My philosophies about conditioning the core are largely based on Dr. Stuart McGill’s research, and his rehabilitation experience. I was lucky enough to take Dr. McGill’s course at the University of Waterloo, which played a big part in stirring up my interest in low back rehabilitation and chiropractic. If you are interested in learning more about Dr. McGill’s internationally recognized work regarding the low back, pick up a copy of his book Low Back Disorders, or preview it here. It is an interesting read, and I highly recommend it.
Before I introduce the true core exercises, it is important to make sure that you know how to activate your core, and how to properly ‘brace’ your spine, especially if you have low back pain. The abdominal brace is probably the most important piece to any core exercise you will do, so it is important to master it. The abdominal brace is performed by activating the core. In order to get the right sensation, imagine I was going to punch you hard in the stomach (don’t worry, I would never actually do that). In order to stop me from hurting your internal organs (yes my punch can do damage), you would need to stiffen your abdominal muscles. In that situation, you would likely stiffen your abs close to 100% of your maximal force to protect yourself. It isn’t a sucking in of the stomach or a pushing out, but a stiffening of the abdominal and back muscles. It might be difficult initially to get that sensation, especially if your core hasn’t been doing its job for a while. Another way to bring activation to your core is to imagine straining on the toilet. If you have to strain hard, you will likely activate your core.
Now that you have an idea of what core activation feels like, I want you to scale down the activation to about 25% of the max. This gentle activation of the core is what I call the abdominal brace. You should be able to maintain this level of activation while breathing, and while performing daily activities.
If you suffer from or have a history of low back pain, it would be helpful to think of using your ‘abdominal brace’ whenever you are performing any type of activity involving the back. For example, whenever getting up from a chair, lifting, climbing stairs, getting out of the car, spitting into the sink after brushing your teeth, etc. Your brain should be telling your core to gently activate during those activities anyways, but when your core is deconditioned, the brace may be weak or lazy. By bringing your awareness to activating the core prior to performing those activities, you are re-teaching the brain and the body how to protect the spine. Eventually the brain will take over, and will activate the core automatically before you start the activity.
I’m dedicating this entire post to the abdominal brace simply because it is so important. I will be posting the core exercises soon, but this gives you time to practice your abdominal brace.