Smutty Fitness: Building and rebuilding your core
about six months ago I herniated a disc in my lower back (L4-L5). It's honestly been hell. An involuntary six month hiatus from the gym (and all other physical activity) has wreaked havoc on my body, just in time for summer. I've always been athletic and have had a slew of injuries but this was by far the most frustrating experience.
I've been given the go ahead from my physio to get back into the gym in a limited capacity (best news of my year). For cardio I've been walking really fast on an incline (she said no running or elliptical....and forget the rowing machine) and doing short stints on an upright bike. I swim when I can but I hate the chlorine and usually have go after work which is right in the middle of swim practice. It's unpleasant to say the least.
My question for you is are there any exercises I can do at the gym in addition to cardio to get a bit of tone back before the end of the summer. I am looking for relatively low intensity exercises where I can isolate my core, quads, arms and glutes while protecting my back. My physio said to avoid any core exercises that include crunching or twisting, which rules out about 95% of my go-to exercises.
Thanks very much,
A herniated disk is nothing to take lightly and now that you are happily back at it, you must ensure that you do not push yourself too hard and risk another injury. I am hoping you will be continuing to see your physiotherapist once you are back at the gym and continue to do the daily exercises that they have prescribed for you.
Here is the thing about core: it is not that sexy, toned 6 pack muscle that we all struggle so hard for. Core is a word that movement therapists use to describe how the body, mainly your trunk, functions as a whole. Think of your body as hundreds of little pathways that all function together to create movement. If one of those pathways is blocked, usually because of an injury, then your body is forced to take a detour and create a new pathway in order to deliver the desired movement. If this pathway is not fixed, over time it becomes forgotten and then havoc starts to strike in the form of muscular imbalances, skeletal alignment issues and muscle tightness.
Each muscle in our body plays a specific roll in movement and each has its specific order in which it must fire. When you are dealing with an injury and a blocked pathway your muscles stop firing in the right order, some even give up completely.
So what does all this mumbo jumbo mean? You need to forget about your six pack and start rebuilding your foundation. Start with some very basic exercises and do them properly, focusing on ensuring that you are using your muscles correctly.
For example, the lunge is an exercise that I see being performed incorrectly the most. The main objective of the lunge is to strengthen the glutes, quads and hamstrings but 9 times out of 10 the lunge is done incorrectly resulting in strengthening the quadriceps and hip flexors only.
You will want to start relearning the lunge by positioning an exercise ball against a wall and positioning your back, just below your shoulder blades, against the ball. Step one foot forward and place one foot back (rising up onto the ball of your back foot), ensuring that your upper body is tall, your shoulders are directly over your hips and your body weight is centered between your two legs. Think about your body’s weight being displaced in your front foot along the outside of it and into your big toe. In simple terms, keep your arch high. As you lower your body down, your front knee must remain behind your toes, do not lean forward and do not allow your hips to shift. Your front glute needs to be firing on all cylinders to keep the hips stable which is harder than it sounds and takes mega strength from all muscles involved, especially your deep abdominal muscles, and you should be fatigued at 10.
When you have mastered this, you can step away from the ball and start lunging without it, adding in bicep curls and shoulder presses, cable rows and chest presses, and step ups and walking lunges. I highly suggest you hire a qualified professional to guide you through all of the movement patterns you need to focus on (usually found at an independent or boutique training studio like the one I work at).
So to answer your question, get back to the exercises you were doing pre-injury, ensuring you are focused on getting the power for your exercises from your trunk. Avoid anything that extends or flexes you at your spine and stay away from planking. Trust me, if you are working out correctly your abdominal muscles and core should be firing all the time and there really is no need for crunches. You will get your muscle tone and strength back in no time, just progress safely and listen to your body, beginning by doing all of it seated, on a bench or ball, or standing with two feet on the floor.
If it were a perfect world, however, I would suggest you enroll yourself in a Pilates program. Pilates, in my opinion, is the best way to strengthen your body from the inside out. Through basic movements guided by a highly trained instructor you will build the strength of your body while at the same time improve your flexibility, posture and movement patterns. Pilates is expensive as it takes teachers years to study and costs tens of thousands of dollars to become certified (I know this as I am about to start studying the practice) but if you can afford even 1 or 2 classes a month, your body will thank you.