Build Stronger Abs with the Plank
Millions of people suffer from chronic lower back pain. There are a wide variety of reasons, from work or sports injuries to congenital defects. For many, the pain can push them into a downward spiral of inactivity, weight gain and increasing levels of disability.
Successfully treating the symptoms of back pain means you must attack the underlying issues. The top three steps are obvious. Drop the excess weight if you're fat; Lift and move things with your legs instead of your back; Exercise and strengthen the muscles of your abs and core so your spine can get adequate support.
I don't have enough space to help you with the first two steps, but there is an exercise I'd like to share that can help with the third one. It doesn't require any equipment, except a timer. It helps increase core stabilization and stomach strength by working your deep abdominal muscles. It's an isometric exercise.
(Isometric exercises are a form of strength training. You exert a force and hold a muscle in a fixed position for a set amount of time or exert a force against an immovable object. In other words, your muscles are working but they're not moving. Muscle length and joint angle don't change while the muscle is contracting.)
The core stabilizing, deep muscle activating isometric exercise I like to teach is really simple. It's called the Plank. Here's how you do it.
- Get into push-up position on the floor. Bend the elbows at 90 degrees, resting on your forearms with the elbows directly underneath the shoulders. Your forearms should be parallel to each other, with the wrists and elbows an equal distance apart. Retract and depress the scapula (your shoulder blades.)
- Lift your body weight up onto your toes so that the body forms a straight line parallel to the ground from head to heels and the forearms remain firmly planted on the ground. Hold this position as long as possible.
If you hold the position for less than 30 seconds, your body is pretty weak and you need to work more. The average person will be able to stay up for 31 seconds to a minute. Once you've developed some serious core strength, you'll be able to maintain the pose for up to 90 seconds. Consider yourself advanced if you can go 91 to 120 seconds.
Engage the lower back and abdominal muscles to maintain the position. Think of keeping your spine long throughout the exercise. Keep the elbows under the shoulders and the toes under the heels. In order to keep the head and neck in alignment with the rest of the spine, choose a focal point on the ground directly below the eyes.
Do not allow the lower back to overarch, the stomach to sag or the hips to rise. Do not allow the scapula to separate or the shoulders to roll. Do not bring the wrists closer together than the elbows. It's gonna hurt. Refrain from whining.
An alternate exercise for the more advanced is called the Side Plank. Here's how you do that one.
- Lay on the floor on your side with one foot directly on top of the other. Place your elbow directly underneath your shoulder with the forearm perpendicular to the body. Retract and depress the scapula (your shoulder blades.)
- Lift your hips off the ground so that the body forms a straight line. The only parts of the body touching the ground are the side of your foot and the supporting elbow and forearm. Hold this position for as long as possible.
Engage the lower back and abdominal muscles to maintain the position. Think of keeping your spine long throughout the exercise. Keep the elbow directly under the shoulder. Keep the non-supporting foot, leg, hip and shoulder directly above the other side of the body. In order to keep the head and neck in alignment with the rest of the spine, choose a focal point straight ahead.
Do not allow the hips or head to drop. Do not tilt the body foreword or backward. Do not allow the scapula to separate or the shoulders to roll. Like I said before, it's gonna hurt.
The Plank looks and sounds fairly easy, but looks are deceiving. How long can you hold it?
Here's an excellent video for anyone who's considering adding planks to their workout routine.
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