Are you still doing sit ups in the hope of achieving a strong core?
Sit ups are often performed as a core muscle exercise. However research continually shows that they are not effective at building core strength. Old habits die hard and in the fitness industry sit ups, crunches, roll ups, roll downs etc… have been around for as long as people have been exercising. But, this doesn’t mean that they are good or effective!
Core muscles are those which hold your body together, giving it strength by binding around your trunk. They support your spine and strengthening them can significantly reduce back pain. I would include in core muscles those around the shoulder girdle. They have a big impact on posture which, if poor, can cause the shoulders to slump forward and eventually result in pain. Recent research has also added new muscles as essential for core stability, known as gluteals. This complex muscle group lies across your butt and holds your pelvis stable.
So back to sit ups, what happens to your body during the exercise?
Your shoulders round into a position very similar to that seen in the office chair slump, the slouched driving position or the collapse on the sofa rounding. In other words, good posture across the shoulder girdle is completely lost. When this was first performed I don’t suppose we were living a life of sitting and slouching so possibly the postural issues we see today were not as prevalent.
Your spine is curled forward. For some this may feel good and indeed be beneficial but for many the compressional force on the intervertebral discs will aggravate previous injuries such as herniations (slipped disc) or prolapsed discs. Measuring this compressional force is something we’ve only been able to do in recent years, and it is huge when performing a sit up. When I first taught these exercises the fitness industry was oblivious to these potential dangers.
Once you get almost half way up, your hip flexors become the main workers to stabilise and complete the movement, to bring you up to sitting. These are also shortened by a sedentary lifestyle and if not specifically stretched they pull the pelvis out of alignment causing back pain.
This brings us onto the new core muscles, the gluteals. Generally weak (despite years of tums and bums classes!) and difficult to activate, yet essential for good posture and a strong core. In those who perform lots of crunches the hip flexors, hamstrings and rectus femoris (thighs) tend to be strong but these muscles work in a vertical plane. In these people the gluteals are likely not to work at all, yet they provide all the essential diagonal support for the pelvis.
If you are looking for a strong core, the exercises you need are those which use the gluteals and the stabilizing abdominals, not the sit up muscles.
If you’re tempted to go for a ‘6 pack’, remember that it can only be achieved by over developing the muscles so they push out through the fascia, which is there to hold them together. For a female to develop a 6 pack, as well as the muscle development she also needs a BMI well below that recommended for good health.
For effective exercise advice look for an instructor with a good understanding of spinal load during exercise, preferably with a specific low back qualification and an interest in functional fitness and posture.
Risk v Benefit - Keeping your exercise programme safe
Risk v Benefit – Keeping your exercise programme safe
There is much in the popular press about the benefits of exercise for both physical and mental health. Many people are encouraged to take up exercise by their doctor or physiotherapist. On the other hand, there are many articles about the risk of injury from exercise. For example one study showed that over 60% of runners will pick up an injury in any one year, and another stated that 35% of women exercising on a regular basis will have a musculoskeletal injury.
As a fitness professional and physical therapist I use a variety of techniques to ensure that my clients gain the benefit and do not suffer any injury:
I encourage clients to work at their own level, not keeping up or competing with each other.
I keep a close eye on the posture of each client as they exercise. If there is a postural fault when a client walks in, they will probably keep that faulty position as they exercise. This will be a habit that I am keen to discourage and correct with exercise.
When I spot a common postural imbalance within a group I will add exercises to help them correct it. This could be drawing back rounded shoulders, lengthening the neck or stretching tight hamstrings to encourage better pelvic alignment.
At the beginning of each session I check how everyone is feeling and how long standing injuries are progressing. I will include the best exercises to help each person’s condition. This could be reducing range of movement to encourage stabilization of a lax joint, work to strengthen a weak joint or stretches to help muscles tightened up by other sports such as running or cycling.
Using these methods I aim to help everyone to exercise and gain a benefit whilst not risking an injury. Remember that your feedback is essential to ensuring a safe effective exercise programme so don’t keep quiet about any pain or discomfort as there is usually a way to manage it, and it is often a good indicator to the types of exercise you need.
Why do you need strong 'glutes'?
When new people join a class or come to me with back pain they are usually completely unaware of their glute muscles. The glutes are quite likely to be weak and tight, which sounds like an odd combination.
Strengthening the muscle and stretching it so it can function correctly is an essential part of keeping your body working effectively and without pain.
- Keeping correct alignment
Strong glutes can protect you from injury and reduce the impact of arthritic pain by providing support to the spine and pelvis. They also give correct alignment throughout the body helping to protect the knees from uneven wear, keep the feet lined up reducing problems with the achilles and plantar fascia.
- Support when walking or running or weight training
The glute muscles stabilise your pelvis while you run or walk. They help with hip extension and forward propulsion. If they fail to engage correctly the work falls to the hip flexors which are less able and become tight quickly. This puts stress onto the lumbar spine giving back pain. Strong glutes help give correct positioning when weight training, especially during squats, so your knees are protected. They also help with protecting your back when bending to pick up items from the floor or gardening.
- Injury prevention
If your glutes are not strong, your entire lower body alignment may become out of balance causing injuries such as achilles tendinitis, shin splints, knee pain and leading to tight ITB which runners are particularly susceptible to. When the glutes are not strong enough to do their job, other muscles not as well designed for the job take over. While in everyday life it is usually the back which suffers, in those who train at a higher level the muscle imbalance is more pronounced leading to increased risk of injury.
The glutes are one of the largest muscle groups in the body. If trained it can produce an enormous amount of power. By strengthening this muscle you will be able to move with less stress on your skeletal structure. This is of enormous benefit as bones become less strong with age and affected by degenerative conditions.
