Tag Archives: core

How to get skinnier right now.

From SF Chronicle/ photo by Kate Wade

Did you know you could lose inches just by standing and sitting up taller?

Practicing better posture not only lends to a leaner more confident looking you, but it also works and stretches the muscles into longer habits. Look at the way a dancer walks. They constantly train their muscles to lift and project outwards – stretching away from themselves, rather than curling inward.

I have personally seen Pilates clients who “looked” as though they lost as much as five to ten pounds after just a few sessions, because they were able to support better posture.

Apart from being visually slimming and confidence improving, good posture lends to overall better health. According to the Mayo clinic website, your Mother was right all along to nag about sitting up straight :  Your spine is strong and stable when you practice healthy posture. But when you stoop or slouch, your muscles and ligaments struggle to keep you balanced — which can lead to fatigue, back pain, headaches and other problems.

To trim your waist, neckline, and entire body right now, imagine a huge helium balloon attached by a string to the top of your head, gently but constantly lifting your spine away from the ground, or your seat.

Why turning out the legs builds core strength

Joseph Pilates in "Pilates Position" working on strong, balanced posture.

Pilates position, Pilates stance, Pilates “V”,  – all these refer to the positioning of the legs in Pilates exercise –  a 30 degree turnout of the legs from the hip socket with the heels pinched together and feet turned out – roughly 3-4 fingers apart.

Often student look down, turnout their feet, and move on without understanding why. The common assumption is that it’s a “dance thing”. And if only the feet are twisting at the ankle without incorporating the knees and hips, it could lead to knee and leg strain, tightness in the hips, and even low back and neck pain.

It is important to feel that the top of the leg – the femur bone – is rotating outward and stretching away from the trunk to create the turnout in the feet. No movement is forced in the knees or ankles. We extend out from the hip joints without gripping in the buttocks, but wrapping and using the muscles underneath the buttocks and at the top of the thighs.

But why?

This turnout position allows the pelvis to stay neutral, helping us engage and lengthen the “zipping up” sensation of the core muscles – from the pelvic floor through the deep belly and psoas, all the way up to the diaphram and neck muscles.

Remember, Pilates is not just abs, but requires control and understanding of all the muscles and how each affects the other to create overall balance and postural health.

Pilates V position is not so much an extreme ballet turnout, as it is more like a military stance – standing upright with an assertive and famous “chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in”, keeping the heels together, toes apart, with weight balanced forward over the balls of the feet – stable and centered,  the body is standing active and ready for action.

A good time to practice your Pilates position is waiting in line at the grocery store, using the cart handle for balance. Draw your thigh bone outward, heels together and weight over the balls of the feet (but keep your heels on the ground). At the same time lift up through the crown of the head and draw your core in towards the spine (like you are putting on a pair of tight jeans). Your entire body should be in lengthening and working at the same time. Now try to take your hands off the cart handle…just don’t fall into the candy and magazine racks.

Your 5 minute workout at work starts NOW

Let’s get straight to the point:

You sit too much. You are supposed to get up regularly. You are supposed to move around. You’ve just stumbled upon your chance. It takes 5 minutes. Considering how much time gets sucked into computer zombieland, it’s a small amount to ask. Here we go…

#1. Knee lifts while sitting

Knee lifts and holds, while sitting up straight

Sit up as tall as you can, arms by your sides. Scoop the abdominals in towards the spine to help you gain supported lift. Lift the right knee, pushing the left foot firmly into the floor. Balance and hold 10 seconds and switch. Do 3 sets. Pay particular attention to your hips and pelvis. No shifting your weight from one hip to the other. Keep them evenly weighted. If the right knee is up make sure the right hip is firmly planted and vice versa. No slumping or rounding the back. Sit up tall! Trying this on a balance ball later gives you more feedback.

DON'T DO THIS! No slumping or rounding of the upper or lower back.

#2. Chair dips

Chair dips, option 1. Bend and straighten the arms, keeping shoulders broad and away from your ears. Draw belly into spine.

2 options: hands on your chair handles (easier) or hand on the seat (harder). 10 dips, bending the elbows as far as you can and then straighten the arms. Your body weight is supported by your legs and feet as you move. Keep the spine straight, belly scooped and neck stretching long. Most important, keep the shoulders down away from your ears. This provides more arm work and a chest stretch.

Chair dips, option 2. This one is more challenging. Squeeze legs together, belly in, and shoulders broad.

#3. Balance on one foot

Stand up. If you have heels on, slip them off. (What’s one minute? Your feet will thank you). Standing on one foot with abdominals scooped and posture lifted, hold for 30 seconds. Switch.

Balance on one foot while standing as tall as you can. Opposite knee is high off the ground. Try for 30 seconds to one minute.

#4. Knee bend/Arm swings

Bend the knees and swing the arms across the body, exhale.

Straighten back up, stretching the body back up towards the sky. Swing the arms out and up. Deep inhale.

This one is akin to Radio Taiso, the Japanese morning workout. It should be invigorating and full of movement. Separate the feet shoulder width apart. Bend the knees and swing the arms across the body. Straighten the legs, lifting up through the spine and swing the arms up and out to the sides in a big stretch. This exercises needs a swinging rhythm and momentum. Take deep breaths as you move. 10 times.

#5. Elbow circles

Elbow circles

Sit back down. Gently touch fingertips to shoulders. Reach outward to opposite walls through your elbows. Draw large smooth circles in space with the elbows. Take Deep Breaths. Keep you head floating up towards the ceiling. Keep your head lifted and smile.

A clearer visual of elbow circles

That’s it!  5 minutes (maybe less). Now back to work. …Or, maybe it’s time for lunch.

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!


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.