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While there is no shortage of core exercises, there is definitely a shortage of good advice for those who want to train their core, and avoid pain and injury. I often find many patients doing outdated exercises and injuring themselves in the process. This effectively sabotoges any health and fitness goals, and sends them back to the drawing board. Frustration builds. Often they will just give up, and quit exercising altogether. They hurt because they are out of shape and don't exercise, and if they do exercise, they hurt even more.
So, for the record, I am suggesting that "sit-ups" or "crunches" are not a good starter exercise for most people. One big problem is that many of us already have a posture that is too rounded forward. It may not be a good idea to promote this position even more. Also, maintaining good form during these exercises is not easy for many with a weak core. So unless you have a trained professional watch you do them, don't start your core routine with these.
Another problem is that the body's core is designed to RESIST motion, not CREATE motion. Remember: you can't fire a canon from a canoe. Well, I suppose you could try, but the canoe would move just as much as the cannonball, and the net result will be little to nothing. Think of your limbs as the cannon. The condition of your core determines whether it's on a canoe (weak), or locked down to solid ground (strong). Your core should not be a canoe, drifting aimlessly though space. One should be able to stabilize the trunk, and lock it down while the cannon fires. Strengthening your core muscles to resist motion effectively locks down your cannon, allowing for maximum power to the limbs. The muscles that move the limbs are the biggest muscles in the human body (gluteus maximus, pectoralis, latissimus dorsi, etc). We need to use them as effectively as possible. All too often our sedentary lifestyle weakens these muscles, and they atrophy. In my experience, many people who injure themselves during exercise do so because their trunk muscles (core) are performing movements that should be done by the hip and shoulder muscles.
There is another problem with most core exercises. The problem is they usually involve no core coordination. Not only are the core muscles meant to stabilize the spine and resist motion, but almost all of them are also involved with active breathing patterns. Muscles such as the external and internal obliques, the abdominus rectus, and the quadratus lumborum are all very much involved with active respiration patterns. They are also very much core muscles. Active respiration is considered to be breathing when you are NOT "at rest". By definition, if you are moving, you are not at rest.
If you watch the average person doing the crunch, or sit-up, or any core exercise, you may notice this person is holding their breath. You also may have noticed this pattern in yourself when you bend down to tie your shoes. This is your body's attempt to stabilize the trunk during the lift. It may not be a bad thing if you are lifting something heavy, but is it really necessary if you are tying your shoes? Your body might be sensing that your core muscles are being challenged, so you hold your breath in an attempt to help stiffen the trunk and spine. This is called the "Valsalva maneuver". It is often used by powerlifters to lift maximum weight. Whereas it may be useful in stiffening the spine during a maximum lift, it should be avoided in other situations. It is known to cause an unhealthy spike in the blood pressure. Simply put, if you are holding your breath to lift and move a large heavy rock, then the Valsava maneuver is your friend. But if you have to walk a mile with that heavy rock, you would be in trouble. This is because walking and holding require an increase in oxygen demands by your body. You will need to breathe, or you may pass out.
So, teaching the body to coordinate the activation of the core muscles with active breathing, is ultimately the goal. The more you can coordinate, the more you can exercise. Plus, you will decrease your chances for injury. Obviously if you are continuously holding your breath (Valsalva maneuver), then you will not able to accomplish much. You will be too out of breath. An example of this is holding a "plank". How long can you hold a plank before you realize that you are not breathing? How effective is this really? How far do you think you could run without breathing? (Please don't try)
Here is an idea: count your breaths instead of seconds. This is often the only way some of us will actually breathe consistently. If you are counting breaths, you are breathing! My method is to breathe big enough so that you can hear it, but don't make it an enormous breath. I don't want anyone to hyperventilate. But in my experience, if you can't hear it, you are likely just using the diaphragm, and breathing from "from the belly". This is the practice in many yoga classes. There is certainly nothing wrong by doing yoga this way, but it does not engage the active breath muscles that are also core muscles. I am no yogi, but I believe the belly breathing is mostly an attempt to keep the body in a relatively relaxed state while holding the poses. So yoga has a different goals, and as such, different methods.
In summary, make breathing the primary consideration when choosing exercises for your core routine. This is especially true if your goal is to help prevent injury and decrease pain. As much as I would like to think we would just naturally breathe properly while exercising, my experience tells me otherwise. In other words, I wouldn't hold my breath.
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