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Iron Abs, Part I

Sep 09
abdominal muscles, back pain, core exercises, lower back pain, sciatica

If you look at a skeleton you’ll notice something odd; there is an area of the body where there are no supportive or protective bones.  I’m speaking, of course, about the abdominal region.  While the spinal vertebrae provide support along the back of this area the front is completely exposed; no ribs, no sternum.  So, how do our bodies manage to stay upright, day after day?  The answer is: muscles!  We use our abdominal muscles and our back muscles to stand up straight as well as to protect our many delicate internal organs situated within the abdominal cavity.

Of course, this odd structure gives us the ability to bend, lean, stretch, and fold at the waist and means, in the end, that we need these muscles to be strong, limber, and balanced.  It is the imbalance, in particular, of front vs. back muscles that can cause many of the painful spinal conditions that interfere with most people’s way of life, including low back pain and sciatica.  It is therefore incredibly important to strengthen and condition our abdominal muscles, as well as our back muscles.

In this article we will be outlining the different muscles that make up the front of the abdomen as well as their functions.  The second and third parts will be exercises designed to build muscle strength as well as stretches for muscle elasticity.

Muscular Structures

Rectus Abdominus:  This is more popularly known as the 6-pack muscle.  It runs down from your ribcage to the front of your pelvic bone.  This muscle’s function is to allow your body to crunch forward at the waist.

External Obliques:  These muscles start at the rib cage and end both at the pelvis and the linea alba (a line of cartilage that runs down the middle of the abdomen).  These muscles allow for the body to crunch forward at an angle or while twisting.

Internal Obliques:  These muscles also start at the rib cage and end both at the pelvis and the linea alba.  These muscles also allow the body to crunch forward at an angle or twist.  The internal obliques are set up perpendicularly to the external obliques and work in conjunction with them; When the left internal oblique contracts it does so with the right external oblique, as is the opposite.

Transverse Abdominus:  These muscles start along the ribs and the sides of the body and end at the pelvis and along the linea alba.  These muscles serve to hold in your internal organs and also act as a natural stabilizer for the spinal cord and pelvis.

As you can see, all four of these muscle groups are important in the movement and stabilization of the torso, as well as the vitally important task of assisting  breathing.  Now that we have outlined how important all of these muscles are, the next step in this process is to find out how to strengthen them.  For now, take the time to experiment: see if you can recognize which muscles you are using in every day life to move your torso side to side, to crunch forward, to crunch to the side.  This way,when you see the exercises available to strengthen these muscles you may already have a better knowledge of how they work.

Adductor Stretch

Mar 03

Caution: Do not attempt to perform this stretch without consulting with your chiropractor or physician – if you have a serious injury this activity may cause further injury.

Where is it? : Your adductor muscles are located on the inner portion of your thighs that assist in pulling your legs in and across your body.  The adductor group is made up of four muscles: pectineus, adductor brevis, adductor longus, and adductor magnus.  All of these muscles attach the pelvic bone to the femur and allow for adduction, or the returning of a body part towards you body’s center line from the side, which is the opposite of abduction, or the movement of a limb away from your body’s center line to the side.

Why should I do it? :  If the adductor muscles become too tight they can pull the pelvic bone out of place, causing anything from low back pain to sciatica; there is also the risk of the muscles around the knee becoming affected by bone and muscle imbalance, causing painful movement in the knees.  Stretching these muscles can relieve some nerve impingement, pain, numbness and tingling, and even muscle fatigue.

How do I do it? :  There are several different ways to stretch the adductor muscles, each type of stretch depending on how flexible you are.

The easiest way to stretch the adductor muscle group is to sit on the floor facing a wall or couch.  Place the instep of each foot against the wall or couch and, while keeping your legs straight, slowly move your body forward while widening the gap between your feet.  If you are using a couch you may use the cushions to pull yourself forward.  Keep widening your stance until you feel a stretch along the inside of your thighs that feels uncomfortable without being painful.  Hold for at least 30 seconds.

