Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Plank Variations and Back Extensions

I am working on core muscle strength.  I wrote about why here.  What do I do?

Although sit-ups are the most classic abdominal exercise, they can hurt the back or neck.  Current trends recommend starting with the "Plank" exercises.

The basic plank looks like this: basically balancing on toes and elbows.  To be safe be sure to do four things.
  1. Do not lift the head up and look forward.  Position your neck flat, in line with your spine.
  2. Slightly tighten your glutes.  (Squeeze your tushy.)  You want your back flat, but the abdominal muscles alone are lousy at keeping your lower back flat and spine safe.  A happy and healthy lower back needs support the glutes in any strenuous position.  (Try noticing the difference tightening your glutes just when standing still and holding something heavy).
  3. Tighten your abdomen.  (Suck in your tummy.)  This also helps support your spine.  No need to do a complete stomach vacuum unless you like that.
  4. Tense your lower trapezius to lower your shoulder blades down from your shoulders towards your pelvis.  Imagine your scapulae are part of your abdominal core.

There is more to it once you get used to those fundamentals.  (If it is too difficult, try with your knees down.)

Once you can do the basic plank for a bit, try some variations.  This video shows a bunch.  I like the ones where I have motions to count: with the basic plank moving from elbows to hands and back down, and with the side plank moving hips as high as I can and then down.  I also do the ones with moving one knee forward at a time since that gives me something else to count.

I also do back extensions since these strengthen the paraspinal and intraspinal muscles more than plank variations.  The same four tips above keep this exercise safe with no tweaking of the neck or rounding of the back.

For the back extensions, since I do not own a fancy weight bench with ankle supports I keep a belt looped around the bench and hook my ankles under the belt.  Or I lay on an exercise ball and brace my feet under a chin-up bar placed in a doorway a few inches off the ground.

Some day I'll get bored of planks.  Here seven other abdominal exercises that look fun and emphasize the obliques.

A final warning: none of these exercises work as they should without the ability to activate your lower trapezius muscles.  This comes through stretching.  I'll write about my new stretching routine in a later blog post.

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