We've all been to the gym and seen those big guys pumping up their guns in front of the mirror as though their life depended on it. This is all well and good if you want rippling muscles to show off at the beach, but if you want a healthy and balanced body you need to start with stability.
Generally when people begin lifting weights at the gym they bypass stability and jump straight to strength. If you want to be strong and muscly then this makes sense. But this lack of stability is what leads to many injuries. Without stability the body tightens up to protect joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles. You can stretch and strengthen til the cows come home but without activating and strengthening the stabilising muscles you will always be prone to injury.
A good example of this is the core. Without core strength the muscles of the pelvis have to tighten up to provide pelvic stability. These muscles can then tighten up limiting pelvic movement. You will then feel tightness in your hamstrings and lower back, maybe even your hip flexors. Instinct says to stretch the muscles out which can provide some relief to the tightness but it just keeps coming back. The reason for this is that the core is still weak and therefore the pelvis is unstable.
So stop doing your sit-ups and start doing some core activation exercises. The benefits of this will reduce the likelihood of lower back pain, hip problems, knee injuries and much more.
Core activation - Let's start at the start. If you can't activate your core without moving or without weights then you really shouldn't be adding extra load or weight until you can first activate it.
First the anatomy - You really need to understand the core muscles if you are going to activate them. So scrub up on your latin and lets go....
Transversus Abdominis (TVA) - This muscle is basically like a corset that wraps around from one side of the spine, all the way around the front and then attaches to the other side of the spine. It lives underneath the Rectus Abdominis (six pack) and oblique muscles.
How to find and activate them?
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Tuck your fingers around your hip bones and press in gently but deep. Try to pull in your belly button but only with around a quarter of your strength. You should feel the contraction deep and not on the top surface which will be your abdominals.
Multifidus - These muscles basically stabilise the spine and are involved in rotational movement of the spine. They stop the vertebrae from slipping forward and keep them aligned. They traverse the whole spine from the lumbar spine right up into the neck (cervical).
There is a lot of controversy as to how to activate and strengthen multifidus.
The hardest part with these muscles is actually activating them. Here are a few different ways you can try:
Pelvic Floor muscles - if you have ever been pregnant, done Yoga or Pilates then you will be familiar with the pelvic floor. Even so, I generally find most people are baffled by these muscles and only have a very limited understanding of what they actually do. There are differing views as to what muscles make up the pelvic floor. For the case of simplicity we will say that they are made up of the Levator Ani group of muscles (Pubococcygeus, Ileococcygeus and Puborectalis) and the Coccygeus muscle.
Pubococcygeus (PC) muscle: a hammock like muscle that stretches from the pubic bone to the coccyx (tailbone) which supports the internal organs. This muscle helps control urine flow and sexual function as well as stabilising the spine and pelvic positions.
Ileococcygeus muscle: This muscle connects from the ilium (pelvic bone) to the coccyx.
Puborectalis muscle: this muscle forms a sling from the pubic bone to the rectum and is part of Levator Ani.
Coccygeus muscle: This muscle connects from the sacrospinous ligament and inserts to the ischial spine.
How to strengthen them?
1) Lying comfortably on your back or seated comfortably. Imagine you are stopping the flow of urine. Contract this muscle and then relax. Repeat this 10 times and build up to 30 times. Once you can comfortably do this 30 times build up to holding the muscle contracted for 1 minute.
2) Now do the same but now contract the anal sphincter. Contract and relax up to 30 times. Once you build up to this then try to hold for up to a minute.
When you can do these individually try and do them together by contracting both areas at the same time.
When you have mastered these exercises you should always incorporate them into any exercise regime, especially core work.. For instance if you are doing a plank pull on the pelvic floor muscles but squeezing the anal sphincter and also stopping the flow of urine by doing exercise 1 and 2.
It is generally said that if you can switch on the transversus abdomens and the pelvic floor then the multifidus will fire as well. The multifidus are by far the hardest muscles to visualise contracting or feel as though they are doing anything.
Common general core exercises
Bridging: Lie on your back with your knees bent arms by your side. Switch on the core muscles and then press down with your heels and lift your buttocks off the floor. Your knees and shoulders should form a straight line. Hold for 5 seconds and then lower back down. Repeat 10 times. Have a 30 second rest and then repeat 2 more sets. Try to keep your pelvis stable and your spine neutral, that is don't over arch or over tuck your pelvis. If you can't do this then it is a sign that you are very weak in your core. Back it off and only raise up as high as you can whilst keeping stable.