Variations of the side plank pose. Photographs by Ryan Smith.
caption Variations of the side plank pose. Photographs by Ryan Smith.

Don't ignore your stabilizers

By Veronica Vidal Praeger

AMC Outdoors, May/June 2013

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Hauling yourself and your gear up a rugged trail in the Northeast can result in tired, sore legs. But it’s not just your lower half that receives the brunt of the effort; other parts of your body, including stabilizer muscles, are affected just the same. Simply put, stabilizer muscles–also known as core muscles–are located in the torso and are responsible for holding our bodies upright and supporting our spines. While strengthening these muscles can be beneficial for anyone, this is especially true for outdoorspeople: “Having the ability to hold your upright posture for long, grueling walks or hikes is very important in avoiding injury,” says Cody Dimak, doctor of chiropractic, certified personal trainer, and co-owner of Maximum Performance Chiropractic in Costa Mesa, Calif. “The ultimate risk of having weak stabilizing muscles is spinal injury.”

Fortunately, there are many ways to help strengthen your stabilizer muscles, and none of them involves doing endless sets of crunches.

It might surprise you to learn that the diaphragm–an important muscle for respiration–is a stabilizer muscle. To strengthen, Dimak recommends practicing some diaphragmatic breathing—in other words, belly breathing. “If individuals are not using their diaphragm to breathe, they are truly not maximizing their lung capacity, which will decrease performance,” he says. A well-balanced breathing technique “would have the belly button go out and down with an expansion of the lower torso,” Dimak says.

Allison Burke, a certified yoga instructor based in Boston, has similar thoughts: “Through deep belly breathing, you are activating your diaphragm, which assists in calming your central nervous system. Bringing in fresh oxygen is also great for your internal organs.”

A well-rounded workout includes integrating a variety of exercises but does not necessarily mean you have to leave the comforts of your own home. Here are two of Dimak’s favorites to get you going:

BIRD-DOG: “This may look like a wimpy exercise at first,” Dimak says, but when done correctly it effectively isolates the muscles of the lower back without putting unnecessary pressure on the spine.

HOW IT’S DONE: Position yourself on all fours, keeping your spine parallel to the floor. Extend your right arm straight out in front of you, and at the same time, extend your left leg straight out behind you. Hold the pose for six deep breaths. Repeat this movement with the opposite limbs, while still keeping your spine neutral. Complete three reps.

SIDE PLANK: One particular stabilizer muscle located in the lower back, the Quadratus lumborum, “is very important for carrying heavy loads,” Dimak says. Since hikers often heft large packs, it’s essential to keep this muscle in top shape.

HOW IT’S DONE: Begin in the “plank” position, just as if you are going to do a push-up. Then, pivot your entire body onto your right side, balancing on your straightened right arm (or, to put less stress on your wrists, support yourself on your right elbow and forearm). Stack your left foot on top of the right. Your left arm can rest on your hip or rise toward the sky. Hold the pose for six deep breaths. “The key here is to create endurance, so holding the pose for some time is important,” Dimak says. “And don’t drop your pelvis to the floor and raise up; this is a static exercise.” Make sure to switch sides to strengthen the back evenly. Complete three reps on each side.

Shoes won’t replace strength training, but it still matters what you put on your feet. “Having optimal footwear will set the stage for an individual to have good posture,” Dimak says. “If your posture is sloppy, your core will not function properly.” He recommends taking your foot’s natural idiosyncrasies, and your intended activity, into consideration when choosing a style; ideally you’ll want a shoe that doesn’t inhibit your foot’s natural movement.

These small changes have the potential for big results. The stronger your stabilizer muscles, the more likely you’ll be able to hike farther, faster.