall we berate in the front. Strengthen the entire trunk to maintain a healthy neutral spine posture. Often, the back muscles need to be exercised in order to “teach” the spine how to stay in a neutral position. The guidance of a professional Pilates instructor, physical therapist, or movement therapist is highly recommended.  Ideas for low impact exercise can include:

walking

elliptical

swimming

pilates (with a certified instructor, preferably one with a rehabilitation background)

low impact aerobics

dance

…really, just get moving! Finding an enjoyable form of exercise is key to lasting strength. Regular activity, with balanced trunk strength, prevents back pain from recurring, allowing you to stay mobile and strong for many years to come.

Pilates, guys, and core strength

Joseph Pilates was a manly man.

Strutting his stuff well into his 70s, smoking cigars and sporting tighty whities, this former boxer and circus strongman (“living Greek Statue” to be precise) mainly taught his method of exercise to men, until he came to New York and moved his studio into the same building as the NYC Ballet. Once Pilates became associated with dancers, it seems the menfolk started to disappear.

To set the record straight, Pilates is not just for dancers. Joseph Pilates himself called his exercises a corrective method of movement. Many athletic men still complain of a bulging belly and back pain, When properly executed, Pilates exercises improve muscle imbalances, building strong, flexible trunk muscles, backs free of pain, and younger, taller posture in any body.

Here are a few key insights men should know when beginning Pilates or any core strengthening regime:

Strength need not come from strain.

The subtly of Pilates can, at first, be frustrating, and might not jive with traditional notions of a manly workout. Try to leave the power workouts at the door, at least in the beginning. A good Pilates instructor will not allow clients to power through an entire workout without proper muscle control.

The challenge of Pilates is in the details.

Pilates core strength comes from muscle awareness and control. (Joseph Pilates named his exercise method, “Contrology”.) Finding control requires some thoughtful and, often, small movements. These beginning steps shape the more advanced work that comes later. Without awareness of all muscles, both large and small, the benefits attained will be limited. It’s training for the body and mind.

With proper control, even a football player will struggle with 2 pounds weights if they lengthen muscles outward from a strong core, rather than tense up and inward to power through. It’s like the Aesop moral, “better to bend like the reeds than break like the tree trunk”.

Keys to good Pilates: Stretch the spine and draw in the abdominals during all movement.

This is often referred to as “scooping” your abdominals. Lifting the spine upwards and allowing space between the vertebre to corset the trunk muscles inward.

Practicing the Pilates scoop.

Here is an exercise to work on the Pilates scoop from Jillian Hessel:

Sit up as tall as you can, lifting up out of your hips. Place your hands on your lower abdomen with your fingers spread apart. Imagine you have a belt slung low across your hips.Inhale deeply through your nose for 5 counts. Exhale through your mouth for 5 counts, imagining you’re tightening the belt and drawing your hip bones closer together. Your fingers should interlace as you exhale completely.

Your core is a corset of muscles with several layers that wrap around your trunk. Pilates exercises draw this corset tightly inward to support the spine rather than push outward away from the center.

Now do that same scoop as you perform a forearm plank on a fit ball. Hold it for one minute. Stretch the neck long. Keep the shoulders broad. Continue to draw the trunk muscles in as you breathe.

Proper core strength aids in preventing diastase, back pain, belly bulge, neck and should tension, and many other issues.

Find a good instructor and practice the basics regularly to gain insightful muscle control and core understanding to compliment any exercise activities. Then you too can strut around in tighty-whities with your shirt off being the manly man that you are…on second thought…keep that at home.

For more information, check out this Wall Street Journal article discussing the growing popularity and importance of core training.

Hold Your Guts Up – The Elusive Pelvic Floor

Hey. Guys have them too. Don’t think this is just a woman thing….

I’m heading into dark waters. Big Sigh. The Pelvic Floor. It almost sounds like a mythological made up place in the body. Unfortunately, it’s very real, and effects two of our most immediately important bodily functions – sex and urination – which is probably why it’s isn’t more openly discussed.

Most women have heard of these muscles, and perhaps the name of a popular method to strengthen them, kegel exercises. Although not discussed much in the gym, men need pelvic floor strength too. If you are unaware of these muscles, it often goes hand in hand with lack of proper abdominal strength and back support. A weak pelvic floor lends to a weak golf game. Your pelvic muscles are the floor of your torso. They hold your guts up, so to speak. The pelvic floor muscles contract in tandem with the deep spinal support muscles, creating a girdle of support – a diaper of strength, if you will. Down and dirty we are going to try and find these muscles. When they are contracted there is often no visual engagement seen externally.

Stop the flow


The easiest way to find the pelvic floor muscles is stopping the stream of urination.  If you can do it, then you’ve found them. Congrats. Don’t do this all the time however; constantly stopping the urinary flow when going to the bathroom, and not emptying the bladder entirely can lead to urinary tract infections. This is a good method to first find the muscles.

Simple pelvic floor exercise

We are trying to contract like the blue image on the RIGHT!

Here is a good way to work the pelvic floor muscles, sans the bathroom. Find your sit bones. These are the two bony protrusions located at the base of your pelvis. You can feel them underneath your backside as you sit down.  Imagine drawing those two bones together, towards each other, without tensing the backside or leg muscles. Picture the two sit bones becoming magnetically attracted to each other, and feel them pulling towards your center. Draw them together for a few seconds and then release. Try again. It helps to do this sitting upright on a stability ball. If the ball moves a lot or your legs and backside tense, lifting you up from the ball, know that these are the wrong muscles. When contracting the pelvic floor there is very little, if any, movement from the ball.

Another way to imagine triggering the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominals while sitting is to imagine zipping up the last bit of zipper on a pair of pants that are too tight.

Elevator Exercise (From Mayo Clinic)

Visualize an elevator. Slow down the exercises, gradually contracting and releasing your pelvic floor muscles one at a time. As you contract, visualize an elevator traveling up four floors. At each floor, contract your muscles a little more until you reach maximum contraction at the fourth floor. Hold the contraction and then slowly release the tension as you visualize the elevator returning to the ground floor. Repeat 10 times.

Crazy gizmos

uh...Kegel 8 plus 2.

There are lots of instruments and mini machines to help you find the pelvic floor. Some more invasive than others, but all will help get the job done.

Super Kegel Exerciser

An easy way to recreate the above exercise for both men and women is to take a tennis ball and hold it in the same place as above.  Squeeze just below the gluts with the back of the inner thighs. The place where you would hold the ball almost feels like it’s about to pop out. Contract and release the back of the thigh muscles and pelvic floor around the tennis ball.

Pilates

In Pilates we call the above exercise “wrapping into the back of the inner thighs”. It’s an important fundamental movement that will not only strengthen the pelvic floor, but the deep abdominals and the inner thighs, creating a leaner, longer posture.

See the squeezing of the back of his inner thighs

No matter how you go about it, strengthening the pelvic floor takes time, patience and practice, but the practice can happen anywhere. No gym clothes required. Go ahead. Try a few right now. Better love life and deeper belly laughs without fear of having to cross your legs await you.