The Magic Of Midsection Stabilization
Recently I took a TRX class at my gym here in Park City. I love that class because of the multiple ways in which it challenges and tones the body. With a unique system of suspension bands, it builds strength, endurance, flexibility, balance and, perhaps most importantly (for the sake of this article anyway), core stability. In fact, in the most recent class, the instructor focused almost solely on the concept of midsection stabilization. Whether we’re lifting weights or lifting a grandchild, every move we make begins in our midsection. So it was a terrific reminder of how vital it is for all of us, regardless of our age, shape or fitness level, to keep training our cores.
The physiological makeup of the core (or midsection) of the body is a complicated matter: It’s a complex system of 29 muscles intermingling in the lumbo pelvic hip complex. Of course, most of us aren’t looking for an in-depth kinesiology course; we simply want to tone up our stomachs. But it may help to first take a closer look at what constitutes a core, and then we can explore some new and exciting ways to strengthen and tone it. Here’s one way to boil it down:
Start with your stabilizers.
In just about every exercise move we do, there are three key components:
1) The Prime Movers: This is the muscle group that’s doing the majority of the work. If you’re doing a standard crunch, for example, the rectus abdominis (what we think of when we’re referring to the “six pack”) is your prime mover. And remember, our cores aren’t just on the front of our bodies. Midsection stabilization is about the entire midsection, including the lower back. So when you perform a hyperextension exercise for the lower back, your spinal erectors (the muscles that run down the length of the vertebral column and keep your spine erect) become the prime movers.
2) The Antagonists: These are the muscles that are in direct opposition to the prime movers. So going back to the examples above, those muscle groups simply trade places: Your lower back is the antagonist when you perform a crunch, and your rectus abdominis is the antagonist during a hyperextension.
3) The Stabilizers: The plank exercise is a terrific stabilizer because it engages the transverse abdominis, or the deeper band of muscle that stretches across your midsection and is responsible for holding your body upright and in proper alignment.
Let’s talk a little more about getting those stabilizers to play their part. You’ve probably heard someone, at some point, recommend that you “engage your abdominals” while you’re exercising. For some people, that engagement is as simple as sending a quick message from your brain to your midsection: They think the thought, and suddenly their core muscles are activated. For others, it may take a little more practice. That’s where this exercise comes in handy. Anytime I find someone struggling with the concept of engaging their abs, I have them try this:
House For A Mouse:
- Lying facedown on the floor, arms folded so that your forehead rests lightly on your hands.
- Pull your navel in so that it rises ever so slightly off the floor…As if you’re making a little “house for a mouse.”
- As you do this, make sure you keep your pubic bone and your lower ribs anchored on the floor.
- Beginners: If your abs don’t actually lift high enough to lift your belly up off the floor, that’s okay. You can still activate the muscles by bringing the belly button up and in, no matter how small the movement. You can also rest your upper body on your forearms, if it’s comfortable, so you can lift your belly further away from the floor.
- Advanced Readers: Try adding a hyperextension to the move:
- Maintaining that house-for-a-mouse core engagement, lift your upper body up just enough so that your legs and pubic bone remain on the floor, but your torso hovers just a teeny bit in the air.
- Slowly lower back down, keeping the belly button pulled in nice and tight throughout the movement.
- Now do the same thing with the legs. Keep the torso resting on the floor (still holding that house-for-a-mouse) and lift the lower body slowly up off the floor, and slowly lower back down.
- Try 8 repetitions with the upper body lift, 8 with the lower body lift, and, if you’re feeling adventurous, try 8 reps lifting the upper and lower body simultaneously.
Learn the power of the plank:
The plank exercise can pack a surprising punch when it comes to training the midsection. Remember, traditional abdominal training generally focuses on the rectus abdominis through contraction (or crunches), whereas stabilization exercises like the plank engage the transverse abdominis, as mentioned above. And if you’re concerned about the lower abdominals (where women often get that dreaded “pooch”), midsection stabilization exercises like the plank may actually be MORE effective for strengthening that area than traditional “lower ab” exercises. So let’s get to planking:
- Lie facedown on the floor, hands underneath your shoulders, toes tucked underneath you. Push yourself up into a plank position, as if you’re about to lower down into a pushup exercise…but instead, stay put.
- Keep your abdominal muscles lifted up toward the spine. (This is where your house-for-a-mouse comes in again.)
- Beginners: If it’s too difficult to do a full plank, drop your knees to the floor, still maintaining that midsection engagement, back straight and ribcage knitted in.
- Advanced Readers: There are several fun and dynamic modifications you can try:
- Rolling Plank T-Stands on Forearms: From the plank position, roll to your right forearm, turning both feet onto their sides. With left arm I the air, squeeze the shoulder blades together, opening your chest. Hold for 15 seconds. Then roll to the left forearm, lifting the right arm into the air. Squeeze the shoulder blades together again, opening the chest, and hold for 15 seconds.
- Tucks In Plank: From plank position, pull the right knee in toward the chest, keeping hips low. Lean into your arms as you tuck, brining the knee all the way to your elbow. Repeat on the other side, alternating left and right. Do 12 on each side.
- Tucks With A Swivel Under: To take the “Tucks In Plank” move to the next level, add a swivel to each tuck. When you pull your right knee into the chest, swivel the right leg under you to your left, lifting the knee as high as you can. Finish by tucking the knee to the chest, and then bring it back to the floor. Repeat on the other side, doing 8 swivels on each side.
I love the classic zen quote, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And when it comes to our cores, truer words were never spoken. Wherever we go, our cores are what carry us there. Remember: It’s not about sculpting a perfect six-pack (although if you do midsection stabilization exercises often enough, you’ll love the slimming and toning effects). Core training is about protecting yourself from injury, and training your body to work properly, so that you can move freely wherever you go. Learning to stabilize your midsection is about living life on your own terms. (And it doesn’t hurt that you’ll look great while you’re doing it.)