By Pat Staszak, PT, PYT and Catherine Lewan, PT, DPT, CYT
Research has well-established that in healthy individuals, lumbopelvic stabilizing muscles contract automatically in anticipation of an arm or leg movement. When this happens, your muscles provide a protective stabilizing force that prevents excess wear and tear through vulnerable components of the low back.
Studies have also shown that people who suffer from low back pain are missing this automatic, perfectly timed pre-emptive stabilizing contraction. The good news is that it is possible to re-train your core stabilizers. You can build strength and hone timing in that muscle group to provide the kind of support that prevents low back pain.
Before we review the exercise let’s identify the three muscle groups that provide stability for the pelvis and low back.
Lumbar Multifidi are small muscles that attach one vertebrae to the next and provide segmental stability. Simply thinking of stiffening the spine in its neutral position (a slight arch to the low back) will engage these muscles.
Pelvic Floor Muscles provide support for the bottom of the pelvis—they attach from the pubic bones to the tailbone and from one sit bone to the other. Contract them by gently lifting in and up as if you were trying to hold back gas or prevent urine flow.
The Deep Abdominals make up the largest of the core stabilizers.
Transversus Abdominus (TA) – Pull the belly inward gently to engage the TA.
Internal and External Obliques – These connect the lower ribs to the front of the pelvis and contract automatically with a cough or laugh. They also help to pull down on the ribs to expel air forcefully, and in core stability exercises, we use this deliberate forced exhale to stabilize the trunk.
Follow the instructions below and be sure to contract your core stabilizing muscles a split second before moving your leg. Mindfully performing this action strengthens the neural pathway that creates stability in anticipation of turbulence that may otherwise jar the pelvis and low back.
Inhale: prepare in neutral
Exhale: contract core stabilizers and lift one foot just off the floor, maintaining neutral pelvis and spine.
Inhale: return foot to floor
Exhale: contract core stabilizers and lift the other foot just off the floor, maintaining neutral pelvis and spine
Inhale: Return foot to floor
Allowing the pelvis and low back to shift from neutral—if any movement of the pelvis occurs it is likely that the lumbopelvic stabilizing muscle groups are not activated correctly. For instance:
Flattening the low back to the ground and depending on the floor for support.
Lifting the foot/knee so high that the pelvis and low back flatten—only move the leg so far that you can truly maintain stability, re-assess your position with your hands if necessary!
Letting the back move to an excessive arch when moving the leg.
”Gripping” or over tightening large muscles like the gluteals and lumbar paraspinals, which will likely pull the low back and pelvis out of neutral.
This simple exercise is a great way to learn how to engage your core stabilizers. Practice this gentle contraction with day to day activities to maintain stability and to keep your back healthy. So, with that in mind, before you take your next step, throw your bike over your shoulder, or pick up a heavy bag, remember to engage your deep core muscles!