Friday, December 27, 2013

Workout Inspiration: 360 Degrees of Core

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

"The mind, when housed within a healthful body,
 possesses a glorious sense of power." 
-Joseph Pilates

Most people think of your core as just your superficial abs (rectus abdominis) or the traditional six-pack abs. But true core work covers muscles surrounding your pelvis, rib cage, shoulder girdle as well as those that follow the length of the spine--from tailbone to crown of the head. This includes your all-important transverse abdominis, which is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle that connects to the spine and aids in posture. This type of core work aims to stabilize and support the spine, allowing for freedom of movement in your extremities. Imagine if you took a Barbie doll, popped off the arms and popped off the legs--what you have left is your core (more than pictured below). 

I could go on and on about the benefits of core strength/spinal flexibility but let's just say it makes you a significantly better athlete and should be a daily requirement for any human who wants to live to an old age in this sedentary society. In fact, one piece of research I read recently cited that it was the number one indicator of overall health.

In every core workout, I aim to create symmetry in the body. If we work the front side of the core, we also work the posterior. If we challenge the right side of the obliques, we also challenge the left, etc.

This workout is 360 degrees of core and engages both the superficial and deep layers of muscle.
The key to these exercises is slow, controlled movement accompanied by a steady inhale and exhale. Consciously connect to each movement you are making and become aware of each muscle you are using to create the exercise. The more we connect with our movements, the more powerful they become--even on a cellular level. 

Pilates Roll-Up
8-10 repetitions
1. Start on your back with your arms overhead, palms toward one another. Feet can be pointed (harder) or flexed (easier) and together (harder) or apart (easier).
2. Very slowly begin to roll-up off of the mat one vertebra at a time, making a c-shape with your spine as you do. Your abs should be pulled in during the entire movement, creating a hollowing feeling through the low abdominals.
3. Continue to roll forward into a stretch, checking to make sure your shoulders are still staying away from your ears.Your body should be in an elongated c-shape, with the spine still rounded.
4. Hold the spine/hamstring stretch for 10-15 seconds and begin to roll back down, keeping the c-shape in the spine and the abs pulled in. Return all the way back to the starting position and repeat.

Oblique Twist 
10-20 repetitions

1. In a seated position, shift the spine back until you feel weight on your tailbone. Knees are bent at 90 degrees and feet can be lifted (harder) or on the floor (easier).
2. Feel the navel pull into the spine and keeping the abs engaged twisting side-to-side slowly. Inhale to one side and exhale back to center. Repeat on the opposite side.
3. Aim to keep the head in line with the rest of the spine and the shoulders wide, even if it limits how far you twist.
4. Make the exercise more challenging by leaning back more or adding a weight in the hands.

Tabletop to Leg Reach/Scissors
8-10 repetitions

1. Start on your back with your legs bent at 90 degrees, knees together stacked over top of hips (tabletop).
2. Making sure your spine stays in neutral (maintain natural curves of the spine) reach the legs away from the body. Legs can reach parallel to the floor (harder) or more toward the ceiling (easier). Check to be sure you haven't created any extra space under the back, that the ribcage is still pulled together and that the shoulders are still wide/ grounded into the mat.
3. As an option, criss-cross the legs in the lengthened position, keeping the pelvis grounded into the mat.
4. Bend the knees back to 90 degrees as you pull the legs back into tabletop and repeat the sequence.

Straight-Arm Side Plank
Hold 30-60 seconds on each side.
Alternate, repeating 2-3 times on each side.

1. Start seated on your side with the legs stacked.
2. Press up into side plank by lifting the hips off of the floor using the shoulder of the bottom arm as well as the underside of the waist (obliques).
3. In the full side plank, your shoulder should be stacked directly on top of your wrist. Your hips and shoulders should be square to the wall in front of you. The opposite arm should be lengthened toward the ceiling (harder) or the hand placed on the top hip (easier). Reach through the crown of your head and keep your head in line with the spine OR look at the top hand.
4. Shown above are three options for leg positioning, progressing from easiest to hardest.
a. Legs staggered--top leg placed in front on the floor
b. Legs stacked--legs in parallel on top of one another
c. Legs in star--top leg reaching up toward the ceiling

Back Extension w/Arm Hover/Reach
6-8 repetitions of each type
1. Start on your stomach with the arms bent alongside the body. Your gaze should be down at the mat, keeping the back of the neck long. Fingertips should be pointing toward the head and the elbows are tucked into the ribcage. Legs can be together (harder) or about the width of your mat (easier).
2. Before starting any movement, engage the front side of the core by drawing the navel into the spine and pressing the pubic bone gently into the mat. Keeping this engagement throughout the exercise is very important to protecting and supporting the back.
3. First practice your back extension with the hands still connected to the mat as you press up.
Aim to just use the hands for balance and not to push into it. Your back (supported by the front side of the core) should be doing the work to lift you.
4. As you lift, keep length through the spine and imagine your head reaching away from the feet. Lift up only as far as you can keep the spine long from tailbone to the top of the head. The goal is not height but alignment of the spine on the lift.
5. Once you feel confident, you can advance the exercise by adding in the hand hover on the lift, as well as an arm reach overhead. 
6. When reaching overhead, keep the shoulder blades down the back as well as shoulders away from ears. Aim to keep the same height with the back as you reach the arms overhead and bring them back to your side.
7. Return to the starting point on each repetition.

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