Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Core, week 2: Alignment matters

The Core, week 2: Alignment matters

Last week we labeled the muscles that make up your abdominal core. I have two amazing kiddos. Since carrying them in my once toned tummy, my stomach muscles became pretty unrecognizable to me--overstretched, widened, and very very weak. This is common for women postpartum and men with a split in their abdomen (diastasis recti) from heavy weight lifting or a sudden gain in weight.  When something important on a building is broken or weak, the repair guys build a scaffolding system to hold the structure of the building while they fix the weak spot. We need to do the same when fixing our weak and overstretched core. Good alignment is your scaffolding. 

These abdominal core muscles are both strained and weaker when your alignment is off. Another way to say this is good alignment of your bones maximizes muscle function. Why? Muscles stretch, relax, and contract. Their maximum force occurs when they are on a slight stretch. If they are already short, then there is not much room for the muscle to contract.

So, what does good alignment look like? Here are some do's and don'ts:

DON'T! This is my lazy posture. Look at my stomach and compare it to the better posture below. I am not sucking in my stomach in any pic, promise! You can actually make your stomach look smaller just by standing with good alignment (and if vanity isn't enough to convince you, you are helping your stomach heal and make it easier to activate your abs when you stand the right way!)
DO! Much better! Keeping my ribs down and a slight arch in your low back. My low back still looks flat here, hmm looks like I have some stuff to work on...

DON'T: This posture doesn't help either. Here, my abs are overstretched. Can you see that my ribs are lifted up and low back is over-arched? This posture can happen when you wear high heels.

There are three ways to make your muscle short and weak (don't do these 3 things):
1.     Bad alignment during a task. For example, slouch and try to contract your “abs”. Now sit up tall and try to contract them. Where did you feel stronger? Probably when you were upright. That’s because the abdominal muscles generally span from your ribs to your hip bones. If you bring your ribs close to your waist, you are shortening the muscle. Remember this during daily tasks like lifting your toddler’s stroller into the car. If you use the right posture, your core will actually be stronger!
DON'T! Can't quite activate my core because my ab muscles are already too short in this position. See how close my ribs are to my waist.

DO! Ah, now I can easily contract my abs, protect my back, and get an extra squat in for the day while I lift this cute wiggle worm.

Check out our amazing aide Alliena's demonstration of how to pick something up off the ground correctly.

DON'T! Nope, can't contract abs here. It's hard to see her ribs in this picture, so you can look at her spine. Do you see how curved it looks? Her stomach muscles are shortened in this position. 
DO! Yes! She is not squishing her abs here. It will be easier to activate her core if needed. An added bonus: this position protects your back even if you pick something up that is light, such as a pen!

 2.     Tight muscles.  Muscles are amazing, they adapt to what our posture tells them to do. Bad alignment over time causes the muscles to decrease length. An easy example is if you sit most of your day, the muscles on the front of your hip will get cozy in that position, thereby becoming short. You experience this as feeling tight (psoas anyone!?!).

3.   Overactive muscles. Because muscles adapt, if you keep them contracted (muscle length shortens when it contracts) all the time, they will stay short which makes them weak. Therefore, sucking in your core all day long is NOT a way to strengthen it!

Or, you might be making your muscles long and weak by over stretching them. 

Look what happens to my stomach when I wear 3 inch heels.
DON'T! Sad overstretched abs (I confess, you'll see me wearing cute heels at times. But not when walking or long periods of standing are involved)
My low back arches and and pushes my abs forward.

DO! Happy abs that have no strain or stress

What is your body doing when you put on make-up, brush your teeth, or fix your hair?  Here I am putting on make-up, being lazy as I lean my stomach on the counter. 

DON'T! Stomach is overstretched, back is arched

DO! Standing upright without arching my back or leaning on the counter
Alliena demonstrates the wrong and right way to reach into a cabinet.

DON'T! Her ribs are lifted up, this over-stretches her abs

DO! She correctly keeps her ribs down, this makes it easier for her abs to engage

So, using a bit of logic. To make your core stronger, use good alignment, relax your abs unless you need them (more on this later), and stretch your muscles so they have good length.

If you cannot get into good alignment, you need to spend extra time improving the motion at certain joints. Your physical therapist can help you identify these joints and prescribe specific exercises to improve your alignment.

Hoping this helps you move better! Here is the line up for the rest of this core series.

Week 1: Let’s get acquainted, Core.
Week 2: Alignment - build the scaffolding to support your weak spots while they heal and repair
Week 3: Diaphragm and what Queen Elsa got right
Week 4: Pelvic floor muscles
Week 5: Transverse abdominis and multifidus muscles
Week 6: Shoulder girdle and hip
Week 7: Functional core exercises
Week 8: Round robin demonstration of CTS Physical Therapists’ favorite core exercises.

Happy Moving!

Crystal Hazelton, PT, MPT, OCS

This is not medical advice. If you have pain, contact your physical therapist or doctor.
For more great pics and specific information on diastasis recti, checkout the blog at Diastasisrectified.com