The second type of stretch you can perform is commonly referred to as frog splits.  Placing your knees and hands on the ground in a crawling type position, slowly move your knees directly apart from each other to the side.  Keep the bottom half of your legs bent so they are parallel to each other.  Hold for at least 30 seconds.

The third type of stretch you can perform is the splits.  Place your feet in a triangular stance, then slide both feet directly away from each other until you feel a stretch along the inner part of your thighs.  For this particular type of stretch you need to make sure your feet are both pointing forward, as tilting them up on the heel will cause some stretching of the hamstrings rather than concentrating on the adductors.  It is also important to note that this stretch can be stressful on the shoulders from the strain of holding the positing against gravity, as well as difficult on the knees.  It is important to consult with your doctor before trying this stretch, as it can be detrimental for some.

Helpful hints :  Because there are three levels to this type of stretch it is important to start at the most basic level first to prevent injury.  While there is little chance of you hurting your legs during the couch or wall stretch, there is a much greater chance of hurting your back or knees during the other two stretches.  I therefore recommend beginning with the simplest step and working your way up, no matter how experienced you are at stretching.  I also recommend consulting a doctor specifically about performing this stretch to prevent said injuries.

 

Resolution Revolution

Jan 01
hamstrings, lower back pain, stretching

With a new year upon us once again it is time to make New Year’s Resolutions – the bane of every January, thanks to the difficulty we all have in keeping said resolutions.  Since most resolutions come with the idea of health reform in mind I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to plan, execute, and achieve your personal goals for 2012.

We should look at what types of goals can be relevant to you and your personal health.  Everyone needs to attack health at a different angle, but there are some general categories that apply to most of us.  First, there is the idea of weight loss.  While losing weight is an admirable goal it is not always the best indicator of health, since muscle mass weighs more than body fat.  That being said, weight loss is still a good goal to have if your body needs it.  Other good goals include losing body fat percentage, losing inches in the waist or hips, gaining flexibility, gaining strength, eating healthier, and reducing pain.  Of course, the best way to identify which goal is best for you is to contact your Chiropractor or health care professional.  Your doctor can help you identify the best way to improve your personal health based on a simple exam and some body tests.

Now, once you have determined the nature of your personal health goal the next step is making that goal something attainable for you.  A good goal can be achieved by applying the SMART goal system to your broad health ideals.  SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.  Each of these terms accounts for a factor in making a real goal for your personal health.  Here’s a breakdown example, using flexibility as the general goal:

Specific:  Make your goal have very specific result so that you can see your progress – if a goal is to vague it can be too difficult to achieve.  Instead of using “more flexibility” as a goal, make the goal “gaining flexibility in my hamstrings”.

Measurable:  If a goal has a start and finish line that can be tracked it is something that can be achieved.  For example, if you consult with your Chiropractor you can find the current degrees of flexibility you have in your hamstrings and make a goal based on that.  If your current flexibility is at, say, 45 degrees, then a good goal would be “gaining 45 degrees flexibility in my hamstrings for a total of 90 degrees”.  This goal can be easily measured as you make progress during regular checkups, and can also be something you yourself can track.

Attainable:  It’s important to be realistic when setting a goal for yourself, even if it’s not the total desired effect.  If you set a goal for yourself that is too difficult to achieve it will not be enjoyable working towards it and may derail your efforts.  If hamstring flexibility is the goal then setting a finish line within realistic limits will be easier to attain and therefore more satisfying.  For example, your long term goal for hamstring flexibility may be to touch your face to your knees, but setting the current goal at gaining 45 degrees is a more attainable goal to set for the start.

Relevant:  Setting a goal that is relevant to your life is incredibly important; without the relevancy there will be no urge for you to attain that goal!  Talking to your health care professional is one of the best tools you can employ to discover which health goals are relevant to you.  For example, if your Chiropractor suggests gaining muscle strength in your core will greatly improve your back health you would want to set your goals relating to core strength.  Hamstring flexibility is an important part of overall body health but may not be the best goal for you.  Make sure your goals are relevant to your body, rather than following the general health information available to the public!

