Category Archives: Spinal Health

5 Steps to a Stronger Core

Everyone wants a strong core and knows that it’s important.  What most people don’t realize is that having “6-pack” or a flat stomach, doesn’t necessarily equal strong. When I say “a strong core”, I’m talking about muscles that can do their job. The abdominal muscles are meant to decompress the spine, support the organs, provide movement, lower the pressure in the abdominal aorta, help you breathe/cough/vomit, and more. When you have muscles that function properly, you might also end up with a smaller waistline; however, a flat, fit, toned abdomen does not necessarily mean it’s strong and healthy. Plenty of very fit people have diastasis recti, hernias, digestive trouble, and pelvic floor issues. If you are after a strong and functional core, here are a few things you can do to start heading in the right direction.  These things can help minimize back pain, decrease your chances of developing diastasis recti, and recover healthy core function, whether you are pregnant, postpartum, or neither. 

1) Drop your ribs. The rib cage should be stacked right over the pelvis (see photo), not lifted or jutting forward.  Read this post for a detailed description.  This one small thing can have a huge impact on your core strength.  The abdominal muscles attach on the rib cage.  If you are constantly lifting them or jutting them forward, you are undermining their ability to function.

2) Release your belly. Constantly holding tension in your belly also undermines abdominal strength. This can come in the form of habitually sucking in your stomach or constantly bracing/tensing your abdominal muscles. For starters, just get on your hands and knees and try to let your belly relax towards the floor. Allow the tailbone to move up towards the ceiling. Notice any desire to pull your belly back up. Let it relax more. This article talks about why relaxing your belly is so hard.  And this one gets into the difference between sucking in your stomach and activating your TVA.

3) Practice #1 & 2 in everyday life. Once you’ve learned how to drop your ribs and release the tension in your abdomen, start bringing these new habits into everyday life.  Pay attention to them when you walk, stand, sit, drive your car, work on the computer, or hold your baby.  This is a really great post on ways to move better in everyday life to heal diastasis recti. <— IF YOU HAVE DR, READ THIS POST!!

Dropping your ribs and releasing your belly is a great place to start.  Doing those two things will relieve back pain, improve digestion, and increase the activity of your abdominal muscles.  Your abdominal muscles can work reflexively (automatically) now that you’ve eliminated habits that were interfering with this process.  They can now respond appropriately when you move and will become stronger.

4) Move more in everyday life. I’m going to repeat that: Your abdominal muscles can work reflexively (automatically) now that you’ve eliminated habits that were interfering with this process. They can now respond appropriately when you move and will become stronger.  The real gains in strength come when you take your new found alignment and start moving more.  Sitting with your ribs aligned and belly relaxed has its benefits, but your abdominals won’t be very active in this position because there is no need for it when you are sitting still.  They are responding appropriately to your position. When you stand up, they should contract more.  When you start walking, even more. If you walk carrying a baby or a grocery bag, even more.

After my daughter was born, I had a two finger gap both at my belly button and above it .  In those first 3 month postpartum, I walked, stretched and paid attention to my alignment during everyday life;  I didn’t do any “core exercises.”  The gap above my belly button closed completely, and at my belly button it’s down to 1 finger. (Most experts consider a gap 1 finger width or less to be normal.)  I did this intentionally, as a sort of experiment, to see what would happen.  Going up and down stairs, getting up and down off the floor, and doing everyday life while holding a 10lb baby is a lot of work.  I wasn’t “working out”, but my muscles did a lot of work because I was moving.  Honestly, I did a lot of laying around and resting too, especially in the first 6 weeks.  I don’t have a flat stomach, and I still look 3 months pregnant.  My core definitely isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be, but moving well and moving more was enough to close the gap and restore function in a relatively short period of time.

5) Take a class.  I know I just got done saying that you don’t need to exercise, but practicing exercises that encourage reflexive core activity are helpful for regaining healthy core function. If you’ve had years of rib thrusting and sucking in the stomach, chances are you have some tension in the trunk and some muscles that aren’t “online”.  Specific exercises to release tension and reconnect with those muscles can be necessary. Here are two options starting May 16th (next week)!

  • Diastasis Recti Recovery Workshop:  Oct 22 // 3:00-5:30pm. Registration and details here.
  • Online Classes:  If you don’t live local, you can do Katy Bowman’s alignment snacks at home. Try “twisting the night away” and “just a dab of abs”.

