What have your arms done for you lately?
Remember the last time you carried something (or someone) in your arms?
If your kids are of a certain age, no doubt you get your fill of carrying, but if your kids are too big for carrying in arms or kids aren't part of your life, chances are pretty high that the most common activity your arms perform day in and day out is holding your hands in place while you type, text or drive.
We work really, really hard to avoid carrying things in our arms.
We want our arms to swing free. We want our hands available to do other things. We don't want to be burdened by carrying something in our arms.
Baby carriers, backpacks, fanny packs (sorry, Aussie's), purses, grocery carts, etc. are great tools of convenience and, as a result, our arms (and our core) are missing out on a lot of the work they used to participate in day in and day out.
The downside of sedentary arms
On the rare occasion when we do ask our arms to do some heavy lifting, like shovel snow, haul around bags of mulch or carry a sleeping toddler, they aren't up for the task. Which means we compensate in a variety of ways that result in bad news for our back (hello back spasm!), pelvic floor (hello pelvic organ prolapse!) and/or abdomen (hello diastasis recti!).
Lately, I've been challenging myself to carry things in my arms more often instead of on my body. This means instead of wearing my backpack on my back when I walk to the local Starbucks or hike at a local park, I make it less convenient for myself and carry it in my arms.
When I go to the grocery store, I often shop without a cart and use my grocery bags instead (unless it's a mega shopping trip). That's a lot of work for both my upper body and my core (no sit-ups or crunches required).
My arms work to lift and carry and my abs work to stabilize my trunk in response to my arm movement and the load that I'm carrying.
See for yourself
Try this, stand up straight and lift one arm out in front of you and move it up over your head.
Notice what happens with your abdominal muscles - do you feel them engage as your arm moves away from your torso?
Next, relax your ribs down so the front of your rib cage is in line with the front of your pelvis (photo on right).
Now, without letting your rib cage change position, lift one arm out in front of you and move it up over your head. How do your abs respond when you don't allow your ribs to go along with your arm?
When your ribs are relaxed down (photo above right) vs. thrusting up (photo above left), your abdominal muscles can respond reflexively and generate the appropriate amount of force in response to what's being asked of them (stabilize an arm as it moves overhead, stabilize your torso as you carry something on one side of it, etc.).
Try this quick exercise:
Use your arms, strengthen your core
As you discovered in the arm raising experiment, moving your arm away from your torso, while keeping your rib cage stable, requires your abs to kick in to help anchor your torso.
If our lives required more of our arms, more climbing, reaching, carrying, moving things, lifting, etc., we would naturally be using our abs throughout our day, day in and day out. Most of us don't live those types of lives.
Instead, we text, drive and type and our abs are only asked to show up when we do an occasional 5-10 minutes of dedicated ab exercises.
Can you imagine the core strength we would have if we just asked more of our upper body during our daily life (no extra time required)?
Just carry something
For inspiration, I've shared 10 ways to carry a backpack below (only 2 of them involve wearing it on your body). All of these positions create different loads and ask different things of your body. It's a movement smorgasbord!
On your next walk, give yourself something to carry and rotate through these positions.
Pay attention to:
- which ones are more challenging
- which arm fatigues more quickly in which position
- how much more your abs have to work when you carry it down by your side with one arm vs. close to your torso
- how easy it is for your ribs to lift up to "help" and how you have to remind yourself to relax them down over and over (and over) again