Have you ever had low back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, head aches, or even knee pain? By taking a few moments each day to master these foundational forms and techniques, you will put yourself on the path to recovery.
Strength training and injury prevention are the wave of the future.
Did you know that many aches and pains in your body come from one part of your body compensating for another, weaker, part? For instance, a lot of lower back pain stems from weak "lower" abs such as your pelvic floor.
Having a strong deep core (not the superficial area that gives you a 6-pack) is imperative when doing almost any exercise.
We often take our deep core for granted and don't give it the amount, or type, of exercise it needs.
The movements below are foundational techniques that light up your lower abs and can help you on your strong, pain-free fitness journey!
What better way to start (or end) the day? Have two shakes of a lamb’s tail to yourself while the kids are at school? Do something nice for yourself, and your loved ones will thank you.
By taking good care of your body, you will be better able to take care of the ones you love.
Now, let’s get started!
1. The Drawing-In Maneuver and Diaphragmatic Breath
I cannot remember ever, ever meeting a client who knew how to automatically integrate abdominal movement with proper breathing technique while exercising.
Breathing allows you to connect your mind and body and also helps to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system.
You’ve got to start somewhere. What better place than the floor? Lie down on the ground, and start breathing. You can do this.
Watch this video to learn more: Diaphramatic Breath and The Drawing-In Maneuver
The Drawing-In Maneuver
5-10 Repetitions / 2 Sets
- Lie on a mat, floor or another flat, comfortable surface. Have your knees bent, feet hip distance apart, parallel.
- Retract and depress your shoulders.
- Neutral spine (healthy S-curve – don’t flatten back.)
- Put your hands on your belly button, at the base of your rib cage.
- Inhale into your diaphragm and inflate (like a tire).
- Exhale and let your abs fall inward, deflate (like a tire) and pull your belly button in.
- Repeat, inhale inflate, exhale and pull the abs in while your diaphragm deflates 10x.
- This is called the "drawing in maneuver.”
- Don't hyperventilate.
- Concentrate on the muscle moving, not the deep, deep breathing.
2. Single Heel Taps
This exercise is a physical therapy standard for people with lower back pain. Too, there are clients whose physical therapists have asked them to do this to alleviate knee pain as well!
What is even more enthralling is that low back pain or not: practicing heel taps will teach you to stop curling your shoulders forward, or elevating them to your ears.
Yes indeed, it is time to learn how to use your center of gravity: the Lumbar-Pelvic-Hip Complex (LPHC)! You can activate all of the muscles in your center of gravity, rather than letting all of that energy activate your neck.
Start with and master Single Heel Taps, before attempting Double Heel Taps or any sort of Crunches.
Watch this video to learn more: Single Heel Taps
Single Heel Taps - LOWER ABS
5-10 per Leg / 2-4 Sets
- Lie on Floor – knees bent at 90-degree angle. Keep angle of knee static (don't unbend knee or straighten your leg during this activity). Feet are hip distance apart. Shoulder blades are retracted and depressed. Neutral spine.
- Don't flatten your back. Use the muscles we just got in touch with during Diaphragmatic Breathing to stabilize your pelvis.
- Inhale as your raise one bent knee towards your chest, above your hips.
- Exhale, draw your bellybutton inward, and lower you heel back down to ground.
- Bellybutton should be fully pulled in before the foot hits the ground.
- Inhale as you raise the leg again. Exhale and pull belly button to spine as you lower the leg.
- Keep one heel on the ground at all times.
- Do 5 per leg in a row (for a total of 10).
- Do 5 per leg, alternating legs (another 10 total).
- Repeat for a total of 2-4 sets.
If Single Heel Taps are easy, you are ready for the next progression: Double Heel Taps!
3. Double Heel Taps
The fun thing about Double Heel Taps is that this exercise reveals your worst postural distortion patterns. What’s good about that? It finally gives you the opportunity to undo some pretty painful old habits.
Double Heel Taps are great, because if you have any problems with neck tension (if your shoulders tend to round forward or elevate towards your ears) or your body has trouble stabilizing your spine (who doesn’t have trouble with their lower back these days?) Double Heel Taps will reveal those muscular patterns, and teach your body how to undo them, and create new patterns. This is called, “neuromuscular training,” when you train the right motor neurons to innervate the right muscles at the right times.
