Core Training for the Aging Spine

Guest Post by Cody Sipe, PhD

Training the core properly is very important for mature adults.  The spine undergoes many degenerative changes with advancing age that can lead to increased potential for injury.  The core musculature is responsible for supporting the spine, providing 3-dimensional stability and reducing compressive and shear forces. Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 5.32.15 PM

However, many traditional exercises that target the abdominal and lumbar muscles create high compressive and shear forces thus increasing the chance of injury (acute or chronic).  The Functional Aging Training™ model (the foundation of the Functional Aging Specialist Certification- a personal training certificate designed to help you tap into this market) teaches how to train the aging core safely and effectively.

The potential danger of any type of core training is that mature adults may have diagnosed or undiagnosed conditions that could be exacerbated by certain types of exercises.  Low bone density (osteopenia or osteoporosis), microfractures, degenerative discs, disc herniation, stenosis, excessive lordosis (swayback) or kyphosis (hunchback) and arthritis are potential issues.

Given all of these changes it is important to train the core musculature in a way that:

·         Builds endurance
·         Improves spinal stiffness without compressive loading
·         Prepares for 3-dimensional forces
·         Integrates upper and lower-body movements

Core Misconceptions

Many trainers errantly believe that just because their client is performing an exercise on an unstable surface they are effectively training the core.  I hear them use all of the right phraseology (“The core must activate three-dimensionally in order to stabilize the hips and spine while standing on the unstable surface.  It causes increased co-activation of these muscles which is very functional.”) which sounds really intelligent but is, in actuality, usually wrong.

Unstable surfaces, IF USED CORRECTLY, can increase core muscle activation but it DOES NOT GUARANTEE increased core muscle activation.  Take, for example, performing a bicep curl on a high-density foam pad (which seems a very popular thing for trainers to do for some reason).

The philosophy behind this exercise says that by performing the arm curls on this unstable surface the core musculature must activate more than it would when standing on a stable surface in order to maintain trunk position.  However, the reality is that the ankle is really going to take care of the majority of instability from the foam pad since it is the first link in the kinetic chain.  There is very little challenge to the trunk in any direction (sagittal, frontal or transverse planes) so the core challenge is minor at best.

And really this is going to be the case with most exercises performed on unstable surfaces compared to performing then on stable surfaces.  That is, the ankle and knee are going to buffer most of the instability so that very little reaches the trunk.  Stable surfaces can be used very effectively (more effectively than unstable surfaces in my opinion) for attacking the core from multiple directions in a safe and functional manner.

Core Training Strategies

I have two primary goals for core training with mature adults which I address in more detail in the Functional Aging Specialist Certification (which you should consider if you’re learning how to be a personal trainer that caters to this market).  The first goal is to challenge core stiffness and endurance in all planes (sagittal, frontal and transverse) while holding a neutral spine.  Because of the potentially dangerous changes that occur in the spine with advancing age it is critical that we avoid excessive anterior flexion, lateral flexion, extension and rotation while under load.
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These movements significantly increase compressive loading and may lead to acute or chronic injuries.  The core doesn’t have to be super strong for most daily activities but it does need to be able to contract repeatedly without fatiguing throughout the day.  There certainly are times when core strength is important such as when lifting heavy objects or when playing a sport but even then the core is typically stabilizing the spine rather than causing it to move through a wide range of motion.  There are times when it is appropriate to train through a wider range of motion, such as improving a golf swing, but we address that later on after we have built an appropriate amount of core stiffness and endurance.

The second goal is to make the core work as God intended it to – as a cross-brace support system for the spine linking the upper and lower extremities.  Probably the most important job that the core musculature has is to hold the spine in neutral while there are forces being imposed on the upper and lower extremities simultaneously.

Think about opening a heavy door.  When you pull on the door force is transmitted to the trunk from the “top down” in the sagittal and transverse planes.  The feet are typically in a staggered position to create stability (due to ground reaction forces) creating a “bottom up” force in the sagittal plane.  The spine is caught in the middle.

In order to successfully open the door, the latissimus dorsi, traps, etc. contract to pull the elbow back toward the body while the glutes, thighs, hams, etc. contract to keep the body stable.  The spine does not need to move in order to complete the task.  And, really, the spine shouldn’t move because the further it moves from neutral while under force the more potentially damaging it is.  Therefore, the core muscles must contract isometrically to maintain the neutral spinal alignment while resisting “top down” and “bottom up” forces in the sagittal and transverse planes.

What are some good core exercises for my mature clients?

There are many good one to choose from so I will only list some that I think are really great for a wide variety of client types and functional abilities.  These exercises are ones that we teach and promote in the Functional Aging Specialist Certification course.

·         Plank (front, reverse, side and transverse)
·         Bird Dog
·         Reverse Pushup
·         Standing/half-kneeling 1-arm cable/tubing row
·         Standing/half-kneeling 1-arm cable/tubing chest press
·         Kneeling 1-arm DB shoulder press/front raise/lateral raise
·         Transverse isometric cable/tubing holds
·         Frontal plane isometric cable/tubing holds
·         Half-kneeling chops and lifts
·         DB Deadlift

Does this mean that we don’t ever do traditional abdominal or core exercises such as crunches, leg raises, bicycle crunches, ball slams, etc.?  It is the view of the Functional Aging Specialist that exercises lie on a continuum of function.  It is not that some exercises are functional and others are not.  The FAS views some exercises as having a greater relevance and closer relationship to function than other exercises.

Traditional ab work is lower on the functional continuum but can still be included in an exercise program for mature adults if there is reason to do so.  BUT the risk must always be considered in light of the reward.

If there are safer and equally effective ways to train the core muscles then why would you not choose them?

-Cody Sipe, PhD