Down to the Core

It occurs to me that I’ve covered my weekly weight training and cardio workouts (although some of my resistance exercises have changed since last week), but I haven’t talked about how I work my core.

For the purpose of this conversation, I’ll define my core as my lower back and my abs. I don’t do anything too complicated and in fact, I don’t spend a great deal of time concentrating on my core…maybe ten minutes or so a day. I also don’t do the same ab/core routine all of the time, but I do have a limited number of moves.

Ab Crunch Machine
Ab Crunch Machine

Most often for my abs, I’ll use Ab Crunch Machine. The main difference between the machine I typically use and the one you’ll see if you click the link I’ve provided (as well as the image on the right), is that instead of resting my forearms on arm pads or grabbing overhead handles to do the push, the machine I use at my gym has a pad that I can adjust to press against my chest. This lets me engage my chest rather than work my arms when performing crunches. I usually perform three sets, resting anywhere between 30 to 60 seconds between sets and adjusting the weight to about 100 lbs. That allows me get in 15 to 30 reps a set.

I also sometimes use a Captain’s Chair for leg lifts/knee raises. This is a challenging exercise and I had to work for months to develop enough strength in my abs and obliques to perform it. I do 20 leg lifts on the first set and anywhere between 10 and 15 leg lifts on the second set (typically I only do two sets). When I can’t lift my legs high enough anymore, I raise my knees instead to finish the 20 reps for the second set.

To perform this move, you lift yourself up by your forearms using the chair pads while holding onto the available grips. Your legs should hang straight down and not touch the floor. Then you lift both legs straight out in front of you until they are parallel with the floor. Lower your legs to the starting position and then repeat. When you get to the point where it’s too difficult to lift your legs high enough anymore, continue the exercise by pulling your knees up to your chest as high as they will go to finish the set. I should mention that you also need a fair amount of arm and shoulder strength to hold yourself in position while performing this exercise.

For my back, I usually use a Roman Chair which is also called a Hyperextension Bench. After adjusting the bench to accommodate my height, I lean on the bench pad and position my ankles under the supports. Then I fully drape my body over the bench so that from my waist to my head, I’m upside down. I usually stay in this position for a few seconds because it provides a good stretch to my entire back and it actually feels relaxing.

To perform the exercise, I cross my arms in front of my chest, then lift my torso up until my body from head to toe describes a straight line. I lower myself to the starting position and then repeat. I usually will do 2 to 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps depending on how my back feels. On occasion, I’ll pick up a 10 pound weight plate and hold it to my chest to give myself slightly more of a challenge, but I usually find my body weight sufficient.

This is one workout you want to take some care with since it’s very easy, especially if your lower back is weak, to injure yourself. Since recovery times for older people are longer, hurting your lower back will pretty much end your exercise plan for a week or more.

To start working your lower back, I’d recommend using a Back Extension Machine. Basically, you sit in the machine, set the weight (start out light), put your feet against the supports, grab the handles, and lean backward. Since the weights are adjustable, you can set the difficulty level as low or as high as you are able to tolerate. You can also adjust the angle of the seat to give yourself a more shallow or deeper bend.

Supersets

Captain's Chair
Captain’s Chair

Especially at the beginning of the week when I’m feeling refreshed, I’ll superset the Roman Chair and Captain’s Chair exercises. That means I’ll perform one set on the Roman Chair and then immediately do a set on the Captain’s Chair not allowing myself to rest between the two moves. After finishing on the Captain’s Chair, I’ll rest for up to a minute and go into the second superset.

You can actually perform supersets with a wide range of exercises and it’s a great way to increase the level of intensity of your resistance workout and build your endurance. It’s also helpful if you’re strapped for time and you choose to limit your rest interval between sets/supersets, since you’re compressing the duration of your workout by combining sets.

The only disadvantages to performing many or most of your workout in supersets is that it’s easy to become fatigued, and tired people tend to use sloppy form in their lifts and pulls. Several months ago, I was doing a lot of supersets but it was cutting into my performance and I switched (except for core work) to regular sets in order to improve my form and challenge myself by lifting heavier.

Leg Work and the Lower Back

A number of exercises I perform on Leg Day work the lower back, so I usually don’t use the Roman Chair on Wednesdays. Also, the next day, my lower back and glutes are still pretty sore, so I just stick to ab work. Do not overwork your lower back. I can’t stress this point enough. Unfortunately, the weakest or most neglected muscles for most people, especially overweight people, are the core muscles. Start out slow in working your lower back. Better to take some time in building your core up rather then go too fast or too heavy and hurt yourself.

It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that if you suspect lower back problems, consult your doctor before doing any core work.

A Billion Core Exercises

I’ve described what I do, but in fact, there are just tons of core exercises you can perform depending on your goals, desired level of difficulty, and your personal preferences. Here’s an example of what are considered beginner’s ab exercises.

And So On

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, I do my ab or core work between my weight training and cardio. Since my core work is relatively brief compared to the other two portions of my workout routine, if I’m pressed for time, ab/core work is likely to get dropped. However, ab work is something you can do just about every day since the goal isn’t to add size to your middle. Also, you don’t need a gym to do core work, since there are a number of sit ups, crunches, and other exercises that don’t require any equipment.

Roman Chair
Roman Chair

Besides strengthening your abs and back, by developing a stronger core, you are enabling yourself to lift heavier and to have more endurance when working the rest of your body. Your core is what holds your torso and your legs together, so if it isn’t strong, then particularly your chest, back, and leg workouts won’t be as good as they could be and you could be risking an injury when performing a wide range of exercises. Do not neglect this important part of your body. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.

And, no. My abs don’t look anything like the image at the top of the page. In fact, my belly is probably one of my weak spots, not because the ab muscles underneath aren’t strong, but because losing that extra ten pounds or so of tummy fat is really tough (Okay, I’m beginning to convince myself I need to step up my core workout). I’ve got a long way to go but I’m excited because I have the ability to take the trip.

For a little exercise humor, visit the Disney blog post Working Out with Mr. Incredible vs. Working Out in Real Life. Yes, I wrote a comment on their blog.

Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

Lolly Daskal

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