There is one other thing going on: segmental innervation. Your body is learning how to activate right section of your spine at the right times. So, instead of innervating the motor units around your cervical spine (the result of which is that painful old neck tension) you’re teaching your brain to innervate the motor units around your lumbar and thoracic spine. The result: the muscles around your core and your mid-back muscles will be more active. As they become more toned and better able to help your body stay upright, you will be in less pain.
By slowly teaching transverse abdominis to stay engaged, rather than allowing your hip flexors and neck muscles to dominate your spinal column, you will finally give those guys the much needed break that they deserve. Your neck and hips will finally have a chance to relax!
Watch this video to learn more: Double Heel Taps
Double Heel Taps – LOWER ABS
5 to 10 per Leg / 2 Sets
Same positioning as single heel taps (lie on your back, knees bent, feet hip distance apart, shoulders blades are retracted and depressed).
- Inhale as your raise one bent knee (knee is roughly bent at a 90 degree angle) towards your chest, up above your pelvis.
- Exhale as you lower the heel down to the ground, pulling your bellybutton to your spine and tightening the pelvic girdle. Prepare yourself!
- Before this first heel hits the ground – pull your abs as tight as possible – and then lift the other foot up off the ground. [Important: Do not allow abs to bulge out, disengage, or low back to suddenly arch.] **
- Put the first heel down onto the ground to help support the pelvis and spine.
- Inhale as your second bent knee arrives up above your hips. Keep that knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Exhale and pull your abs in as you lower the heel back down to the ground. Perform the drawing in maneuver; lift the other foot off of the floor.
- Before the lowering leg hits the ground, the abs need to be as pulled inward as much as possible.
- Keep abs engaged while both feet are in the air. As you get stronger, you will be able to keep your lower abs engaged, supporting and stabilizing the spine the entire time.
- Your legs will be able to move freely, your neck and shoulders will stay relaxed, and the only tension that you will feel building will be in your core, as it works to stabilize your spine (while two legs are dangling off of the trunk of your body).
** If the lower abs puff out—or your low back arches—this means that your hip flexors are tight and over-dominate. As a result, the muscle that we are training, Transverse Abdominis, is unable to stay engaged (because your hip flexors are taking over).
That is why it is important to take into account the amount of time that both feet are in the air. The two feet in the air create a lot of torque – pulling on the pelvis. So, you can minimize the time under tension—by lowering your heel to about an inch from the ground—before lifting the other foot up off the ground. This exercise trains Transverse Abdominis to be in charge and stabilize your spine.
4. Glute Raise
The Glute Raise is a wonderful, simple exercise. Your Glutes surround the base of your spinal column: your Sacrum. As a result of their location, they help stabilize the position of the bones and the nerves at the base of your spine, helping to create proper joint tension. Without proper inter-vertebral joint tension, those nerves get compressed. Ouch!
The Glutes are your powerhouse muscles! Some of the strongest muscles in your body, they hold you up all day long. You’d have a tough time sitting down or standing up without them. Treat them well, and your fanny will look cuter and rounder (less pancake like) over time.
Sometimes, certain muscles (who shall remain nameless… for now… you know who you are!) become shorter and tighter than other muscles. As a result they have a lower activation threshold. Translation: the muscles activate sooner than they are supposed to. These muscles are so used to being contracted, they have a hard time relaxing, not unlike uptight people. So, they try to do work that they’re not meant to do. Also known as a “compensation pattern,” these muscles end up causing your body pain.
It is a good idea to train the right muscles to activate at the right times, so that the tight, nasty jokers get a break. Who are the common culprits? The muscles in your low back and neck, are some usual suspects for pain inside your body. I’m sure you’re ready to let that pain go.
Hold 5-60 Seconds / 2-3 Sets
- Lie on floor, knees bent, feet square on floor (not pigeon-toed)—hip distance apart.
- Pull your shoulder blades back and down, under the body. Arms V away from body, at two 45-degree angles.
- Exhale and pull your bellybutton towards your spine.
- Squeeze butt muscles, and push hips up towards ceiling.
- At first, only push your hips up about 3 to 4 inches. You don’t need to push your hips up to full hip extension in the beginning.
- Squeeze and clench your butt, as if your life depended on it.
- If you feel any tension in your low back building up, reduce the amount of time under tension, and the range of motion that you lift your hips.
- Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and then lower your hips slowly back down to the ground and relax.
- Exhale, squeeze your glutes, and lift.
