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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.

 

Hamstring Stretch

Nov 11
hamstrings, lower back pain, sciatica, stretching

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 hamstrings are actually a group of muscles that occupy the back part of the thigh, which are responsible for lifting the lower half of the leg up towards the body (flexion), as well as allowing for some rotation of the lower leg and moving the leg back (extension) .  The muscles are individually know as the semitendonosis, the semimembranosis, and the biceps femoris.  These three muscles attach at the top to the pelvic bone and at the bottom to the tibia (semitendonosis, semimembranosis) and the fibula (biceps femoris), which are the two structural bones in the lower leg.

Why should I do it? :  Since the hamstrings attach to the pelvis any muscle rigidity can cause numerous painful conditions, including Sciatica.  Stretching these muscles can relieve lower back pain, some types of knee pain, leg pain, numbness and tingling in the legs, and some leg muscle fatigue.

How do I do it? :  For this exercise you will need an object that you can grasp in both hands with a weight range of 3 to 10 lbs (anything will do – I use my son’s toy fire truck).  Stand with your feet pointing straight forward shoulder width apart.  Bend your knees just enough so they are not locked (this will assure the only muscles being stretched are the hamstrings instead of the calves) and keep your back straight.  Hold your weighted object in both hands against the  front of your body, allowing your arms to relax as much as possible.  Allow your body to slowly bend at the waist, using the weighted object to pull you down, until you have reached a point where you feel a pulling sensation in the back of your legs.  Make sure your back stays straight as you move, as bowing your back can cause muscle strains.  Count to ten while in this position, making sure to ease up if pain occurs.  After counting rise slowly into the original standing position, making sure to keep your back straight.  Repeat this process for a set of 10, doing at least 3 sets in a day.

Helpful Hints :  This stretch is designed for beginners in mind, especially those who do not have a great range of motion in their legs.  As you progress in this stretch you may increase the count from 10 to 15, as well as adding extra sets in a day.  This stretch is designed to be safe and slow, so progress may not show right away, but it should minimize the opportunities for pain.  When beginning stretching there will be discomfort, which can be misconstrued as pain; however, if you experience discomfort that does not diminish when you stand straight you may be pushing your stretch too far, and you should ease up on the distance you bend.

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.