Core strength and proper core training will improve your performance in all sports and daily activities, and is essential to prevent and reduce lower back pain. The core basically consists of everything from your knees up to your armpits in a 360 degrees circle around your body. It includes the lumbar spine, the pelvic girdle, abdomen and the hip joint, much more than just the rectus abdominis (the six pack abs). The core is where the body’s center of gravity is located and where all movement originates.
Local core stabilizers are the deepest muscles that attach directly to the vertebrae. These muscles are primarily responsible for spinal stability, which are essential to prevent injury. Global stabilization muscles are the next layer and are responsible for transferring loads between the upper and lower body. They provide stability between the pelvis and the spine. Finally the movement system includes muscles that attach the spine and pelvis to the extremities. These muscles are responsible for producing force and deceleration during dynamic activities.
The core has two major jobs, to prevent unnecessary movement of the spine and to transfer force between the upper and lower body. To get with your core principles you have to think “anti”; you need to do anti-extension work, anti-rotation work and anti-lateral flexion work. All of this should be done with a conscious effort to do deep diaphragmatic breathing (breath into your belly), rather than shallow chest breathing.
Anti-extension exercises resist the extension of the spine, like arching your lower back. Examples of these exercises are static planks, dynamic planks, or body saws.
Anti-lateral flexion exercises prevent the body from bending sideways. Exercises to target these muscles include side planks (on elbow or hand), single arm carries, and any exercise where you are standing tall and hold an offset load to prevent bending sideways. Anti-rotation exercises resist the rotation at the lumbar spine. These exercises can easily be combined with other strength moves. A one-arm dumbbell chest press will engage core muscles to prevent rotating/twisting the body. Any exercises where you are resisting against a force to rotate your body are good core basics. Other anti-rotation exercises include renegade rows, half kneeing one arm cable rows and birddogs.
To complete the core picture you also need to activate and engage your largest muscle group, your glutes. The collective role of the glute muscles is to extend the hip (lifting leg back), abduct the leg (bring your leg away from the middle of your body), and externally and internally rotating the hip. Clamshells, band walking, squats, hip thrusts and deadlifts with a glute squeeze at the top all focus on full hip extension and glute engagement.
When performing any strength movements it is important to perform both the drawing-in maneuver and brace. The drawing-in maneuver is used to recruit the local core stabilizers by drawing the navel in toward the spine. Bracing occurs when you have contracted the abdominal, lower back and buttock muscles at the same time. Both maneuvers will help support the role of core training and help in the prevention of lower back pain.
Quality progressive core training should be a part of any training protocol. For a full description of recommended exercises, number of repetitions and set ranges consult your favorite personal trainer.