Mention abdominals and there's an immediate sucking in of the gut and possibly visions of a hundred sit-ups. Or maybe you feel guilty because you are thinking that you really should work on your abs but don't. How you strengthen your abdominal and core muscles is important for the overall health of your spine and maintaining good posture. These muscles' most important job is to stabilize our movements as we reach, lift and move. Great posture recruits these muscles immediately. Just try pulling your stomach in now as you sit up very tall.
In good posture the spine has neither too much nor too little of its four natural curves. Over-doing these curves, as in doing excessive typical full-sit-ups, can contribute to a further rounding of an already over-stretched and rounded upper back. Most of us are already pretty good at rounding our shoulders forward. Instead of 100 fast full sit-ups, perform a curl-up with your legs out straight, keep your low back on the floor, curl-up and hold for 6 counts. Where your back starts to arch is when your abs have stopped working.
The core muscles are the link between your upper and lower extremities: the spine, the pelvic girdle and the rib cage. Picture the core muscles as a tent pegged down for a windstorm; in the front, your abdominals pull upward and your hip flexors pull downward, and in the back, your back muscles extend upward and your butt and hamstrings pull downward. The stability of the muscles working together front and back allows you to handle loads and protect your spinal cord and nerve roots. Researcher Stuart McGill demonstrated that if you stripped the spine of muscle, it will actually collapse under four and half pounds of pressure.
Try these two exercises: The first is Push-Up Hold. From a kneeling position, place you arms and hands straight under your shoulders, middle fingers pointing forward. Extend your legs straight back, toes curled under, until you are in a stiff plank position. Tighten you abs and tighten your gluts. Keep your shoulders square and slightly tilt your hips under. Hold for 10-30 seconds. To progress the intensity, move your right hand forward 3 inches for a moment, then bring it back under your shoulder. Repeat with the left hand moving forward, and bring it back under your shoulder.
The next strengthener is from a pioneer in the field of muscle testing--physical therapist Florence Kendall. It can be done sitting on a chair, and targets the muscles that wrap diagonally around your middle, the external oblique. Sit very tall on a chair, feet on the floor placed together, facing front. Place your hands on top of your head. Lift your chest, and drop you ribs down slightly. Slowly rotate to the right, staying tall, and pause for a few moments, then return to center; slowly repeat to the left. Not only does this feel nice on the spine, but strengthens the abdominals. Who said you have to do a hundred crunches?
Connie Aronson is American College of Sports Medicine HFI certified, an ACE Gold certified personal trainer and an IDEA Elite Level personal trainer. She never runs out of new core routines at High Altitude Fitness and the YMCA in Ketchum.