10 Minutes to Tension & Pain Free Shoulders

You are going to love this! These are some of my favorite exercises for relieving shoulder and upper back tension that accumulates during the day. We do so many things with our arms: computer work, driving, studying, carrying babies, breastfeeding, yard work…. add misalignment, old injuries, weak muscles and stress to the mix and you have a recipe for serious discomfort.  If you experience shoulder & upper back pain and/or tension, you will love this routine. It only takes 10 minutes and you’ll feel great! (See additional resources at the bottom of this post as well.)

Minute 1: Rhomboid Push Up

The rhomboids are muscles on your upper back that connect the spine Muscles_rhomboïdesand the scapula (shoulder blades). When you have the habit of retracting your scapula (retraction=pulling the shoulders back like you are squeezing something between the shoulder blades) these muscles get tight and weak. I know that this position is often taught as “good posture”, but it is not good alignment. (Read about posture vs. alignment.)  When you retract your scapula it looks good, but holding this position habitually is sabotaging your shoulder girdle and spinal health. These muscles help hold the spine upright, and when they are tight and weak, they can’t do their job, resulting in hyperkyphosis.

To restore the length of these muscles, try this. Start on your hands and knees. Roll the elbows in towards eachother so that the elbow points back towards your thighs and the elbow “pit” faces the same direction as your middle finger (see picture). Keep a slight bend in the elbow to keep from hyper extending.

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Let the chest drop towards the floor and feel the scapula come together (retraction) WITHOUT BENDING YOUR ELBOWS ANYMORE THAN THEY ALREADY ARE. Then press the hands into the floor and push the shoulders blades wide (protraction). Keep the pelvis untucked.  This is a VERY difficult motion to learn, so it may take some time to master.  WATCH THIS VIDEO of my friend Susan demonstrating the rhomboid push up.

Minute 2: Floor Angels

First bolster you head and shoulders with some pillows or folded blankets. To stretch the chest and shoulders, move the arms slowly overhead like you are making a snow angel.  Rotate the arms so that your palms face up towards the ceiling and your thumbs are closer to the floor than the pinkies.  The hand will start out touching the floor, but will lift away from the floor as you move the arm overhead.

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Keep the ribs relaxed down. Try not to let them pop up towards the ceiling like this:

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Minutes 3-5: Tennis Ball “Reverse” Rhomboid Push Up

I got this AWESOME move from Jill Miller of Yoga Tune Up. Take two tennis balls or balls of similar size & density (I’m using yoga tune up balls here) and put them in a sock. Tie a knot in the sock to keep the balls in place. Lay on your back with the balls underneath your upper back, one on either side of the spine. Start at the top of your scapula.

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Reach your arms up to the ceiling feeling the scapula spread wide, them relax and let them fall towards the floor. It’s the same motion as the rhomboid push up, just upside down. Do this for 1 minute, moving slowly. Then roll the balls down an inch or two, and repeat this motion for 1 minute. Repeat this process one more time. (We are doing 3 different positions here, but you can always do more.)

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If you want more pressure, you can experiment with pressing your feet into the floor to  lift your pelvis up into a small bridge.

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Minutes 6-8: Tennis Ball Floor Angels

Move the balls back up to the first spot they were in (on either side of the spine near the top of the scapula). Repeat the same “snow angel” motion with your arms that you did in the Floor Angels for 1 minute. Roll the balls down an inch or two and repeat 1 minute. Roll the balls down again and repeat.

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If you love this stuff as much as I do, you will want to check out Jill Miller’s new book The Roll Model. My husband gave it to me for Christmas this year, and I’m slowly working my way through it. She shows you how to roll away tension from head to toe. SO GOOD!

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Minute 9: Rhomboid Push Up

Repeat slowly for 1 minute.

Minute 10: Floor Angels

 Repeat slowly for 1 minute.


 

Want more for your shoulders?

1.) Read 3 things you need to know about your shoulder tension.

2.) Drop in for Upper Body Stretch & Strengthen class at Blooma Nashville.

3.) Try an Alignment Snack (20 min online classes). For upper body I love these: Everybody Needs a Little Shoulder Bolster, Rhomboid Madness, Can’t Get Enough of Shoulders & A Real Pain in the Neck.

