In this article we shall try to map the human body at the very low level of magnification. We shall see out of what functional regions it consists and explain how that translates to several very general rules that apply to training and exercising. Fortunately, this is not complicated stuff but the importance of this knowledge cannot be overstressed; consider it the first step in your true understanding of how your body works, what it likes and what it doesn’t like to do, and what are the most natural and effective ways to care for it.
To begin with, it is obvious that we have the torso to which a pair of arms and a pair of legs is attached to. Ah yes, there’s also that round thing called head, but other than the fact that it weighs around ten pounds which might turn out to be quite substantial load to your neck in some positions, we don’t need to worry much about it in the gym.
Now let’s first take a closer look at the torso. What does it consist of? Most generally speaking, there are two regions, the upper and the lower part of the torso.
The upper part of the torso is rigid because the lungs and the heart that it contains are securely encased inside a bony structure called the rib cage. Note that while the spine extends from the top to the bottom of the torso, only its bottom half, the so called “lumbar spine” is able to twist and bend. The upper “thoracic” vertebrae are fixed by the ribs and do not contribute to the flexibility of the back at all.
Lumbar region is a totally different story. The only semi-rigid part of the spine is lumbar spine with merely five vertebrae. Now if you think a little about it, having a flexible spine right in the middle of the body where stress forces are highest might appear not to be a rather fortunate idea on the part of our Creator, right? Well, not quite so. We need that flexibility in order to function properly in everyday life. The way the almighty solved the issue is that he provided us with a set of no less than four layers of flat but very strong muscles that wrap around and envelop the spine and the internal organs. Those of course are the glorious abs i.e. the “core” muscles.
Here is a very important point to make. The way the abdominal muscles are supposed to be used is no to actively bend or twist the lumbar spine but rather to hold it still. In other words, they are a muscular substitute for bony rib cage.
Because abs are made out of muscle tissue, they can be relaxed and contracted at will. They can be flexible in one moment and turned very sturdy in the next. This gives us freedom to put the torso in the most appropriate form and position for any particular movement we want to execute with our arms and legs, and to fix it there by contracting the abs. Only after the lumbar region is made rigid are we allowed to start moving the weight around with arms or propelling ourselves through space with legs. Otherwise lumbar spine would suffer.
In addition to abs, we also have deep back muscles, the so called “Erector spinae” structure. Literally, those are the muscles that enable us to hold the spine upright. The best way to think about them is to imagine a lot of guy wires tensing the spine from its top to its bottom. When core and deep back muscles are flexed, the upper and the lower part of the torso unite.
It should be obvious to you now why strong abs and deep muscles of the back are of the utmost importance for practicing any sport. And not only sport – the number one reason for lower back pain isn’t something inside the spine itself, but it’s the weakness of the abs and those long muscles surrounding the spine: flimsy abs and bendy Erector spinae provide insufficient support for the body, transferring the majority of the mechanical stress to the lumbar spine; sooner or later ligaments and inter-vertebral disks in there get hurt, and that is what causes infamous aches and pains.
We suggest that you think about your “core” as of a big soda can put between the pelvis at the bottom and the rigid rib cage at the top. If your core muscles are strong and agile, you will be able to pressurize it adequately so that it can’t be neither bent nor twisted no matter how high the load you put it under becomes. But if the abdominal wall is flabby, it will be crushed. And then you and your spine are in trouble.