Strong to the Core:

Ask your average person on the street what “the core” is and they’ll likely point to their 6-pack muscles. If they’re a gym rat they may actually say “the rectus and obliques”. While the Rectus Abdominis (6-pack muscle) and Obliques are in the core region, they are responsible for large movement, not for supporting the spine. The deep Core muscles are those that help support the lumbar spine – Transversus Abdominis (TA), Multifidus (MF), Diaphragm and Pelvic Floor Muscles.


Transversus Abdominis

a picture of the transverse abdominus muscle

Multifidus

A picture of the multifidus muscles

Diaphragm

A picture of the pelvis floor muscles

Pelvic Floor

A picture of the pelvis floor muscles

In this blog, I am going to focus on the TA.

You can see from the TA picture that the two sides essentially form a corset around your mid-section. When this muscle contracts, it pulls on both sides of your lumbar (lower) spine and helps to stabilize that part of the spine while you go about your daily activities. Unlike your “power mover” muscles (like the Rectus and Obliques), the muscle fibers that comprise this muscle are designed to work all day.

So, what does this have to do with injury prevention?

Well, if your spine is not properly stabilized, there is excessive movement. The movement is not huge but, that extra movement is too much and the structures in the area (muscles, ligaments, discs) are at risk for injury.

Unfortunately, if you have chronic low back pain, the TA tends to stop working properly.

The great news, however, is that the TA is easy to target with exercise. Essentially, exercising this muscle reminds it what it’s supposed to do throughout the day.

If you look online for “Core exercises”, you will get 1,000+ hits. But, if your TA is not doing its job, you want the one exercise that will give you the best bang for your buck, right?

The Side Plank is that exercise. Two reasons it’s my favorite:

You can’t get into the side plank position without contracting the TA

When you’re in the side plank position, there aren’t any other muscles that will substitute for the TA. (The obliques will contract but not enough to substitute for the TA).

Why not Front Planks?

If your TA is not strong enough to support your spine in the Front Plank position, your Paraspinal muscles (the back muscles that are parallel to your spine) will be called in to assist with supporting the spine. Two problems with this:

  • Paraspinals are not intended to support the spine so they get tight and overworked
  • Since the Paraspinals are doing the job, the TA does not need to; so, it will not get a targeted workout like it would in a position where no other muscles will substitute.

How do you know if your TA is not in great shape?

Get into the side plank position. If you start shaking in 5-10 seconds, your TA needs work.

The cool thing is, if you do this exercise every day, the TA will respond quickly.


Side Plank

A person performing a side plank

Ensure that your elbow is directly under your shoulder when in the “up” position. 

Ensure that you’re in a straight line front-to-back and from neck to ankles 

Hold until you start shaking then switch sides 

Progress daily by holding for a few seconds longer until you can do 60 seconds on each side 

When you can do 60 seconds on each side, progress to more challenging positions below 

Modified Side Plank

side plank

Ensure that your elbow is directly below your shoulder 

Ensure a straight line from your nose to between your knees and from front-to-back 

Breathe normally throughout this exercise – do NOT hold your breath! 

When you can do 30 seconds on each side (without shaking) progress to the full Side Plank. 

Side-Side Front Plank

forward plank

Start with a right Side Plank; hold for 15 seconds 

Without lowering your hips, roll to a Front Plank; hold for 15 seconds 

Without lowering your hips, roll to a left Side Plank; hold for 15 seconds 

Work up to holding each side for 60 seconds and the front for 30 seconds 

Side to Side with Push Up

male perfoming a push up

Start with a right Side Plank; hold for 15 seconds 

Without lowering your hips, roll to the front and do 5 pushups 

Without lowering your hips, roll to a left Side Plank; hold for 15 seconds 

Work up to holding each side for 60 seconds and the front for 20 pushups 

Side Plank Plus

woman performing core strengthening exercise

Move your limbs in various directions or on various surfaces  

Maintain a straight line from your head to your ankle  

Examples: 

  1. While in a right Side Plank, raise your left arm and left leg; repeat 10 times; switch sides 
  1. While in a right Side Plank, bring your left elbow to your left knee; repeat 10 times; switch sides 
  1. Do the side plank with your elbow on a Bosu ball  
  1. Do the side plank with your feet on an exercise ball 
  1. Do the side plank from your hand instead of elbow; hold for 60 seconds each side 
  1. Do 1)-4) from the 5) position