The question of why can I lift 100+ lbs easily but when I reach for a piece of paper I blow my back out and am crippled for weeks.
Well, this comes down to a couple of different things. Obviously if you have some serious issues in your back like bulging discs, or cracked vertebrae you have good reason for pain. Strengthening your CORE will help in most instances but you may always have a tricky back that gives you a little flare up from time to time.
But one of the biggest reasons that we find in Pinnacle Fitness is that people try to strengthen their heavy mover muscles. I see people lifting heavy back extensions which strengthen the spinal erectors (the muscles on the side of your spine that you can feel very easily on the surface). These are great muscles for helping you lift heavy weights, lay down 10 yards of rock in the yard, clean out the garage because 8 million baby toys are in the way and you can’t possibly pull your car in ( my issues:)).
These muscles help up move things. Hence the name. They can create a lot of force, for instance your glutes( butt muscles), quads( front of the thigh), and some of the surface abdominal and low back muscles. Everyone has seen the shredded athlete with a rippling stomach. Their abs look like mini speed bumps one after the other.
Yes these muscles take work to get them strong. A lot of work! But we can train these muscles to generate a lot of power, to grow in size and strength, and to serve the needs in our professions, or as an athlete.
All very important in there own way. So why do experts say that 80% of the United States population will have back pain at some point in their life? It is a real thing!
Anyone who has experienced a bulging disc or sciatica understands the pain that comes with it and how long it takes to heal. Also the toll it takes on you and others around you.
These are the muscles that help support the spine. When there is a trauma to an area of the spine, certain stabilizers shut down. The nervous system can’t get the message to the muscles to fire. In a very short period of time, destabilization occurs. Sometimes pain is associated with the trauma but sometimes it is not. A disc may start to bulge but has not hit a nerve yet so you may be unaware.
If your stabilizer muscles are already strong and active before the trauma, you have a much better chance of coming through unharmed. To be smart, I periodically come back to certain stabilizer exercises to make sure I am firing on all cylinders. Even sitting with bad posture causes some of the muscles to turn off over time.
What are the Stabilizers?
There are 3 that I am going to talk about in this article.
1.Transverse Abdominus– It is a muscle layer of the front and side abdominal wall. The SPANX of your abdominal muscles.
2. Multifidus – Deep internal muscle that run along the back of your spine
3. Pelvic Floor Muscles– I learned a lot about this during my wife pregnancy. More than I ever thought I would have to know but it actually turned out to be super beneficial. The floor of the pelvis is made up of layers of muscle. These muscles stretch like a hammock from the tailbone at the back to the pubic bone in the front.
The TVA or transverse abdominus is a deep muscle that can be difficult to activate. Sometimes called “The Spanx of the Abdominal Muscles” for the slimming effect that it can have on the body. Who doesn’t love that?
When activated properly and it is one of the stabilizer muscles that keep your spine in tact.
How to find it? Take your fingers and place them half way between your belly button and your pubic bone. Push in with your fingers so you can feel the muscles. Now give a little cough. Your hands should pop up. Those are the muscles that we are looking for.
How to activate it? I like to use a balloon. When you try and blow up a balloon your lower abdominals activate. Blowing out through pursed air is an easy way to learn how to contract the transverse abdominus. Another way is to think of pulling your belly button away from your shirt.
Try this… Lay on your back and put your hands just inside your hip bones on the front of your body. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale draw your stomach in and flatten your back to the floor. You should be as skinny as possible around your lower stomach. Another trick is to imagine tucking your tailbone. As you draw your stomach in, imagine tucking your tailbone at the same time. I like to think of pointing my tailbone to where the ceiling meets the wall. It causes your pelvis to tilt and activate the lower abs. Bingo!
Next I want to talk about the Multifidus
A muscle that fills up the grooves on either side of the spine.
So this is a very Layman’s definition but you get the point. The hard part about the Multifidus is learning how to activate it. It is a deep muscle so most people understand how to engage the larger Spinal Erectors on either side of the spine much better.
It has been shown that after a trauma to the back the Multifidus muscle can shrink by up to 25% within a 24 hour span. This is a big issue since it provides stability to that region. So relatively soon after a back injury we want to at least start to get that muscle activated and not let it completely atrophy.
How to find it? Well, because it is a deeper muscles it is tougher for people to feel. If you can find the two joints off to the side of your lower back where your butt meets your back. These are called SI Joints. Think, the muscles just to the inside of those joints and up the spine.
