Building a Strong Core

By Erin Higins, DPT, Jumpstart Physical Therapy  

Most people experience back pain at some point in their lives. There are many facets that contribute to back pain, including age, flexibility, strength, posture, and lifting mechanics. This article will discuss some common abdominal exercises and how to correctly perform them in order to keep a strong core, decrease your back pain, or decrease your risk for re-injury.

Proper form: With all core exercises, it is important that you keep your spine in a "neutral" position. That is, your spine has a natural slight curve - it curves "in" in your low back (lordosis) and "out" in your mid/upper back (kyphosis). When doing the exercises, that curve should remain the same. Often if an exercise is too hard or you are starting to fatigue, your low back starts to arch in even further. This puts excess stress on your low back and can actually contribute to back pain. Therefore it is very important with all exercises that you maintain that nice, even spine to decrease your risk for re-injury. If your back hurts while doing an exercise, stop! That exercise may be too hard or you may be doing it incorrectly.

Translating exercise to daily life: Being able to hold a plank for 1 minute or crunch 100 times is great, but a strong core doesn't matter if you are unable to maintain a neutral spine throughout the day, such as with lifting activities. Therefore it is important to keep your back straight while performing more functional activities, such as squats, single-leg deadlifts, and TRX exercises. It is common that people may arch their back too much one way or the other while performing these exercises. Being able to keep a straight back while doing these exercises should carry over well to daily activities, including lifting, shoveling, pushing, and pulling, thus decreasing your risk for a back injury in the future. It is often hard at first, as people fall into habits such as lifting with their back instead of their legs; they really have to think about their form in order to do it correctly. With repetition, that "neutral" spine position will become natural with daily activities and you won't have to think about it anymore... so keep practicing!

Common exercises:

1) Supine leg series: Start in the position below.  Tighten your abs as if you were trying to protect yourself from being punched. Do not completely flatten your back against the ground.
     -To make harder: marching: alternate lifting your legs off the table
      -leg extensions: alternate kicking one leg out straight, just above the table
      -90-90: lift your feet off the floor so that your hips and knees are bent to 90 degrees
                  -alternate marching and kicking your leg out straight from that position  

2) Plank: to make easier:  perform on your knees instead of your feet
           -to make harder: perform with your arms on a ball, or try alternating lifting your legs

3) Crunch: Lift your head and shoulders simultaneously as if you were being pulled straight up toward the ceiling. Try not to "curl" your upper back, but instead keep you spine straight. This will decrease pressure on your discs. Lift only until your shoulder blades are off the table