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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.

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!

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.