After the success we’ve had with our two previous programs of exercises for spinal conditioning, we’ve decided to publish a third one (starting with Leg Circle), to complete our take on posture, spine and core flexibility, stability and coordination. To recap, we previously wrote about:
- exercises to improve your posture and bring relief to your back and spine, and
- exercises to improve flexibility and movement precision of your back and spine.
This time around, we’ll concentrate on exercises for spinal and core movement and stabilization with a particular attention on the abdominal area and its importance in spinal flexion and core balance. When taken as a whole, these three series of exercises will be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in improving their overall core stability and flexibility, bettering movement and coordination and significantly lowering the risk of injury, whether we are talking about back muscles, the spine, or the abdomen, in either everyday activities or athletic performance.
Abdominals play a key element in the concept of core stability, which is popular both in rehabilitation and athletic performance enhancement. The exercises in this new series focus particularly on strengthening the abdominals in their action of spinal flexion and also developing the skill of using the abdominals for stabilization. The strength and skill of the abdominals and core developed here will prove beneficial and apply to all other exercises routines and daily activities that involve challenging actions of the abdominals, detailed articulation of the spine, and more complex movement sequences.
It is important to pay close attention to technique and precision of performance so that both adequate strength and the desired movement patterns are developed. Wrong execution will fail to produce the desired results and may even result in injury. Additionally, some exercises are not suitable for everyone so if in doubt, please confirm with your physician to see what is appropriate for you, and use modifications whenever necessary. If you take care to start at the appropriate level and gradually progress, you will gain strength and skills that will improve the performance of your overall workout and contribute to the many activities of daily living and athletic pursuits. It is also important to recognize that the strength and skills gained here can help protect your back from injury.
Many of the exercises for spinal and core movement in this program are closely related. It is highly recommended that you follow the order established here and only advance on the next exercise after you have mastered the previous one.
The series so far:
- Exercise #1: Leg Circle (you are here)
- Exercise #2: Roll-Up
- Exercise #3: Hundred
- Exercise #4: One Leg Stretch
- Exercise #5: Stretching the Hamstring
- Exercise #6: Double Leg Stretch
- Exercise #7: Crisscross
- Final Exercise: Teaser
This program includes exercises that use the abdominals in a variety of modes. Today’s exercise, Leg Circle, focuses on using the abdominals to carefully control movements of the pelvis as one leg undergoes movement in multiple directions.
Exercise 1 – Leg Circle
Initial position. Lie on your back with the arms by the sides and the palms facing down. Place both legs outstretched on the mat. Bend one knee to the chest, and straighten that leg in the air so that it is in a 90 degree angle to the mat. Gently point the foot. Make sure the leg resting on the mat is flexed in ankle–foot dorsiflexion (backward bending and contracting of your foot). Now:
- Breathing out, circle the raised leg around the midline of the body as anchor, allowing one side of the pelvis to lift off the mat, continuing to circle the raised leg down and across the other leg as the back of the pelvis returns to lie evenly on the mat;
- Breathing in, circle back the raised leg to the same side as it was originally raised from to return to the starting position. Repeat the same pattern with the other leg, alternating the legs with each circle. 5 circles should be done with each leg.
Make Sure You:
- In the initial position, pull up the front and back of the pelvis together so that this contraction of the abdominals and spinal extensors can be used to limit an excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt, while the spinal rotators allow the pelvis to rotate carefully from side to side to complement the leg’s circling movements;
- Keep a long line with the circling leg by using the knee extensors to keep the knee straight and the ankle–foot in plantar flexion, preserving a pointed position of the raised foot. The foot on the mat must maintain its ankle–foot dorsiflexion;
- Focus on creating a smooth leg circle by using the hip muscles in a finely coordinated manner. For instance, in the 2nd phase, try using the hip adductors initially to bring the leg across the body and the hip extensors to produce the down part of the circle. The hip abductors then swiftly become active to prevent the leg from falling too far toward the mat. In the 3rd phase, the hip flexors are crucial in producing the up portion of the circle, while the hip abductors also labor initially to bring the leg to the side;
- Although we are trying to keep the movement smooth, you should add an emphasis at the end of each circle as the leg returns to its vertical position, by pausing briefly;
- Imagine: visualize a string from the ceiling guiding your leg in a circular motion, just like a string puppet. Simultaneously, your pelvis and spine roll from center to side and back like a pendulum. The sideward pendulum movement and the circular leg motion are coordinated impeccably to provide a smooth, continuous flow of movement.
Even though numerous hip muscles are used in Leg Circle, the resistance is inadequate to offer much strength benefit for these muscles. Instead, what this exercise offers is the benefit of hip mobility, including a dynamic stretch for the hamstrings. Frequently, this will help relieve muscle tightness or spasm in the hip and lower back. Additionally, this exercise teaches the intricate skill of moving one leg in many directions while controlling the associated pelvic movement. For instance, as the leg moves down, the tendency is for the pelvis to tilt anteriorly and the lower back to arch.
In most exercises for spinal control, a firm contraction of the abdominals is required. Likewise, as the leg moves across the body or out to the side, the spinal rotators must first contract to begin the pelvic rotation and then work in the opposite manner as if to counter-rotate the pelvis to stop the pelvis from rotating excessively in the direction of the circling leg. Finally, as the leg comes back to vertical, a slight simultaneous contraction of the back extensors with the abdominals is often required to prevent the pelvis from posteriorly tilting.
One common modification is to circle the leg five to ten times in one direction and then the other direction, before switching legs. Leg Circle can also be performed with the arms out at shoulder height (think letter T) and the palms facing upwards. This specific variation provides more stability and is beneficial if rolled shoulders are present. Similarly, reversing the position of the feet so the raised foot is flexed in ankle–foot dorsiflexion can emphasize the dynamic hamstring stretch for the circling leg. Additionally, the pelvis and spine can be kept absolutely still throughout, which will provide an additional challenge in terms of pelvic– spinal stabilization. Lastly, to lengthen the breath, inhale for one circle and exhale for another.
To continue our program of exercises for spinal and core movement and stabilization advance to Exercise 2, Roll-Up.