Solid to the core
Exercising your core muscles can improve your posture and prevent injury
Last week, Fresh Start discussed how adding weights to your workout routine can boost your endorphins, resistance to injury, and metabolic rate, helping you lean out faster than with cardio alone. Now that we’ve talked generally about planning workouts, we’re going to begin focusing on specific muscle groups. Next time, we’ll examine workouts to keep you lean and balanced, starting with a core routine you can do at home every day.
“Everything starts with the core,” says Chad Martinovich, Head Coach of the MIT Varsity Football Team and strength coach for several of the Women’s Varsity teams. Your core encompasses postural muscles that are essential to total body strength, balance, and stability. In broad terms, it includes the muscles in your hips, pelvis, lower back, obliques (i.e., your sides), and, of course, your abdominals. Because these muscles form the foundation of your strength, there are several important reasons why you should crunch some core into your workouts:
Preventing postural injury
Your core muscles are largely responsible for your posture and total body strength. They are involved in nearly every movement you make, from lifting your backpack from the ground to helping you to sit properly in front of a computer. Consequently, a weak core will make almost everything you do physically — even outside the gym — more difficult. What’s worse, an unbalanced core can lead to injuries like pulled muscles and chronic back pain, problems that will only worsen as you age.
Right now, take this quick quiz to get a sense for your own core strength. Without moving, think now about how you’re sitting reading this article.
• Is your back hunched over, with your shoulders and head forward?
• Is your back arched because you’re trying to “sit up straight”?
According to the Sports and Physical Therapy Associates (SPTA) in Cambridge, if either of these phrases describes you, you’re sitting with poor posture. The first case is often caused by having stronger abdominals and/or pectorals than upper and lower back muscles. The second arises when you clench and strain your lower back muscles, and typically means your abdominals are weaker than your lower back. A truly in-balance core will allow you to sit effortlessly with shoulders back and no stressful bends in your spine. A similar test can be performed while standing.
If you’ve just noticed you have a core imbalance, you’re not alone. According to physical therapist Jason Trenouth of the SPTA, poor sitting posture is almost epidemic at MIT from our long hours hunched over p-sets and lab reports. Last spring, I was one of dozens of MIT affiliates who Trenouth and his colleagues treated for back pain at their Kendall Square facility every day.
The good news is that developing a balanced core will make sitting more comfortable and protect your back in the long run.
Preventing athletic injury
Because your core participates in almost every motion you make, imbalances can quickly develop in athletes, especially in sports where you swing, throw, or make any repeated motion favoring one side of your body.
When I was a freshman on the Varsity Volleyball team, I remember developing the most miserable lower-back pain during preseason. It was the kind of tightness that sat right on my left hip bone in an awkward spot that was impossible to stretch. Luckily, Lisa Murray, one of MIT’s athletic trainers, helped me realize the pain was caused by a wrenching motion I made with my stomach when I would swing at the ball. With a personalized core stretching and strengthening routine, the problem melted away in just a few days.
Because weight training requires perfect form to be executed safely, having a sturdy core to hold your body properly while lifting is essential. Even experienced lifters frequently contort their backs when trying to move up in the amount of weight they are lifting, which can lead to worse postural imbalances and even devastating injury. (As an aside, this is another good reason to always lift with a trainer or someone else knowledgeable to watch your form).
Some lifts especially prone to this kind of injury include the deadlift, clean, squat, and snatch. For example, let’s focus on the snatch. In this move, you start with a weighted barbell on the ground. You squat down and, in one motion, drive the entire thing up and over your head.
I once saw a kid nearly take himself out attempting this move. Lifting without a trainer or friend to guide him, he managed to jerk the 280 pound barbell over his head, but — in a moment where it literally seemed like time froze — his abdominals completely gave out. You could even see the small twitch in his tummy and the sudden bulge of his eyes — the bar was hanging over his neck like a guillotine. Somehow, he managed to throw himself forward a split second before the weight came crashing down. I’ll never forget his petrified face as he lied on his back, just inches from where the bar landed. As the owner of the gym came tearing over swearing at the kid for his poor life-choice, I remember my trainer Mike shaking his head with shocked eyes, saying, “What was he thinking? You’re never going to pull that off with a weak core.” Lesson learned.
Spring break is coming. ‘nuff said!
Now that you’re raring to build a stronger core, stay posted for Thursday’s Tech, where you’ll find some 5–8 minute core circuits you can do at home every day!