How to activate? So what makes this one a little tougher is that you have to use what we learned in the last email and add it to this one. We need to engage our lower abs first before we can start to feel the Multifidus.
Let’s start….. Lay on your back on a relatively firm surface. Feet about shoulder width apart. Draw your belly button towards your spine with an exhale breath. As you do this, your pelvis will tilt a little. (I like to imagine my front hip bones coming together). Now our Transverse Abdominus or TVA is engaged.
From here, you are going to slowly raise your left hip towards your left shoulder. Your hips will no longer be in a straight line across your waist. You should only move about a 1/2 inch. From here allow the left hip to drop back into place and then raise the right hip. This will allow the Multifidus to activate and you will start to be able to feel where it is. A couple sets of 10 reps per side is a great start.
1. You have to maintain the pelvic tilt or lower ab engagement throughout the whole movement.
2. It is a small range of movement. Don’t need to look like a fish on the ground!
3. If you have suffered a back injury and this is too much movement then stop. Or shorten the range of motion.
4. This is a beginner exercise to help you engage and feel where the Multifidus is located. I don’t expect you to be sweating or shedding body fat:)
The TVA and Multifidus work together to help stabilize your back. If you have a desk job or are riding in a car a lot, these muscles are going to shut down causing the burden to go to your spine. Over time stiffness or aches and pains will creep in and no one wants that.
Pelvic Floor Muscles
Lastly Pelvic Floor Muscles
The pelvic floor muscles are part of the anticipatory core, which includes the respiratory diaphragm, pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, and multifidus back muscles. This means that these muscles tighten before other muscles begin to work. For instance, if I think about moving my arm, my anticipatory cores are already contracted then I use the muscles for moving my arm.
So as you can see, the CORE muscles play a huge role in all of our everyday activities. It doesn’t matter that we are only using our shoulder or lower leg. The CORE must fire and be strong while doing all of these movements.
The pelvic floor is most easily contracted by doing kegel exercises. There are a lot of in-depth ways to feel or activate the pelvic floor muscles, but to keep it simple, imagine urinating and then trying to stop mid-stream. Those are the muscles that need to contract to stop urinating. If you look at the diagram above, the pelvic floor looks similar to a hammock. The end points are connected to the tailbone and the pubic bone. Imagine trying to shorten that hammock buy pulling your tailbone and pubic bone closer together. The muscle in between will do this.
How do they work together?
OK, so now we know where the 3 main muscles of our CORE are located. And we have discussed them independently in regards of contracting them. Well, now is the fun challenge of how to activate all three of them at the same time.
Posture is key. We need to be in a good position to start so that we can properly activate our muscles. You can do it in many different positions. In fact, when I finished up college at UCLA I decided to get a few extra hours and worked at a local bar as a bouncer. Basically I stood there and looked authoritative and checked ID’s etc. But I realized, it was a great way to engage my core. You have to stand for 4-6 hours straight so I tried to get the most out of it.. Sorry for the side story…
How to begin…
Lay on your back with your feet shoulder width apart. I like to take a deep breath in and expand my stomach as much as possible. This really over exaggerates the upcoming exhale and allows you to feel the belly button draw in towards the spine.
Remember, all of these contractions are not meant to be strenuous. You should not be writhing in pain or be laying in a puddle of sweat. Here we go..
On the exhale, Contract the pelvic floor( stop peeing!), tightening up the sphincter is a good cue as well. From here continue to draw the stomach in towards the floor. Make yourself as skinny as possible. Really concentrate and hold for 10 seconds. You should be able to breathe through your upper rib cage while doing this. Your multifidus will probably contract on its own after the first two are engaged. That being said, an extra cue is to draw those 2 joints(SI Joints) in your low back towards each other.
Learn to hold these contractions for 10 seconds. Try and get 10 repetitions. In an ideal world you would do this 3-4 times a day to reinforce the movement. Eventually you won’t have to think, it will just happen automatically.
When I am forced to sit a lot for work or travel I practice this exercise at my desk or in the car. Sit up straight with good posture. You can engage the same way as above from a seated position. Just remember not to slouch or it will shut off the muscles we are trying to work.
Stabilizer muscles are one of the keys to a healthy back. Learning how to activate as well as keeping them engaged as you move is what is needed for success. It is a learned skill and requires practice. I just told you how to activate. Now it is time to train them and get them strong!