- Inhale on the way down. Exhale on the way up. If you are holding for longer than 5 seconds, breathe naturally while tensing the muscles.
You can build up to 60 seconds, and try to do this with your hips higher and higher over time. But, be sure that the tension is building up in your glutes, not your low back or neck. If you feel your thighs burning, you should decrease your range of motion and time under tension, as well.
And, if you do feel the wrong muscle activating at the wrong time – just stop and rest. Then decrease the amount of work that you’re doing (by decreasing the range of motion, and/or time under tension) to a point that you can control where you feel exertion.
5. Single Leg Glute Bridge
Once you can hold a Glute Bridge for about 30 to 60 seconds without feeling your low back or neck muscles engage – you can move to the next progression.
Single Leg Glute Bridge
10 to 30 Seconds / 2 Sets
- Exhale, pull your naval to your spine, squeeze your glutes and lift your hips up, creating a straight line from your shoulder to your knee.
- While allowing your abs to drop into place, and holding them tight, bring your feet together, and squeeze your knees together. If you feel the tension immediately travel up into your lower back, try to drop your hips down a little and make sure you’re not arching your lower back. Also called a slight posterior pelvic tilt: push your pubic bone up, and make sure you’re not arching your lower back. Think: Neutral Pelvis!
- Squeeze inner thighs and butt muscles. If you still feel your low back, build up to holding your hips up in this new position using less range of motion, and less time under tension.
- Wait 10 seconds then straighten one leg. Hold. Breathe!
- Bend knee. Hold hips up 10 seconds with both feet on the floor.
- Straighten other leg for 10 seconds (10 single leg – 10 both feet on the ground — 10 single leg) for a total of 30 seconds.
- As this gets easy, do it twice – for a total of 60 seconds.
- As that gets even easier, build up the time that one leg is straightened, to 30 seconds per leg.
- 30 seconds per leg X 2 legs = 60 second set.
Floor cobra is nice because your spine is stable while you are strengthening the muscles that protect it. Also, it is a great jumping off point to strengthen the muscles in your rear shoulder girdle. The muscles that you will be toning during floor cobra are your mid back, rear shoulders, and core. They will give the most common criminal of all, Levator scapulae, a much-needed rest.
Levator Scapulae is such a common criminal when it comes to neck pain that some people even go so far as to call that muscle “Darth Vader Scapulae.” Levator Scapulae is the famed muscle referred to by the coined expression “Pain in the Neck.” Don’t feel alone if you’ve ever had migraine headaches as a result of a lock-down involving Levator Scapulae: it can be a real jackass. Limited range of motion, chronic fatigue, and debilitating headaches are just a few problems that neck tension causes. These are a lot of good reasons to train your core properly. Don’t let the bad guys win. You can do this.
Watch this video to learn more: Floor/Prone Cobra
5-20 Seconds / 2-3 Sets
- Do not hyper-extend your lower back during this exercise.
- Lie on floor (on your yoga mat, or a towel), on your belly. Put a little something under your chin and head to protect your face.
- Arms lie next to the sides of your body, palms on the ground.
- Exhale, pull your bellybutton to your spine, and squeeze your glutes.
- Externally rotate the thumbs away from your body, out towards the sides of the room (not towards your body), and then up.
- Palms face the sides of the room. Squeeze shoulder blades together, and push shoulders low, away from ears.
- Lift your chest slightly, so that your shoulders are not rounding forward at all, but rather they are retracted and depressed.
- Breath naturally while pulling in your abs, and squeezing the muscles in the rear shoulder girdle, and glutes.
- Hold for 10 to 20 seconds and then relax for 30 to 90 seconds.
- Make sure tension is building up in your core - not in your upper traps, low back, or neck.
- Avoid tension in the wrong muscles, by squeezing and activating the right muscles (mid-back, low abs, and butt).
There you have it! Every one of our clients at Pongo Power has had to learn these exercises. You are not alone! You can do these on any firm surface where you can lie down and take a load off your feet. Training the stabilizing muscles that protect your low back and neck is a necessary part of starting up regular exercise. You are going to reduce your risk of injury and learn a lot about your body, while you undo some old tensions.
So, have fun! Enjoy! And email me to let me know if you have any questions. I want to know what you think. I’m rooting for you. I know you can do this. And the only reason that I know that you can do it – is that it is a necessity. Well, it was for me.
Exercise saved my life. Allow it to save yours.
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