Jen Sinkler, our fitness editor, wrangles leading experts to address your most perplexing workout quandaries and conundrums.
Q1: Which is the better spine stabilizer for weightlifting: pulling in your belly button or bracing your abs?
A. Most experts say bracing is the way to go. (To figure out how to brace, pretend someone is about to punch you in the gut. Your reaction? That’s bracing.)
So, why is it better? “You can’t create the stability to safely move much weight by sucking in your stomach,” explains Charlie Weingroff, PT, creator of the Training=Rehab, Rehab=Training DVD series.
Weingroff traces the popular instruction to “draw your belly button back toward your spine” to a misinterpretation of some research done at the University of Queensland in the late ’80s. The study demonstrated that the transversus abdominis (TVA) — an important muscle for spinal stabilization — activates a bit belatedly in those with lower-back injuries. Complementary research suggested that the draw-in technique could reliably activate the TVA; thus, the recommendation to “suck it in” caught on.
The problem is, sucking it in sorta sucks, for several reasons: (1) The TVA activates automatically when it needs to, whether you draw in or not; (2) there’s no reason to think those without back injuries experience delayed TVA activation; and (3) activating the TVA in isolation changes the pull and alignment of the diaphragm, throwing off your ability to create intra-abdominal pressure (a key element of spinal stabilization).
In short, says Weingroff: “The brace is a better choice because it activates the entire core.”
Q2: Will wearing compression tights after exercise really help me recover faster?
A. Maybe. The idea behind postexercise compression garments (from tights to socks to sleeves) is that by constricting your veins’ one-way valves, they support the body’s flushing of metabolic wastes and byproducts (the kind that cause pain and swelling after a tough session). They’re also meant to increase venous blood flow, decrease pooling and prevent thrombosis.
But, “only a few studies have shown enhanced recovery when compression tights were worn following exercise,” says Kevin G. Thompson, PhD, head of sport studies at the University of Canberra in Australia. “Two studies have reported faster recovery following exercise where an inordinate amount of muscle damage occurred, but in one of those studies the garment was worn for five days!” Thompson’s group has conducted two studies during which compression tights were worn for 12 or 48 hours postexercise, and no subsequent performance improvements resulted when compared with the passive-rest group. When worn for 48 hours, however, muscle soreness and serum creatine kinase (a marker of muscle damage) were reduced.
“It’s been suggested that, to be effective, the garment has to be worn for at least 72 hours, which, in my view, is impractical and may also affect sleep, which would be far more debilitative to performance,” says Thompson. “Pressure gradient may also be of utmost importance. Commercially available tights, which we used in our studies, apply a compressive pressure six to 10 times less than what other researchers have indicated is necessary.”
Still, athletes and other researchers, such as Michael Decker, PhD, a biomechanist for Opedix in Vail, Colo., do believe compression has a positive effect on the muscles after performance. No studies have indicated an adverse impact during or after performance, so if you want to surrender to the squeeze, it certainly can’t hurt.
Q3: I take fish oil to support my fitness regimen, but I hear krill oil might be better. Is it?
A. Ideally, you’d take a combination of both, says Jack Kruse, a neurosurgeon and CEO of Optimized Life PLC in Nashville, Tenn. “Fish oil can be helpful in preventing and treating inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis. And krill oil has hyaluronic acid, which is great for joints.” Krill oil also has the power to lower c-reactive-protein levels (an indicator of bodywide inflammation) as much as 50 percent more because of the presence of a carotenoid called astaxanthin. (For more on astaxanthin, see my March 2012 column.) Krill oil is less likely to be contaminated with heavy metals than fish oil, says Kruse, and is better absorbed by the human gastrointestinal system. “A combination of fish and krill oils is very effective in decreasing joint pain,” he adds. “In those who are overweight, fish oil improves sensitivity to leptin [a hunger-suppressing hormone], and krill oil offers a powerful antioxidant and blocks destruction of cartilage.”
Krill oil also tends to be more stable, staying intact on a countertop for up to two years. Fish oil breaks down within three months of manufacturing if not chilled and kept out of direct sunlight.
Fitness Fix: Don’t Be Swayed.
You’re not an old horse, so why settle for having a swayback?
Lumbar lordosis is the natural inward curve of the lower spine, necessary for lending balance to the body and absorbing shock. But too much, a common condition called hyperextension or swayback, can be problematic, says Erika Mundinger, PT, a physical therapist at Rehab One/Orthopaedic and Fracture Clinic in Faribault, Minn. “It can contribute to lower-back pain and abdominal and core weakness, and can lead to spine disorders such as spondylosis [forward slipping of vertebrae], arthritis and degenerative disc disorder [degeneration of the fluid-filled discs that cushion the spine].”
Common causes are:
- Skeletal build: Some people are born with more curvature than others.
- Obesity: A large abdomen will cause the body’s center of mass to shift forward, pulling on the lower spine.
- Muscle imbalances: Weak abdominals can cause the spine to hyperextend to maintain upright posture; tight hip flexors can pull the front of the pelvis downward; and weak hamstrings won’t pull the back of the pelvis backward enough. Any of these will increase lordosis.
Fixing the Curve
If you feel pain in your lower back, have a physical therapist, chiropractor or other health expert assess your spine to determine any postural deficits.
Stand with your feet a few inches from the wall with your buttocks, back and shoulders resting against it. Place your hand into the curve of your lower back. If you can place more than a hand into the space between the small of your back and the wall, you may have excessive lordosis.
The first step is to be aware of your posture and engage your abs at all times. If obesity is a contributor, weight loss is important. Mundinger also recommends strengthening the core and the hamstrings, and stretching the hip flexors to improve posture. The following exercise can be very helpful.
- Lie on your back with both knees bent.
- Brace your abdominal muscles, then tilt your pelvis backward so your entire lumbar spine presses into the floor. Relax to the start position. That’s one rep. (Picture that you’re trying to squish grapes between your back and the floor.)
- Move very slowly to ensure you’re getting a strong abdominal contraction.
- This exercise is gentle enough to do every day, and you can choose the exact number of sets and reps. If in doubt, start with three sets of 10 to 20 reps three days a week, and advance as pain and strength allow.
- Make it harder by simultaneously raising one leg a few inches off the floor (but only do this if you can perform the exercise entirely pain free!).
- Results vary, but you should see decreased pain within a week. Within a few weeks, you should notice improved posture. (If you don’t, see a healthcare provider.)
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