Timely:  Putting a time limit on your goal means that you will both be able to measure your progress and you will have a reason to push yourself to reach that goal.  If your goal has no time limit your progress may meander without any solid movement forward, since you have all the time in the world to get to the finish line.  In the example of gaining flexibility, a timely goal would be “gaining 45 degrees flexibility in my hamstrings for a total of 90 degrees by July 1st, 2012”.  Setting a six month goal gives you time to work on the goal without losing focus or putting too much pressure on yourself.

Of course, the specifics, relevancy, and time constraints you set on your goal all depend on your health, personality, and lifestyle.  The goals that may work for you may be too difficult or too easy for someone else, and vice versa.  The most important thing is to set a goal for yourself – after all, with a goal you can make progress and feel good about the results!

The Importance of Stretching

Oct 10
low back pain, stetching

Everyone has heard the speech before: “stretch to prevent injury during exercise”.  However, no one seems to explain further how stretching can actually help your body stay healthy, or even that stretching can be harmful in some situations.

The most important issue to know about stretching is when NOT to do it.  The old adage of “stretch before you exercise” is a slight misconception, as it can actually cause injuries rather than prevent them if done improperly.  The only time muscles should be stretched is when they are warm; that is to say, when they have been properly warmed by either mild exercise (or moderate exercise if you don’t live in warm and sunny San Diego) or an outside heat source such as a hot tub, shower, or sauna.  Imagine, for a moment, that your muscles are like a towel soaked with water.  If that wet cloth is warmed up it becomes very flexible and stretchy, but put that same cloth in the freezer and it becomes stiff and brittle.  The same idea applies to your actual muscles – if you stretch “cold” muscles that are stiff and brittle you can cause damage to your muscles in the arena of muscle strains and micro-tears.  Strains and micro-tears can and usually do cause scar tissue buildup inside the muscle tissue, making the muscle sticky and, effectively,  less flexible.  Practically applied, this means that muscles should not be stretched before exercise; stretching should be done both after a moderate warm-up and after exercise is completed.

Now that the issue of when to stretch is covered, now we need to know why.  Stretching, in effect, lengthens the muscle tissue, giving it a greater range of motion.  As we have discussed in a previous article, muscles and bones have a symbiotic relationship and constantly affect one another, for better or worse.  If the muscles attached to the bones in your body are tight an strained they have the power to pull bones out of alignment to the point of partial or full dislocation.  Conversely, if the muscles attached to the bones in your body are loose and supple they can work in symphony without causing any disruption in the skeleton’s structure.  Since stretching can keep muscles loose and supple can prevent bone misalignment it can therefore prevent potential pain; misaligned bones can pinch nerves and cause further muscle discomfort.  For example, if your hamstring muscles are tight (which most people’s are) they can pull hard on your pelvic bone, causing it to shift downward, which in turn may cause the sciatic nerve to become impinged, causing the incredibly painful condition Sciatica.

All of the secondary effects aside, many people don’t know how painful tight muscles themselves can be, and how much stretching can help!  Despite the fact most medical doctors pass off muscle pain as an inconvenience it can actually be a serious, even debilitating experience.  Chronically tight muscles can also become weak and susceptible to intense muscle spasms due to over exhaustion.  In the end all of these conditions can be prevented with a daily stretching routine, focusing on your particular problem spots.  A Chiropractic consultation can help discover which muscles in your body are tight, as well as providing stretching outlines and instructions.  It is also important to note that not all muscle spasms can be stretched into health – sometimes further intervention is required to reduce inflammation and provide some muscle movement before stretching will help – and there are conditions where stretching is ill advised, such as with a disc bulge.  Again, a Chiropractic consultation can clear up the cause of any muscle pain experienced and determine if stretching is right for your condition.