3 Things You Need to Know About Your Shoulder Tension

1.) Constantly pulling your shoulders back (shoulder blades together) will make it worse. I know that this position is taught as “good posture”, but it is not good alignment.  (Read about the difference between posture and alignment.) The rhomboids are muscles on your upper back that connect the spine and the scapula (shoulder blades). When you have the habit of retracting your scapula (retracting=pulling the Muscles_rhomboïdesshoulders back like you are squeezing something between the shoulder blades) these muscles get tight and weak.  When you retract your scapula it LOOKS GOOD, but it is only masking your shoulder tension, NOT FIXING IT. Trying to keep this “good posture” all the time is causing these muscles to become tighter and weaker, sabotaging your long term shoulder and spinal health.

2.)  The tension in your hands is directly related to the tension in your shoulders.  Before I started studying Restorative Exercise™, it never occurred to me to stretch my hands.  I didn’t even realize there was tension in my hands. If you can relate to this, try these tests.

Test #1: Start on your hands and knees. (If you can’t get on your hands and knees, try bending over and placing your hands on a coffee table.)  Place your hands on the floor so that the middle finger points straight ahead and the thumb and pointer finger make an “L” (a 90° angle).  Then roll the elbows in towards eachother so that the elbow points back towards your thighs and the elbow “pit” faces the same direction as your middle finger.  Keep a slight bend in the elbow to keep from hyper extending. In the photos below, there is a red dot on my elbow pit to help you see it.

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Arms internally rotated, elbow pits facing each other. (Not good for your shoulder health)

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Arms externally rotated to neutral, elbow pits facing forward. (A neutral humerus=better shoulder alignment.)

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“Claw Hands” that are tight and cupping away from the floor reveal the relationship between shoulder and hand tension.

 

Did your hands cup up away from the floor? Is it impossible to get the hand position and arm position at the same time?  This shows you how the the shoulder, arm and hand tension is all related. We SHOULD be able to keep both the hands and the shoulders aligned at the same time, not one or the other.

Test #2: Reach your arm behind your back without letting your scapula “wing” (boney edges stick out). Keep the flat and wide across your back. If you can, reach your arm up towards your neck without winging the scapula.

 

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Scapula (shoulder blades) wide.

Then flip your palm over so that the palm touches your back.  You should be able to do this without the scapula winging. If you can’t, this shows you (again) how your shoulder and hand tension are related.

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Hand flipped over, winging scapula.

 

 3.)  Just because you don’t FEEL a stretch, doesn’t mean you don’t have tension.  It’s pretty common to have one or more hyper mobile joints.  When a joint is hyper mobile the ligaments are too lax, making it easy to move a joint without the muscular tension getting in the way.  In this case, you may be able to move through a normal (or often excessive) range of motion without ever feeling a stretch.  When you try to stretch, you don’t feel anything, so you assume your muscles aren’t tight.  The tension is still there creating pain, tendonitis, numbness, tingling, etc only you don’t realize it because you can’t feel it.  It is MUCH harder for someone with hyper lax ligaments in a certain area to access the muscular tension. It’s very complex to learn to stabilize your hyper mobile parts.  If you suspect this is an issue for you, see suggestions 3 & 4 below.

What You Can Do About It:

1.) Stop pulling your shoulders back/together all the time. Let them relax wide.

2.) Practice Test #2. It’s a test, but it will also help mobilize the shoulder.

3.) Join me at Blooma Nashville for Upper Boday class. Come stretch and strengthen the muscles of the shoulders, arms, chest, neck & upper back to create shoulders that are both strong AND mobile. This class will restore upper body alignment, relieve tension & pain, improve flow of blood, lymph & milk, and teach how to deal with hyper-mobility.

Every Thursday at 6:45pm

4.)  Try Katy’s online Super Supple Shoulders webinar for an in depth shoulder workout and education. This class will help you learn to deal with hyper mobility and relieve tension.

5.)  Try these Alignment Snacks (shorter 20 minute classes): Everybody Needs a Little Shoulder Bolster, Rhomboid Madness, Can’t Get Enough of Shoulders & A Real Pain in the Neck. Get Alignment Snacks HERE.

“Stand Up Straight!”

Have you ever been told to “stand up straight!”?  This phrase has children everywhere grumbling as a well meaning adult lectures on the importance of good posture.  In my opinion, it’s one of the most  relevant examples of the difference between posture and alignment.   The phrase has permeated the culture with its vague (subjective) recommendation for our spinal health and caused a lot of confusion.  I have many clients who have spent years trying to get their back “straight” because of this misunderstanding and suffered greatly because of it.  For all of you out there in the same boat, I hope this post helps you find some relief.

