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Ease Back Pain, Strengthen Your Core Without Moving A Muscle

By: Rob DiTursi

Many people come in for massage therapy for lower back pain, seeking relief through massage, and massage does help. What most are surprised with is how important the anterior portion of the body is from the thighs to the ribs. It can be most surprising to find that relief is brought to the muscles of the back by releasing the muscles in the front.

Just as lower back pain can be alleviated by massage on the ribs and thighs, long-term relief can be had by strengthening those core muscles. First we have to change the commonly held misconception that the “core” muscles are solely those wash-board abdominals that we all secretly wish for. The abdominals are only a part of the equation. When we think about the body’s core we need to understand the relationship of pelvis/hips and how they integrate our motors-of-movement (legs) with our motors-of-dexterity (arms). To walk upright, to bend and lift, and to pull and push; all of these movements require a strong and supportive muscular network to transfer energy efficiently and powerfully. Enter, the long-neglected essential “other” core-muscles. These include the muscles of the thigh, the gluteal (butt) muscles, the deep hip flexor/stabilizer, Iliopsoas, the diaphragm and the intercostal and other muscles acting on the ribs. All of these players are constantly at work tensing and relaxing with and against one another as we go about the business of our day. Here are four exercises you can do to keep these core muscles strong and the best part is, once in position, the idea is that you don’t even move.

The Plank: The trusty standby of core exercises, the plank has an infinite number of variations all of which stem from the original straight-arm plank position. To do this, start on the floor facing downward, your feet and hands only touch the floor. Keep your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your feet close together. Your legs should be stiff and strong, your belly-button pulling in and up toward your backbone, your butt squeezing tight. Hold for one minute. If you cannot hold it for one minute in one shot, accumulate that amount of hold-time in whatever increments you can manage.

The Hollow: Also done on the floor, the hollow is one of the fundamental “shapes” of gymnastics and essential for everyday functional movement. You can get in the hollow position by lying on your back, your arms extend overhead, your legs extend strongly, toes pointed and squeeze together. Make a kind of “banana” shape with your body by pulling your abdominals in and up to flatten the lumbar curve of your spine to the floor. For an added challenge, try rocking back and forth while keeping your body in that banana shape!

The Arch a.k.a. ”Superman”: Another gymnastic fundamental, the Arch is the opposite of the hollow and is accomplished by lying on the floor face-down. Extend your arms overhead, point your legs behind you, squeeze your butt, extend your back, reach and lift your chest and legs off the floor. For fun, pretend you are flying just like Superman.

Scales (Front and Back): Scales are the pinnacle of static holds, training both core strength, as well as balance and agility. Like the plank, they can be achieved in various degrees of difficulty. As illustrated, the scales are accomplished by standing tall and extending one leg.

To achieve the Front Scale, start with your arms at or above your shoulders in a “T” or “Y” position. Focus your gaze on a fixed point in front of you. Shift your weight to one leg and lift the other, toe pointed. Keep both legs straight and your chest up. Raise your leg only as high as will keep you in a strong and steady position.

To achieve the Back Scale, you will begin with your arms in the same “T” r “Y” position. Focus again on a fixed point in front of you. Shift your weight to one leg, squeeze the gluteal muscles of that leg and extend the leg behind you as you bend at the hip and lower your torso towards the floor.

Tip: Squeeze our shoulder blades together and unlock your standing leg slightly to help you keep your balance.

Building core strength does not require thousands of sit-ups, just a bit of time and persistence. Give yourself 10 minutes a day and start with only one or two of the positions listed here. As you master those positions, move onto the next. Work within your abilities, if doing a full plank is tricky, go ahead and hold that plank on your knees. When you make it to a full minute long hold, go ahead and make it harder by raising up to your toes. Take small steps every day.

Be patient and get strong.

Rob DiTursi is a Licensed Massage Therapist at Moon Brook Medicine

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