A good friend of mine is currently experiencing 'significant' back pain. You know... the sort of pain that stops you doing what you enjoy and makes simple things like getting dressed and tying your shoe-laces almost impossible.
While there are numerous factors why someone might experience back pain, having weak core muscles increases your risk of getting a sore back.
Typically, when the word "core" is used, it is in reference to the six-pack abdominals and lower back. However, it actually includes a large number of muscles between the abdomen and the ribs. There are many muscles that work together so you need to keep all of them strong enough to do their particular job.
The role of the abdominal and back muscles
When most people think about training their 'abs' they focus on a muscle called the rectus abdominis. It's the one that creates the six-pack look, so women love it and men crave it. Its role is to pull the shoulders towards the hips, but this is only a small proportion of what the core muscles do.
The best way to describe what the muscles of your core do is 'posture' and 'support'. They are responsible for holding the upper body in the proper posture for whatever it is you're doing, be that standing, lifting something, riding a bike or sitting at your desk. Posture, as in pulling your shoulders back and sitting or standing up tall is the easiest to see.
Support is another major role of these muscles. Think of picking up a bag of shopping, doing squats, or putting something on the top shelf in the kitchen. Your core muscles contract to hold the body rigid and support the spine. If you don't or can't contract the core muscles to support your upper body, you will either falter under the weight of whatever you are lifting or put additional pressure on the spine.
The core muscles are also responsible for efficient movement. Without effective core muscles, the upper body would flop about unnecessarily creating a lot more work for other muscles and joints in the body.
Why You Need A Strong Core
The key role of the core is to support the upper body, primarily to prevent injury to the spinal column. The spine is an amazing design with each joint allowing about four degrees of movement. If the muscles are not strong enough, the body may well push the boundaries of this limited range. If the limits are exceeded too much and/or too often, it can cause damage to the ligaments, facet joints or disc between the vertebra.
How most people train their core muscles
Sit-ups, sit-ups and more sit-ups or crunches, crunches and more crunches. Because the rectus abdominis is the most visible muscle it gets all the attention. However, strengthening just this muscle and forgetting the rest is dangerous. It only strengthens the front of the abdomen so there is little support on the sides and at the back. This doesn't mean you should never do these exercises, but activities that include all the core muscles working together are important.
Examples of how to exercise the core muscles
- Just tighten everything up - Get into the habit of tightening up all the muscles around your abdomen and stomach 10 times a day. Create cues, like the phone ringing or every time you have a drink of water to contract the muscles.
- Plank or Bridge - This involves holding the body rigid and parallel to the floor, keeping everything from shoulders to ankles in a straight line. Start lying on your stomach then push up onto your toes and elbows, keeping your body straight. I do this when watching TV. Instead of sitting on the couch, I'll lie on the floor and each time an ad comes on I'll do a plank for as long as I can. You'll realise how long the ad breaks are when you do this!
- Side plank - This is similar to the plank except you are on one elbow and the outside of one foot. Hold your body in a straight line for as long as you can and make sure you do both sides.
Working on these three is a good start to strengthening your core muscles. Just a few minutes each day can make the difference and could potentially prevent you from experiencing the sort of pain my friend is going through. It is a lot easier to do these before you get a sore back, so don't wait until something starts to hurt.
Article Author: David Beard, Calico Exercise Physiologist and Healthy Ageing expert