First of all, the spine isn’t supposed to be straight.  It has curves like an “S”.  I’m going to say it again: a healthy spine has curves.  Specifically, notice the thoracic  (mid back) curve.  This is called kyphosis.  The word kyphosis is often misused to mean “too much curve.” (Too much curve is called hyperkyphosis.) You want that kyphotic curve. It’s supposed to be there.

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This is a side view. The person would be facing the left side of your screen.

Most people translate “stand up straight” to equal “chest up, shoulders back.”  This lifting of the chest/rib cage creates forces that distort the curve of the thoracic spine.  If I asked you to stand up straight or show me your best posture, chances are it would look something like this:

(Again, ignore the “I Dream of Jeannie” arms.  I’m just doing that so you can see the line that is coming up.)

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Looks pretty good, right?  In my last post, you learned how to align your pelvis.  When you did this, you may have felt like you were going to fall over backwards  or felt some discomfort in your back.  If so, learning where your ribs belong will help.  Let’s revisit the super awesome grid app.

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The vertical line is lined up with the bottom of my rib cage.  See how that line falls out in front of my pelvis?  My “good posture” is lifting my rib cage and pushing it forward. Look at any skeleton in an anatomy text book, and you will see that the rib cage is supposed to be right over the pelvis.  Put your finger tips on the most inferior, anterior part (the part that is lowest and towards the front) of your rib cage.  Can you feel the pointy edges of your ribs sticking out?  Now exaggerate your best posture.  Are your ribs sticking out even more? Now relax and let the ribs drop down ALL THE WAY.  (If you feel like you are slouching, you’re on the right track.) At this point you shouldn’t be able to feel any boney edges sticking out.  They will be directly over your Anterior Superior Illiac Spine (ASIS: boney protrusions on the front of each side of your pelvis).  If this description is confusing, or you have a hard time finding these boney markers, see how to test for rib thrusting against a wall.

I have one finger on my ASIS and one on my bottom rib, so you can see where they are.  Now the rib cage is right over the pelvis, where it belongs.

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Take a look at these side by side.  On the left: Ribs are aligned, restoring thoracic kyphosis. (What you want.)  On the right: Ribs are lifted and thrusted forward, distorting the thoracic curve. (A recipe for pain and degeneration.)  Can you see the difference?

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I know these two positions look similar, but the physiological effects of these two positions are very different.  Remember, “good posture” looks good but is not necessarily healthy.  The rib thrusting/chest lifted position distorts your spinal curves and puts excessive compression on the one or two vertebra that you are displacing.  The vertebra that make up the spine stack on top of one another forming a protective housing for the spinal cord. When we lose or distort our spinal curves, the integrity of this protective structure is compromised, and the spinal cord and nerves that branch off are at risk for damage. Displacing the ribs also compromises the abdominals’ ability to do their jobs. One of these jobs is to properly support the spine and decompress the discs.  Many people find huge relief from back pain when they stop thrusting their ribs.  Another job of the abdominal muscles is to support the weight of a growing baby when you are pregnant.  When these muscles are compromised, it can lead to diastasis recti (excessive spreading/separating of the abdominal wall).

When you get your ribs down (ALL THE WAY DOWN)  you might (read: almost certainly will) find that you have hyperkyphosis and your head and shoulders are too far forward. Like this:

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Don’t panic! I know, it’s alarming when you see how far forward your head is.  The good news is you can make changes with some hard work.  Resist the urge to lift your chest/ribs to “fix” this problem!  It will look better in the short term but will not solve the problem. When the ribs are down in their aligned position, it reveals all the tension in the upper body that we typically hide by lifting the chest/ribs. Instead of hiding the problem, use the two exercises below to start correcting it.

DO THIS:

First, elevate your head and shoulders and relax here until your ribs start to relax down towards the floor.  You can let your arms rest on the ground by your sides.  This helps relax a muscle called the psoas.

Next: After several minutes, add SLOW arm motions like you are making a snow angel without letting the ribs pop back up towards the ceiling. Rotate the arms so that your thumbs are closer to the floor than the pinkies.  This will stretch the chest and shoulders.

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The ribs might start out lifted towards the ceiling like this.

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Let them relax down towards the floor, like this.

If you find that your upper body is REALLY tight, I would suggest taking Katy Bowman’s online class called Super Supple Shoulders or any of the “Alignment Snacks” dealing with the shoulders.