In India, yoga practitioners sometimes date themselves more on the age of their spine (and its healthy ability to move) than on chronological age, saying, “You are as old as your spine is mobile.” I like to rephrase that to, “We are as young as our spine has mobility.”
Our energy starts with the way we align our spine, the long column of bones that resembles a series of doughnuts running up the back. Deviations that occur with muscular imbalances in certain parts of our back pull our spine too much in any one way, and we may experience this as pain, as a decrease in function when moving, or both.
“Alignment” means that, when standing, the major joints (as well as a few special landmarks like ears) all follow an imaginary, minimally-curved line connecting ear to shoulder to mid-chest to hip to knee to ankle.
This spine, by the way, is not straight; it has curves that we should celebrate as we grow. Being told to “sit up straight” as children most likely came with the best intentions by our parents or guardians. However, know that sitting up “tall”, “long”, “lengthened”, “proud”, or “extended” are much more specific cues. The goal is to use all of the muscles in your body to activate a better posture as you try to grow taller. Using all of your muscles along your spine to maintain this spinal alignment requires work! Think about it: if you totally relaxed and turned your muscles off right now, wouldn’t you slump into a little ball on the floor? That means that obviously some muscles are alive and at work just so you can maintain a position that allows you to read this blog post!
Since life consists of a variety of movements that require the spine to move in different ways, we should celebrate all of the movements that the spine can make: bending forward (forward flexion), bending backwards (extension), bending sideways (lateral flexion), and twisting (rotation). If we spend a little time training these movements, we can help ourselves be champions of living and avoid injury during these movements in activities of daily life.
You’ll be surprised how young you remain as you maintain the suppleness and health of your spine. In each of these aforementioned examples of spinal exercises, you are working your abdominal muscles in slightly different ways, to boot!
These abdominal muscles are our center of power and work to support our marvelous spine. Having great abdominals means being able to work both the abdominals (many separate muscles) and muscles that assist them, the back muscles as well! It means you can do all the “functions” of daily life using them to protect the spine in all of the movements we just discussed. This is what we mean by “functional training” in the fitness industry. We help people understand how the spine works so that every movement of daily life, from filling the clothes drier to putting an airplane carry-on in an overhead bin, becomes easier and safer.
The function of your abdominals is more important than what people can see when you wear a bathing suit, for example. Just having “six-pack” lines in the abdominal area does not guarantee that one has functional abdominals: they have to be able to both tolerate and generate force for daily activities. Furthermore, we have already seen that genetics have predetermined how much of a “six-pack” you will show with training. The good news, however, is that you can control the speed, efficiency, and execution of specific exercises, as well as modify the percentage of body fat around those muscles by adjusting how and what you consume.
Most people think that “working” their abdominals requires doing hundreds of crunches and then hundreds more. I’d rather you work smarter, not harder, and work from the inside out. No published research documents the need for excessive crunching actions for the spine. Please aim for quality instead of quantity on your abdominal exercises.
Being aware that your spine truly is your backbone in life will help you train it. Remember that you have 7 bones of the back in your neck, called cervical vertebrae. In the middle of the back, you have 12, called the thoracic vertebrae. Around your belt line, you have 5 more called the lumbar vertebrae. Finally, you have a tailbone. You can remember how many vertebrae you have from top to bottom if you remember the mealtimes of most Americans: breakfast at 7, lunch at 12, and dinner at 5! Truly, you will be as healthy as your spine. I conclude with an invitation back to you: “Tell me how healthy is your spine and I will tell you how healthy is your life.”
Guest post by Lawrence Biscontini, Mindful Movement Specialist, fitness expert, and Senior VIP Consultant for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and Power Music®.