To optimize your gains from strength training it’s absolutely crucial to ace the basics, ensuring your form, posture and setup
All of these movements may seem simple but if you have been sitting at a desk for long hours or in one position on your bike, you might not find it so easy to access the correct muscles. If you can ace these next 6 exercises and feel it in all the right places, you are ready for your first strength training program. The great thing about these movements is that they can eventually become part of your warmup. If you struggle with any of these movements, please seek professional help from a Biokineticist to teach you to perfect these movements.
Neutral spine explained
The neutral spine position is the position your spine should be in for all of the exercises unless otherwise stipulated. This is the safe zone for your spine in order to not put unnecessary pressure on the joints between the vertebras. This differs from individual to individual, some people have a more pronounced lumbar curve and others have a more pronounced thoracic curve. When you find your neutral spine, make sure your back feels comfortable, you may feel slightly stretched out, but you should not feel like you are compressing your spine in any way. In the first exercise, I will show you how to find this neutral spine position.
1. The ‘Cat-Cow’ to find your Neutral Spine Position
Standing on your hands and knees, press firmly into the ground with your hands. Reach your breastbone forward and up and keep your chin tucked, as if you are holding a tennis ball between your chin and chest. You should feel a stretch in your upper back. Hold that upper body position and drop your navel towards the floor, sticking your tailbone up in the air to arch into your lower back. As per image below:
Now drop your chin to your chest, push through your hands to open up your shoulder blades, away from each other. Round your upper back. Pull your navel toward your spine and tuck your tailbone in like a sad dog. Go as high as you can with your upper back. As per image below:
Repeat these two movements 6 times to feel the movement through the spine and create some mobilization in the joints. Find your neutral spine between the middle of the two above extremes. This position should feel natural, comfortable and like a slight lengthening through the spine. Tuck the chin in, almost making a double chin. You should have your hands shoulder width apart and push through the floor. Shoulder blades are flat on your back (no pinching them together). Armpits are slightly pulled down towards your hips. Knees are hip-width apart. As per image below:
Let’s see how you did. Place a broomstick on your back. You should feel the base of your head, mid back, and tailbone touching the stick. If not, try to lengthen your spine, like there is a string pulling you from the top of your head and make sure your armpits are slightly activated and pulled toward your hips. Reach your chest towards your nose without flaring your ribs toward the floor. As per image below:
2. Toe Touches – Spine Stabilization
Start with your back in a neutral position on the floor. The chest is open and shoulder blades are relaxed, away from the ears, on the floor. Find the prominent bone sticking out on your hip bones, and place your fingers just on the inside of the bone on your stomach. Pull your lower pelvic floor muscles up by pinching a wee (if you are a woman) or imagining yourself zipping up your trousers (if you are a man). Feel the muscles under your fingers bulge up. Now push your rib cage down into the floor by your bra strap (woman) or where your heart rate monitor would sit (man). Finally, draw your navel in towards your spine, this should feel like a weight belt or corset around your waist. Notice that these are only activations of the inner muscles around your trunk and not a full contraction. You are merely switching on the muscles, 30% of your full contraction. Your abdominal muscles (six pack) should be completely relaxed. That big muscle is a mover for crunching and flexing, not for stabilizing. Hold the 3 activations together and take 3 breaths while keeping them activated.
Let’s move! Lift up your legs to 90 degrees and slowly lower your one leg down, as you inhale and up, as you exhale. You should feel those pelvic floor muscles bulging up under your fingers throughout the movement. Your toes should touch the floor before you come back up. This movement is slow and controlled. If it is too difficult, go down to the point where you can feel that you are about to lose the activation (you might feel like your lower back wants to take over), then go back up. Stay mindful that the spine is stabilized throughout the movement. As per images below.
3. Side Clam – Hip Movements
The purpose of these 3 exercise is to explore the different movements of the hip and to feel the top hip muscle, which is part of the Glute, working.
