Whatever your event, core muscles are crucial for stability and injury prevention. Dr Sean Carey suggests ways to wake up these anti-gravity muscles
Whether you are a sprinter, high jumper, distance runner or hammer thrower, you are, I’m sure, very familiar with the numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen your core, such as ab curls, planks (of all sorts) and bridges.
All are designed to strengthen your ‘core’ – which includes your abdominal muscles and the muscles of your pelvis, hips and lower back. Some coaches believe that it is the core, rather than, say, how the feet land, that should be the starting point for athletes keen to optimise their technique and maximise their speed, power and endurance. However, others contend that strengthening exercises per se, core or otherwise, do little good if problems linked to inefficient movement patterns are not also addressed.
On this issue, I’m definitely in the latter camp. Indeed, in this article, I want to suggest that it’s much better to think holistically about how your musculature works rather than focusing only on your core.
The power of posture
More of our body weight is in front of our spine and this means the torso is heavier than the legs. This creates the natural tendency while standing to topple forward. Of course, this doesn’t happen because of the way our brain and skeleton, especially the double S-shaped spine, work in concert with the whole of the body’s powerful anti-gravity musculature.
The calves, quadriceps and hip, back and neck extensor muscles all hold us in place.
FM Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, a method of kinaesthetic (psychomotor) re-education, widely used by actors and musicians, discovered that moving from vertical into a controlled bending movement, without losing length along the spine or stiffening the ankles, knees and hips, can generate elastic tone in the anti-gravity (extensor) muscles of the neck, back and legs. This is because of the massive muscular demand required to maintain body balance against the pull of gravity. He also recommended that the bending movement should be performed slowly in order to facilitate a high level of feedback between the brain, joints and muscles to re-educate the kinaesthetic system.
A further point: for Alexander, developing or maintaining muscular elasticity should always precede the pursuit of muscular strength. Why? Well, long, elastic muscles are much more efficient than chronically shortened, stiff muscles, not only in terms of kinaesthetic feedback but in terms of the balance in work or functioning between your muscles’ red (slow twitch) and white (fast twitch) fibres.
Alexander discovered that because of a variety of environmental factors, the most important of which was sedentarism, most of his students attempting to bend were not starting out from a balanced vertical attitude but from either an upright slump or collapse, or a stiff, military-style posture. Both positions are biomechanically inefficient, for example, standing up straight military-style takes up around 30% more energy than relaxed standing.
Yet, whatever the situation, Alexander would get to work with his hands, simultaneously explaining to his student what he was doing. He would aim to reorganise their musculature, initially focusing on the balance of their head on their neck and then, while maintaining that head-neck relationship, going on to integrate the muscles of their torso, arms and legs. Perhaps not surprisingly, he called this manually-induced holistic change in body shape ‘lengthening the stature’.
When the appropriate stature lengthening was achieved, Alexander would ask his students to bend their knees and then, after a slight pause, pivot forward from their hip joints. The really important point for the student was not to stiffen anywhere in the movement cycle (which, as I know, is easier said than done). If that happened, Alexander would bring his student back to upright and ask them to think clearly in order to prevent any unnecessary muscular tension before and as they moved.
He would then begin the process again. Once a student was bending appropriately, that is, they had achieved better general coordination, Alexander would suggest that they stayed in what he called the ‘position of mechanical advantage’ for several minutes in order to strengthen their now elastically stretched anti-gravity musculature.
Knowing how to stand-up
The problem in carrying out bending without the aid of the hands of a competent Alexander teacher is that most of us spend so many hours in slumped positions sitting at work or at leisure that we no longer possess good vertical alignment in standing. We’re habitually shortening our stature, perhaps by stiffening through the shoulder girdle and arms, hollowing or over-flattening our lower back, tensing our buttocks, hyperextending our knees, and so on.
Put slightly differently, even if we are very fit aerobically, we can still be (literally) out of shape. The result is that when we bend, the stiffening or compression we habitually carry out in normal standing actually increases.
In which case, some additional help is required. In order to more clearly define the length of your spine and its vertical orientation, stand with your back to a wall with a smooth surface (to minimise friction). Your heels should be positioned three or four inches away (slightly more if you’re tall), with your feet around hip-width apart and slightly turned out with an angle of around 35 degrees between them. If possible, use a full-length mirror to monitor your progress. Don’t rush, allow plenty of time.
It’s important your head is poised on the top of your spine. To help ensure you’re not lifting the front of your chest, arching your lower back, “holding” on with the buttocks or abs, or grabbing the floor with your feet. Now, let yourself fall backward and upward (not backwards and downwards) from the pivot point of your ankle joints (toes should stay on the floor), so that the whole length of your back from shoulders to your buttocks – though importantly not your head – are gently supported by the wall. It’s also important your heels maintain good contact with the floor throughout and are able to transmit your body weight effectively.
Now, bend your knees a little while maintaining your height (keep your head where it is in space). If you’ve been successful and maintained the light contact of your whole back with the wall, you can now bend your knees over your toes some more. This time, of course, bending your knees will result in you sliding down the wall. You will notice, perhaps, that this sliding movement is very useful in undoing any unnecessary muscular tension in your lower back, buttocks and hips – a release which will stimulate your kinaesthesic sense as well as facilitate free and easy breathing.
Feel free to pivot forward a little from your hips, while bending your knees over your feet a little more, and maintaining a light contact with the wall with your tail. Your heels should also maintain good contact with the floor. Allow your arms to hang out of your back, without collapsing, rounding or hunching your shoulders. Additionally, you will want to think of the back of your head and neck releasing away from your tail, to allow your spine to reach its maximum length, your back muscles spreading sideways away from your spine, while your knees release away from your pelvis over your turned-out feet.
To get a measure of the relative freedom or elasticity of your leg musculature you can move your knees outwards and inwards “Charleston” style a few times. Note, the movement of your legs should be free and easy not stiff or heavy. Now, maintain your bending position for a minute or two, or until you pick up signals that you are beginning to stiffen, and then slowly return to upright by going through the bending movement in reverse. See if you can find a way to walk away from the wall while maintaining your lengthening of stature and better general coordination – that is, without needing to push off with your buttocks or shoulders.
Alternatively, because you are an athlete and have to bend to a greater or lesser extent as a requirement of your event, try the following to return to upright. While in your forward bend position simply let yourself lean forward slightly more from your ankles so that your buttocks are no longer in contact with the wall. Pause. Now without distorting or disturbing the rest of your body, and without any undue shift of weight or muscular stiffening, from your slightly forward balance position, peel one foot from the ground and then the other, to walk forward.
Maintain this almost ape-like shape, and then, while continuing to walk forward, slowly come to upright, by straightening your knees and hips but avoid stiffening your neck muscles, raising your chest, tightening your buttocks or hollowing your back.
Your muscles and mind will have had a good workout, which with practice over time to improve your kinaesthetic sense, you will be able to use in multiple fast-moving or other strenuous activities.
» Dr Sean Carey is a social anthropologist and a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT). He teaches the technique in London’s Old Street and St Albans and can be contacted through the STAT website. For more information, see his book Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run (Hite, £14.99)