The Thigh Bone’s Connected to the Hip Bone….

Sep 09
low back pain, mid back pain, neck pain

Ever injure your neck and, to your surprise, find you have a sore low back a few days later?  Or may be you’ve turned your ankle, only to find your knee and hip hurting later on.  The explanation is easy enough – all of the bones and muscles in your body are interconnected, and therefore apt to fall victim to a chain reaction once an injury is set in place.

First, basic anatomy has to be addressed before looking at how pain can travel through muscles in the body.  The basic structure of the body is made up of two things – muscles and bones.  Bones provide a rigid framework that protects internal organs and keeps us upright – after all, without bones we would be a mushy blob of muscles and organs, moving at the speed of a caterpillar.   Muscles allow for those bones to move in a multitude of different directions – without them our bodies couldn’t move at all!  Almost every muscle in the body connects to two different bones and cause movement by contracting or shortening its length.  This does not mean that all muscles work by bringing bones closer together, but that all muscles move bones in one direction or another.  For example, if you take your arm and lay it flat on a table, palm facing up, you can see that none of your muscles are engaged.  However, if you want to move your forearm closer to your upper arm you have to shorten your bicep muscle (in the front of your arm), which pulls the bones in your forearm up in the air.  If you wish to press your forearm into the table, moving it away from your upper arm you have to shorten your tricep muscle (in the back of your arm), which pushes the bones in your forearm into the table top.  There are even small muscles responsible for rolling your forearm and hand from side to side!

The most important part to understand about muscles movement is the fact that muscles have to be attached to two different bones to cause movement.  Think about this:  if a farmer was attempting to pull a bucket full of water out of a well he would need to attach a rope to both the bucket and his hands to make a difference.  If he tied both ends of the rope to the bucket it wouldn’t move, nor would it move if he were holding both ends in your hand.  Muscles work the same – a muscle (the rope) must be attached to a origin point (the farmer) and an ending or “insertion” point (the bucket).

Now that we know muscles must attach to two different bones it must be said that every bone in the body has multiple muscles attached to it!  Since bones need to move up, down, forward, backward, and around there must be muscles to provide this movement for EVERY bone that can perform these feats.  Not all bones can move in every direction – ever tried twisting a finger around? – but all bones have at least SOME movement.  If we look at the forearm again we can see that the bones within, called the radius and ulna, have muscles attached to it that can lift the forearm, straighten the forearm, twist the forearm, extend the hand (pressing the top of the hand back), flex the hand (pressing the palm of the hand down), twist the hand, and even flex and extend the fingers!

All of these different muscles, with different origins and insertions, can be a complicated network within the body.  Imagine now that one of these muscles is injured and has gone into a phase of inflammation and constant tightness, better known as a muscle spasm.  In this state an injured muscle with be constantly pulling on the two bones it connects with, causing any ligaments, joints or muscles between them to experience undue pressure and strain.  Eventually this increased strain will cause one or both of the bones to shift slightly to relieve the pressure.  When this shift happens all of the muscles attached to the shifted bones will now experience their own strain and irritation, having been moved out of their normal place.   As you can see, these types of muscle strains and bone shifts (called subluxations) can cause a chain reaction throughout the body in ways you may never expect.

Not all is lost, however, since there are professionals that do expect these things to happen.  Chiropractors, Massage Therapists, Orthopedic Surgeons, and Physical Therapists are all professionals that can predict these types of reactions in the body.  Our job is to correct muscle spasms and subluxations before a domino effect happens.  The only way we can do this, however, is if you come in to see us when you feel something “off” in your body, or if you’ve had an injury.  Even though receiving treatments for what may seem like a relatively simple discomfort may seem trivial and wasteful you may actually be preventing the spread of painful muscle spasms throughout your own body.  After all, now you know Dem Dry Bones was right, and the thigh bone really IS connected to the hip bone!