To start you need to lie on your side with your head, shoulders, hips, and feet in one line. The knees are bent forward and form a 120-degree angle with the trunk. Ensure that your hips are stacked directly on top of each other by lifting your midsection slightly off the floor to make a hole for a mouse to run through. Stabilize the spine in your neutral position and rotate through the top hip by opening the knee. Focus on using that hip/glute muscle to lift the knee, not the hamstring. Make sure the feet are relaxed on top of each other. Repeat 10 times to feel that muscle activating. As per images below:
For abduction, you simply lift your top foot, slightly higher than the knee. Now lift the knee up and down. At this stage, you should feel that glute muscle working quite hard. Repeat 10 repetitions. As per images below:
For extension, you need to keep your hip in an abducted position and now just kick back like a donkey. Pretend like you are pushing the wall back with your foot and your toes are pulled up to your knee. Keep the knee angle the same, but extend through the hip, while stabilizing the spine. No lower back movement is allowed here. This should make you feel the burn in the big glute muscle. Repeat 10 repetitions. Now do the other side. As per below images:
Now that you have mastered the neutral spine, spine stabilization, and hip movement we will make it a bit more functional. Return to your 4 point stance on your hands and knees and in your neutral spine position. You can use the broomstick here to help you feel the position. Activate those inner trunk muscles to stabilize your spine; navel in towards your spine, ribs not flaring and pelvic floor pulled up. Think about holding an icecream stick between your ribs and your hips on either side and don’t drop them! Let’s Move.
Push your hand into the floor and reach the opposite arm forward. Thumb pointing to the ceiling, elbow extended by pushing it to your ear, but the shoulder stays relaxed away from your ear. The armpit slightly pulled toward the hip to keep the shoulder in place.
Give a slight resistance against the floor with your knees as if you are abducting them in order to feel that hip/glute muscle stabilizing your hips. Kick your heel back like you are pushing against a wall. Keep your toes up to your knees and feel your glute muscles activating. If you feel your lower back, make sure that you are not kicking upwards instead of straight back, and keep the spine stabilized in the neutral spine position. Now swop over. Repeat this movement 6 times on each side. Keep the hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width. No shifting your body-weight side-to-side, stay centered and follow your body’s lines. As per below image:
5. Glute Slides
The purpose of this exercise is to teach you to hinge through your hips. It is a clear differentiation between using your hips and knees to create a hip dominant movement in order to feel your hamstrings and glutes. The back should be stabilized in the neutral spine position and the quads should not work dominantly.
With your hand holding the bottom of the stick the leg now slides back. You can slide on a paper plate, towel or sock. Stabilize the spine, and make sure your foot is balanced on its tripod. The tripod is the balls of your feet and your heels. Stick your bum back slightly as if you are closing a car door to start hinging through your hips. Now slide your foot back as you hinge forward with your upper body. You should keep a straight line from your shoulders to your back foot. The glutes of the front foot should do the work. Keep the front shin perpendicular to the floor and do not shift the knee forward past the midfoot. Push through the front foot to come back up by pushing your hips forward and your knee back. Repeat 12 times. As per below images.
6. Push-up +
The purpose of this exercise is to move your shoulder blades across your back. You want to be able to differentiate between sliding your shoulder blades across your back, instead of flaring your ribs and moving through your upper back. Secondly, you will find the neutral position for your shoulder blades on your back.
Start in an elevated position to take some weight off your shoulders. You can use your kitchen counter, couch or edge of your bed. Take time to find your neutral spine position. Hands are shoulder-width apart or slightly wider to imitate your handlebar width, and, the spine is stabilized. Relax your shoulders away from your ears. To find the neutral position for your shoulders, shrug them up as high as you can, push them down and then find the middle. As per below images:
Let’s move! Push yourself back by sliding your shoulder blades away from each other. Think about someone punching you in the chest. Ensure that you have not pulled your shoulders up or crunched into your stomach. You can pull your armpits down towards your hips slightly to ensure that the shoulders stay neutral.
For your next movement, you will pinch your shoulder blades together. Keep in mind that your shoulders need to stay in neural, away from the ears and the chin is tucked in as if you are holding a tennis ball between the chin and the chest.
Now find the neutral position for your shoulder blades on your back by pushing your shoulder blades away from each other and flat onto your back. They should not wing at this point at all. Refer to picture 1 of this exercise.
Lower down into your push-up, keeping those shoulder blades flat on your back. The chest goes forward and over the hands, keep the elbows in, close to the body and the shoulders open as you lower down. When you push back up, lead through your ribs to ensure that your ribs don’t flare at this point. Stay in a neutral position and push back.
As you do these exercises, stay mindful of where you can feel it working, this will help you program the new movements into your mind. Keep trying to make small adjustments until you can feel it where you should. All these movements are meant to be done slow. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Practice these movements 2-3 times a week for 2-3 weeks to ensure the process is properly programmed into your mind. Once you ace these exercises, you will find yourself being a lot more in tune with your body and ready to hit the weights pain-free and with a lower risk to injury.
Nelia Harding is a Biokineticist with a special interest in Strength Training. She has a B.Sc. Degree in Human Movement Sciences and Nutrition, a B.Sc. Hons in Biokinetics,
Nelia has an online business called H360 Strength, where she does a consultation and thereafter prescribes a personalized program to meet your specific needs. Follow her @h360_strength