Women's Health

How to Train Your Deep Core for Spinal Stability and Injury Prevention


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If you’ve ever honed your back by deadlifting, running, or exercising in general, you’ve discovered that even a minor back injury will put your fitness on the sidelines for weeks. While paying attention to the right form of exercise is part of the prevention strategy, there’s more to the story. To avoid this fitness pitfall, you need to train your spinal stability — and doing crunches, back extensions, or general lifting aren’t the answers. Learn why and learn what exercises to do instead.

How to train to protect your spine

Low back pain is the most common injury that brings your active lifestyle to a halt, and the biggest contributors lurk in your workouts. The main reasons for lower back injuries are core muscle fatigue, high training volume (sets, reps and loads) and repetitive movements.

But before you break away from your favorite exercises, keep reading, because eliminating weights and repetitive movements isn’t the solution. Instead, the solution lies in learning your spine and then building its ability to perform all the workouts you love.

Understand where spinal stability comes from

Imagine that your spine is built like a sailboat. There is a foresail, an aft sail, a mast and a boat. If any part is unbalanced, the boat will not sail well. Now apply this to your muscles. Your front sail is your abdominal muscles. Your back sail is your back muscles. The boat represents your pelvic floor muscles. The mast is your deep abdominal muscles called the multifidi and transverse abdominis.

Although your fitness routine will likely include exercises to train the hypothetical fore and aft sails, most fitness routines don’t specifically train the pelvic floor and deep core muscles. If you rely only on the outer abdominal muscles, your back stability will be constantly changing. A strong core requires training the deep core and pelvic floor muscles, and these muscles respond best to long-duration, low-load exercises. A low load means you need to lower the weights to target those muscles as much as possible.

The stability of the spine is not exclusively the work of the muscles. This stability also relies on ligaments, discs, bones and the nervous system. We often overlook these essential spinal stability components in our fitness routines.

Exercises to strengthen the stability of your spine

Now, how do you target the muscles that improve spinal stability?

1. Save time.

Planks, dead insects, bears and bird dogs all target the stabilizing muscles of the spine. When performing such exercises, consciously engage your core and maintain a straight line from the back of your head to your tailbone.

Aim for duration, gradually building up to 1-2 minutes of hold per exercise without any additional weight. Want more spine stabilization exercises? Check out our “No-Crunch Core-Crushing Abs Circuit”.

2. Train your pelvic floor.

Kegels are a great place to start, but there are plenty of other exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor. some also have the added benefit of toning your glutes and thighs! Exercises like bent squats, hip bridges, and the adductor machine can all be part of training your pelvic floor muscles.

If these exercises are already part of your routine, keep your current sets and reps while consciously thinking about pulling your pelvic floor up with each rep. If you don’t feel the muscles engaging, you need to lower the weights. Want more ideas? Check out “6 Effective Pelvic Floor Exercises – That Aren’t Kegel Exercises”.

3. Train your ligaments and nervous system.

There are three easy ways to target these often overlooked stabilization essentials.

One-legged variants: Perform an exercise you already do, such as bicep curls or deltoid raises, while standing on one foot. Lighten the weight from your typical load, as standing on one foot decreases your base of support. Select an even number of sets so that each supporting leg has an equal number of turns during the exercise.

Stability ball: Use a stability ball for a series of familiar exercises. Great choices include overhead shoulder presses, chest presses, and planks with forearms on the ball. As if standing on one foot, lighten the load to control your form on the ball. When you lighten the load, you can perform more reps. Work through the reps to fatigue with proper technique.

Medicine ball: Throw a medicine ball. Medicine ball throws off a rebounder, the floor, or a wall help condition your spine for speed and load. Even better: Catch the ball on the rebound! If you are new to medicine ball throws, start with a ball that weighs 5% of your body weight.

Since this type of throwing and catching can be taxing on your muscles, start with 1-3 sets of less than 10 reps. When throwing and catching with both hands at the same time, make sure your shoulders and hips are always in the same direction at the same time to avoid twisting your spine.

No medicine ball? No problem! Use your stability ball instead.

Next steps

Choose at least one exercise from each of the three spinal stabilization exercise categories to include in each workout. Feel free to mix and match for new variations every day.

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