So, to keep active and move with ease - get your glutes working!
- Reduction in back pain
To simplify the effect strong glutes have on back pain visualise your spine. It runs from the back of your head to your pelvis (hip bones). Your pelvis sits like a t junction at the bottom of your spine. Below this are your glutes, providing support to everything above it – hips and spine. Once you move they are powering from behind you enabling you to move easily with less effort. The other muscle groups, abdominals, quads and hip flexors are at the front of your body and while they are essential for movement and stability they are not nearly so well placed to provide power as the glutes.
Is there an age when exercise becomes bad for you, risky or inappropriate?
At what age does it become bad, too risky or inappropriate for you to exercise?
In my opinion the answer is there is no age beyond which exercise should not be attempted!
I may be biased having worked in the world of exercise all my life and coming from an active family but my opinion is backed up by recent research and national recommendations.
The current government recommendation for those aged over 65, is
1. To be active daily
2. To accumulate 150mins weekly of ‘moderate intensity activity’ in bouts of at least 10mins at a time
3. To exercise twice weekly for strength, flexibility, balance and co-ordination
4. Minimise the amount of sedentary time. (sitting)
5. Some activity is better than none, and more provides greater health benefits
This might sound onerous, but in reality it can be achieved very easily.
Let’s look into these guidelines a bit deeper to see how easy it is to meet them and what the benefits are.
First we can consider why should we exercise at all?
• All muscle wastes away if it is not used: the motto use it or lose it really is true.
• Skills such as balance and co-ordination deteriorate with age. However they can be maintained and even improved with regular practise. This deterioration is the main case of older people falling so easily, so controlled exercise will reduce your risk of falling.
• Bone density also deteriorates with age meaning falls are more likely to result in fractures. Controlled exercise will improve bone density hence reducing the risk of fractures.
• Posture can deteriorate as we age for all sorts of reasons, most of which are correctable by specific targeted exercise: don’t become a stooping person!
• Your cardio-vascular system ages with you. We get higher blood pressure, less efficient blood flow around the body and much reduced oxygen uptake by the body, leaving us feeling less like exercise, when in fact we need more! See point 1.
• If you are suffering from arthritis, exercise is known to be beneficial, reduce levels of pain and improve mobility.
Second, what is moderate intensity activity (point 2 of the recommendations)?
Activity, here, can be defined as any movement that increases your heart rate from its normal resting rate. The measure of moderate intensity is different for every individual. It is not advisable to use any generic figures for this, the best approach would be to ask any appropriately qualified instructor.
What activities could count as moderate intensity?
Walking is brilliant provided it is on a regular basis and is appropriately vigorous. We can check whether you are being vigorous enough by testing your activity level in a SELECT class. If you walk your dog daily it is quite possible that you already meet the guidelines for cardiovascular exercise.
Interestingly, golf is found to be of limited benefit. It is not aerobic, it promotes misbalanced strength and flexibility in the body and research shows no bone density improvement. This would not count.
Gardening is also classed as non-beneficial. The bending, reaching and kneeling all puts stress on the body rather than strengthening it.
Swimming is similar to walking in that it can be great for cardio if it is done regularly and with appropriate vigour. However it doesn’t improve bone density or balance. And if you suffer any joint issues, breaststroke should be avoided.
Other exercises to consider that can be beneficial are, cycling, rowing or cross-training in the gym.
So what exercise is available to address point 3 of the recommendations?
Generally these exercises are specific routines that are performed in classes, in the gym, in a swimming pool or at home. The important point here is to ask an appropriately qualified instructor for guidance on what would be the most beneficial forms for you, and also to teach you how to perform the movements without them being detrimental to you.
Pilates is probably the most suitable form of exercise as it is controlled and specific in its aims. It doesn’t encourage excessive movement, and primarily uses the body’s own weight for resistance. This means it is particularly accessible even for people to do at home.
I have developed a specific variant of Pilates designed to be particularly beneficial for people with injuries, aches and pains, bad backs and posture difficulties. In “I Move Freely” Pilates classes I use biomechanic exercises to gain the maximum benefit in loosening stiff joints, backcare exercises to strengthen yet protect the spine as well as strengthening exercises for the muscles which give support to our skeletal structure. Posture is addressed with work to open the shoulder girdle, thus preventing the shoulder rounding which can easily lead to ‘hunching’. Also, I avoid some traditional Pilates exercises (e.g. roll downs, the 100 or double leg lifts) which put pressure on the lower back, neck and pelvic muscles. Provided you exercise correctly and regularly in class and continue to use the correct muscle engagements throughout the week when doing normal everyday activities you will be gaining strength and stability.
What if you don’t feel able to take part in a class nor want to go to the gym?
SELECT is a small group class (max 4 people) I run specifically to cater for you. Because the attendees are very limited the exercises can be completely tailored to your individual needs.
For example, if you cannot get down to the floor, or you cannot stand for any period, we can provide chair based exercise, or we have exercise couches. If you find it uncomfortable on normal exercise mats we can provide memory foam mats which protect any protruding, or painful parts from the hard floor.
As another example, If you have specific recommendations from your GP or physio, we are experienced at working with your practitioner to make sure the exercises are appropriate to your needs.
SELECT allows me to shape the class to each individual whatever their requirements.
Consequently, SELECT makes getting started easy, it is friendly, focussed to your needs, will address concerns you may have about your body as it ages and work towards keeping you independent and active – fit for life for all of your life.
If you are unsure in any way about attending a class or what exercise is suitable for you, please arrange to pop in for an informal chat and see how easy it is to incorporate exercise into your life.