Stabiliser Muscles and Functional Exercise

§ December 6th, 2010 § Filed under News § 1 Comment

There are many muscles in the mid-section that can get a bit lazy when we perform exercises with poor posture.  They can also switch off when we do exercises where the weight of most of the body is supported by some kind of stable platform (eg, a seat that doesn’t move).

Think of the example of a garden cane.  You stick it in the ground, but it quickly waves around in the wind and falls over or breaks.  However, imagine you had fitted some guide ropes to it at different angles.  These lines would tense up depending on which way the wind blows and give the cane stability.  The stabilising muscles surrounding your back contract in a similar way and work to support and give strength to the spine to maintain its full range of mobility.

Our bodies have been designed for us to stand upright, to defend ourselves and to enable us to hunt and gather.  It is only recently that our society has developed to the point where we can buy our meat nicely packaged for us at the supermarket and we drive to and from work rather than walk.  Even some exercises that we perform at the gym allow us to switch off the stabilising muscles…Eg, sitting down on a leg press machine and pushing a plate away from you that only moves in one plane and pivots from a joint.  This will work the big muscles in the legs, but will involve little or no work for the muscles that stabilise the spine.  Compare this with a standing squat exercise performed with good posture.  This will engage the muscles that stabilise the spine.  Examples of the stabiliser muscles are the Rectus Abdominus (also known as the corset muscle.  It literally sits around the back and internal organs in a similar way to a corset), the Quadratus Lumborum, which works to counter any lateral force that  requires the spine to bend sideways and the Spinal Erectors, which support the spine in bending forwards and backwards.

There has been a great deal of focus on Functional Exercise in the Fitness Industry in the last five years or so.  There are many definitions, but most refer to it being a way through an exercise program to replicate movements from daily life and to prepare specifically for them.  It’s not really new in that we have been aware for a long time that some exercises can switch off the stabilisers.  If we want to keep upright posture for the rest of our days, to protect our internal organs and spine, then the most ‘functional’ exercises for us are going to be those which demand that we keep good posture when it is threatened.  For example, standing on a wobbly stability disc while performing lateral raises with an elastic band.  This will work the muscles in the shoulders.  However, it will also work the stabilisers because the only way to keep balance on the disc is to maintain an upright posture.  This will require all of those guide ropes around the spine to pull at the appropriate angles and tensions to keep the right position while performing the lateral raises. Another example is a press up while holding handles that are able to rotate as you push up and down.  Another could be doing bicep curls with dumbbells while sitting on a fit-ball instead of doing them sitting in a chair.

It is sensible in an exercise program to work the whole body in balance.  For example; to develop strength in the muscles in the back to the same level as those on the front of the body; also to develop the muscles on the back of the legs as well as those on the front of the thighs.  These should be incorporated in the right balance in a program.  However, to support the spine it is useful to stimulate the stabilisers and most exercises can be adapted to incorporate a greater demand on them.  Look for opportunities to place a greater demand on the stabilisers as often as possible.  If you are ever unsure how to do this, just ask an exercise professional.

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