Perhaps you went all-in on your new year’s resolution and pushed a little too hard in the gym. Or maybe you’re ready to treat a life-long issue with your back and finally work on strengthening your core. Wherever you’re at with your fitness routine, this month’s workout plan is focused on an issue that 80 percent of American adults suffer from at one time or another: back pain. According to the American Chiropractic Association, up to 31 million of us are struggling with back pain at any given time.
Back pain can be triggered by overuse or incorrect form, or it can be a chronic issue. Growing up I played a lot of sports; but would cry when I had to empty the dishwasher. My parents brought me to chiropractors and doctors, and it turned out I had a weak core and a part of my lumbar spine was cartilage instead of bone. So strengthening the front of my body, as well as adjusting how I moved in sports, was imperative to recovering from low back pain. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s when I started attending regular Pilates classes that I finally was able to manage my pain without weekly chiropractic appointments. (This partially inspired me to become a certified Pilates instructor, too!)
When training clients who have low back pain, I always incorporate Pilates-style moves into their workout regimens. Paying attention to engaging the transverse abdominis — the lower ab muscle — is key to performing exercises with proper form; even exercises you may not associate with the core like squats and lunges. (In fact, one of my clients used to complain of an aching back every time she did squats or lunges. Once she focused on pulling her naval in towards her spine throughout her entire workout, she was able to do squats and lunges pain-free!)
There are some exercises you can perform daily — these are the exercises that work the small ab muscles, which don’t require a rest and repair period that larger muscles, like your quads, do. This month’s workout is split up into three routines. The warm up exercises can be performed daily. While lying flat on a yoga mat is preferred, I used to do these exercises before getting out of bed in the morning to help set my back and core to start the day.
Routine 1 adds on to these warm up exercises, and Routine 2 is a bit more challenging and works the entire body while paying special attention to the core. Perform these exercises slowly, while focusing on the breath. Breathe in during the easier part of the exercise, and breathe out during the harder part.
Because these are smaller movements that focus on the deep ab muscles, your body can perform these exercises daily without the need for recovery. Think of this as a waking up period for your body if you do this in the morning, which is what I recommend.
Lying on your back on a mat, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground. Make sure your feet are open as wide as your hips. Reach your arms down towards your feet. Take a deep breath in and fill your stomach up. Feel your low back arch slightly off of the ground. Then exhale as you tilt your pelvis and press your low back into the ground. Pull your naval in towards your spine as if you’re zipping into a tight pair of pants. Release and repeat 10 times.
Come into the pelvic tilt position from the exercise above. From this tilted position with your low back pressed into the ground, place your hands behind your head. Exhale as you curl up with your head, neck, and chest. Pretend that you’re holding an egg in between your chin and your chest and you don’t want to crack it. Then gently pulse up 10 times, and rest.
To begin, lie on your back with your head resting on the floor. Keep your arms straight at your sides with your palms on the floor and bend your knees so your heels are under your knees. Slowly raise your hips in the direction of the ceiling by curling up your lower back, middle back, and then upper back. Once you’re up in the air, take a deep breathe in. Then, exhale as you slowly roll down one vertebra at a time. Lower your hips and repeat the exercise 10 times.
Just as the name implies, you’ll look like Superman/Superwoman lying on the ground. Lie flat on the floor with your arms extended in front of you and your palms facing downward. Slowly raise your legs and upper body to form an arch, ensuring that your chest and knees don't touch the floor. Keep your chin tucked in and don't overextend your neck. As you extend your arms forward, you can bend them slightly at the elbows and you can vary the tension by lowering or lifting your legs and upper body slightly at the same time. Throughout the exercise, press your pubic bone down on the ground and pull your abs away from the ground. Repeat this 10 times.
Place your hands alongside your chest and push an imaginary marble forward with your nose to lift up your head, neck and chest. Press down firmly through your hands and hug your elbows in towards your sides. Pull your naval in towards your spine and press your thighs down into the ground. Bring the shoulders back and lift the chin up. Take a deep breath in, and then rest. Repeat 10 times.
Stand with your feet open wider than your hips. Turn your toes out. Place your hands on your hips and pull your naval in towards your spine. Tilt your pelvis as you bend your knees out to the sides and lower down into a squat. Keep your back flat and your tailbone pointed down towards the ground. Press down through your heels as you stand back up. Squeeze your glutes at the top. Repeat 10 times.
Lying flat on your back, start with your arms and legs reaching straight up towards the ceiling. Then exhale as you pull your naval in towards your spine, and slowly lower the arms behind you and the legs in front of you. Lower the arms and legs as low as you can without allowing your low back to arch! Hold this for 10 seconds, then come back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Come to the top of a push-up position. Make sure your shoulders are directly over your wrists, and pull your abs in as you tuck your toes under to reach your heels towards the back of the room. Make sure your butt isn’t sticking up in the air. Pull your naval in towards your spine, and breathe here for 15 seconds. Release. Then repeat 5 times.
Stand with your feet hips-distance apart. Keep both legs straight as you lower your torso forward and down towards the floor and raise your left leg back behind you. Flex the foot, and engage the back of the left leg while balancing on the right leg. Place your hands on your hips for better balance. Bring your leg back to center and repeat 10 times. Then switch to the other side.
Start standing with your feet hips-distance apart. Hinge forward at your waist and pull your abs in. Reach your torso on a diagonal so that you’re slightly bent over. Let the weights dangle down by your sides, and then hug your elbows in towards your sides and pull the weights up towards your chest. Tighten your upper back and the area in between your shoulder blades. Then, lower the arms down halfway keeping the elbows hugged in towards your sides. Repeat 10 times.
Stephanie Mansour is a health and fitness expert and weight-loss coach for women. She is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and Pilates instructor, and host of “Step It Up with Steph” on American Public Television.