There are a few traditional exercises which you can still do to strengthen your back, namely, sit ups, cross sit ups, leg raises and back extensions. However, many who eventually develop the "6 pack", or the front abdominal muscles, may not be able to demonstrate co-ordinated spinal control. As always, the rule of thumb is to do these exercises in moderation. Having a strong back will improve your spinal stability. This stabilisation is achieved by working on your deeper trunk muscles. Hence, we need to turn our attention to exercises that require the control of deep abdominal muscles and good mind-body co-ordination.
So, how do we train up our trunks for starters?
This is quite simply done. You don't even need the gym. And you can improve your posture and back alignment this very moment, wherever you are!
Just imagine a string pulling you up from the central tip of your head, like those puppets. This can be a powerful visualization if you have the discipline to enforce it throughout the day.
Then, sitting where you are, do a head roll a couple of times, and rotate your shoulders a couple of times. You will find the tension considerably reduced. Finish off by stretching your arms up over your head, gripping your hands together at the apex.
Right. Next question. For those of us who want to take back strengthening a step further, where do we go from here?
You will likely find that Taijiquan (Tai Chi or Taiji) can address this rather satisfactorily, if not, effectively, for most of us.
Most Taijiquan styles require you to develop an upright posture when practicing the forms. You can do this easily if you focus your eyes on a level. Try not to look down at your feet or the ground, you won't find any gold there. For every movement you learn, you will have to find your best postulation, without hunching, slouching and the like. In effect, you get training in centering, or finding your centre of stability.
By constantly monitoring the uprightness of your posture for each move, you are essentially building up your trunk muscles. When you train up strong and stable trunk muscles, they help provide a stable frame allowing our arms and legs to move more efficiently, thereby reducing the risk of injuries. This is very much the case in Chenjiagou Taijiquan which emphasizes the trunk/waist area as a central pivot and force centre. The stronger your trunk muscles, the more efficiently you are able to transfer force between your upper and lower limbs. As your efficiency increases, you can generate more power into each stroke, each movement that is executed.
In Chenjiagou Taijiquan, you will learn to maintain a stable trunk as you execute each movement, by keeping the posture as upright as possible relative to the ground. By focusing and adhering to this requirement, you will find that you need to draw upon collective muscles all throughout the lower abdominal area, whilst ensuring that you do not automatically tense your shoulders in order to keep the stance. You won't be able to do all this in a magical instance, of course. It is through regular training, by trial and error as you practice to find your most comfortable posture, you will discover your optimal body position for each movement. You will know when you have found the best angles because you will be able to hold a postulation effortlessly! That is also when all your body lines are connected in a continuous, unbroken flow.
A daily dose - alright, for those who can't make it everyday - a regular dose of Chenjiagou Taijiquan practice will help you to develop your own proper breathing technique that is co-ordinated with your movements. When you have eventually found your own breathing rhythm, you will not get breathless during your practice. Taijiquan can be a wonderful art which trains segmental control. The routines have been created so that you practice along progressive stages. Each stage focuses on a different area of the human body, such that you will benefit from total body conditioning. The routines require spinal flexibility at the trunk, segmental control of the spine (precision), a continuous flow of movement and centering (through balancing on foot centres).
With persistent, proper training and feedback from a qualified instructor, you should be able to transfer this control into your daily functional tasks such as standing, walking and other sports activity. You will find your body automatically seeks to adjust itself into an optimal position for easy balance. I think we all agree that this is an extremely valuable reflex to nurture, maybe you would like to watch a short demo of Chenjiagou Taijiquan?
20th Generation Chenjiagou Taijiquan Disciple.
By Jasmine Bu B.A. Licensed Tai Chi Instructor, 20th Generation Disciple of Che
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