Over the last 20 years, we've transitioned away from the traditional core training. Previously, crunches were encouraged for core training alone but today, we are trying to move towards a more neutral spine regime. This speaks a lot to this catch all term us fitness industry professionals refer to as functional training.
Functional training attempts to adapt or develop exercises which allow individuals to perform the activities of daily life more easily and without injuries. In the context of bodybuilding, functional training involves mainly weight bearing activities targeted at core muscles of the abdomen and lower back.
In reality, when you think of a sit up, when does a person actually do one in real life? Probably only when we get out of bed or if we’re running late, you’ll do a really fast one. That said, there are some activities that do require trunk flexion such as skiing or playing hockey.
I always tell my clients that when we train our cores, we want to keep our spine as neutral as possible, which means not doing sit-ups or curls. Instead, you’ll want to start with a front plank.
A front plank puts a great load on the abdominal muscles while the back remains completely straight. This reduces pressure on the discs that can cause your spine to weaken or a possibly herniate a disc. There are also ligaments that hold the vertebrae together. We want to keep those in the neutral spine position as well.
Here is a breakdown of four simple exercises you can do every day to prevent back injury when core training.
- A normal front plank is when you are balancing on your toes and elbows. So, your elbows are directly underneath your shoulders.
- Lift yourself up from your toes to your shoulders. You then contract your abs and supporting muscles. Your spine is straight. Traditionally, we would hold that position for 10, 20 or 30 counts (whatever your preference).
Modified Version: Front plank can be done on the toes (instead of knees) for additional support and a shorter lever.
- Do the exact same thing as the front plank except on one elbow.
- Your elbow is underneath your shoulder and instead of being on your toes, you’re on the sides of your feet.
- You hold that position, which trains the obliques and the rectus abdominal muscle, also known as the "abdominals" or "abs.” This is a paired muscle running vertically on each side of the anterior wall of the human abdomen. There are two parallel muscles, separated by a midline band of connective tissue called the linea alba. Traditionally, we would hold a side plank right then switch to the side plank left position for 10, 20 or 30 counts (whatever your preference).
Modified Version: Side plank can be done on the knees instead of your feet for additional support and a shorter lever.
3. Back Plank a.k.a. Back Bridge:
- Sit on the floor with your knees straight.
- Balance on your heels with your hands behind you.
- Pick your hips up so your body is completely straight from your heels to your shoulders. This engages the electoral spine.
Modified Version: Instead of having your knees straight with one long lever — from your heels to your shoulders, you would place your heels at a 90-degree angle while picking your butt up to emulate a table.
4. Standing Bird Dog Exercise:
- Stand straight with your feet together.
- Shift your weight to one leg while gradually sliding your other leg to the back.
- Now start turning your torso towards a parallel to the floor position, while taking your leg up and raising your opposite arm to extend the line formed by your body.
- Gradually you'll want to bring yourself back to the original standing position and repeat the standing bird dog on the other side.
Modified Version: Instead of holding yourself up, do the same exercise notated above except this time you would lean against a chair or desk for additional support.
The beauty of these four exercises is that they are a really good stimulus for our muscles to become stronger. They don’t allow us to comprise the discs or ligaments in our backs since you’re in that neutral spine position. What you’re really doing is building those muscles that support your spine and you’re making them stronger.
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Dr. Mike Bracko works with fitness professionals, industrial workers, and hockey players to improve performance and prevent injury. His clients include personal trainers, group exercise instructors, fitness professionals, youth to pro hockey players, youth hockey coaches, log haulers, oil and gas workers, and nuclear security officers.