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Martha’s Story, Part Two: More Core Essentials

When Martha started her recovery from ovarian cancer surgery and treatment, I suggested she begin with small abdominal exercises, particularly the variations that work the abs without having to lift the head up from the mat. Martha had been prone to sciatica and low back flareups before her diagnosis. At this point in her recovery I didn’t want her aggravating her low back, or straining her neck.

The ab work series featured in the video below is beneficial for all. Especially for people who suffer from neck strain or low back pain. The goal is to learn how to engage the core properly, and then add small precise movements of the limbs as you maintain the abdominal connection. Performing the ab exercises five or six times a week will build the endurance necessary to keep your core strong enough to stabilize your spine, so that you can continue to enjoy everyday activities as you age.

Working the abs without having to lift the head makes a lot of sense for older adults, many of whom already suffer from wear and tear in the discs in the neck. An average human head weighs around 5 kg or 11 lbs. The cervical spine is one of the most sensitive areas in the body—just seven neck vertebrae with the help of many muscles and ligaments move and support all that weight! People of all ages often hold a lot of tension in their necks, especially in this stressful time when we are all fixated on screens. Neck issues can be linked to headaches, migraines and chronic pain in the upper back.

In many mat exercises, the pelvis is secure and supported. But the neck, once lifted from the mat, is vulnerable as a consequence of bad posture, tension, and also the faulty way many people raise their heads in the first place. Instead of first nodding the chin and immediately lifting the head up to look at the knees (not the ceiling), some people hesitate, lead with their chins, and take too much time to raise the head. The exact method to safely lift the head up from the mat will be reviewed in an upcoming blog and video.

I have also found that by eliminating the distraction of raising the head from the mat, students can focus more on the main goal of these exercises: to learn to properly draw up the pelvic floor (see previous blog) and gently draw in the abdominals to protect the spine before going into a movement. This ‘movement’ can be anything you might do in your daily life, whether lifting a dumbbell, a grandchild, or a bag of heavy wet leaves from the ground.  The action of ‘drawing in the abs’, or as some teachers describe, ‘squeezing the sponge in the belly’, is subtle and takes concentration especially at first.  We are not ‘sucking in the gut’. Nor are we screwing all the water out of the sponge.

‘Bracing the abs’ is another expression often used: brace the abs as if preparing for someone to drop an orange on your belly. I’ve never been a fan of this. I prefer to imagine the contraction like rotating a dimmer switch—slow and gentle. Use only as much activation as you need to keep the pelvis steady. Think low; think of gently drawing in your lower abdomen, between the navel and pubic bone. The tightening is very small and precise. The pelvis should remain still. Remember, it is the breath—the exhalation—that will aid you in activating the deep abdominals, not the lifting of the head.

I reminded Martha that the goal of this ab work is not only to build strength but endurance. Endurance gives your muscles the ability to hold a contraction over a period of time. Holding the body upright, sustaining good posture, keeping the low back stable, is an ongoing job. Practising ab exercises four or five times a week would help Martha regain the endurance needed to strengthen her core so that one day she could return to class. Doing a full Pilates class was still a way off, but thankfully, she didn’t need any more surgeries or treatments.

Colleen Craig

Colleen Craig

Colleen is the author of Pilates on the Ball, Abs on the Ball, and Strength Training on the Ball, and the producer of the Pilates on the Ball DVD.

Disclaimer: I highly recommend you watch the video two or three times before attempting an exercise.  Listen carefully for watchpoints. Check with your doctor or health care practitioner to be sure these exercises are suitable for you. Pay attention to modifications and stop if there is any discomfort. If in doubt, avoid an exercise.

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