Thursday, July 30, 2009

Core Muscles of the Shoulders

Previous articles in this series have described the core muscles of the torso and hips. We’ll continue with the shoulders and in the next cover the neck core.

What’s all the fuss over core muscles anyway? Your grandmother didn’t need a personal trainer to teach her about the core. Is this all some scheme to get us to sign up for exercise classes?

Your grandma knew how to use her core, because she built strength in her body with daily activities. Nowhere is this more evident than in her shoulders and arms. Imagine washing your laundry by hand and hanging it on the line to dry. Or scrubbing the floor on your hands and knees. Chances are your grandma walked farther and carried more than men do today. Those simple activities develop strength in the core. Today’s pastimes, watching TV, loading the dishwasher and working on the computer, bypass the core.

Take the current sedentary lifestyle, add our fascination with speed and pretty muscles, and the result is a modern epidemic of core weakness. So let’s put things in reverse and find the core muscles of your shoulders.

Raise one arm in front of you and continue to lift it up -— as long as it doesn’t hurt anywhere -— until your arm comes alongside your ear. Do it again -— but this time take more than ten seconds to lift your arm and another ten seconds to lower it. As before, don’t do any movement that causes you pain.

Moving slowly requires the use of the core, so if it felt substantially different the second, slower time, then using the core of your shoulder isn’t a habit. By the way, you can slow down any movement to improve your use of the core. Try walking by taking one step every second to feel more of your torso and hip core.

The core of the shoulder includes two sets of muscles, those that keep the shoulder blade in proper position (most importantly the serratus anterior, trapezius and rhomboids) and those that stabilize the arm bone in the shoulder socket (the rotator cuff: supraspinitus, infraspinitus, teres minor, and subscapularis).

Here are some exercises that will help you strengthen both sets of the shoulder core.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Core Muscles of the Hips

Core muscles are the new focus in the fitness industry. They protect the low back. Pilates strengthens the core. Advertisements promise a strong, sexy core if we buy their products. The problem is that the core can be illusive for the average person to find. That’s because the body has more than one core.

The Hellerwork Client Handbook compares the core to the inside of an apple. Core muscles are deep inside the body, right next to the bones. These muscles have more leverage and, when working properly, also stabilize the skeleton. When the core does not stabilize, joints are more prone to injury, the body is weaker, and other muscles get confused about what to do.

All muscle groups have superficial muscles and core muscles. Let’s delve into the core of the torso and core of the hips. Follow up articles will explain the core of the shoulders and the core of the neck.

The core of the torso is like a cylinder around your midsection, comprised of four muscle groups: the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, multifidi, and diaphragm. The pelvic floor (actually a group of six muscles) creates the bottom of the cylinder. The transverse abdominus encompasses most of circumference as a girdle around the belly. The multifidi fibers, one to four inches long, fan out deep within the superstructure of the spine. The diaphragm caps the core; each breath turns this cylinder to an ever-changing, dynamic powerhouse.

When all parts of your torso core are strong and work together, you can lift more, bend over more, and do all kinds of movement with less risk of injury. The torso core is also an important base of support for your legs, arms, and neck.

The hip flexors lift your legs. If you rely on the rectus femoris, tensor fascia lata, and sartorius, you will be weaker and in less balance than if you use the core hip flexors, the psoas and iliacus, sometimes called the iliopsoas. These core muscles attach to the front and sides of the lumbar spine and deep inside the pelvic bowl. They have more leverage and bulk than the superficial muscles, but they also depend on stabilization from the torso core to work.

How do you know when you are accessing the deep hip flexors? One clue is that your pelvis does not rotate. Sitting in a chair, lift one leg. Does your low back shift or your hip lift up? If so, your iliacus and psoas are cheating and your low back is taking the brunt of the movement.

If you can hold your pelvis perfectly still and lift a leg, your torso and hip core are both getting stronger. It’s what makes a karate front kick so powerful. Even more challenging and strengthening is lifting both thighs with a stable pelvis, the action in the Pilates Teaser and yoga’s full boat pose (Navasana).

I gave readers an Easy Core Exercise in my previous post, Balance Between Abdominals and Back Muscles. Another way to wake up the core is with the Relax and Flow undulation. In both cases, the exercises use small, slow movements since the core is comprised of slow twitch muscle fibers. If you can do these exercises with complete pelvic stabilization, then you will be ready to take on more intermediate core exercises.