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M&M to the CORE

M&M CORE PRINCIPLES by Medina Roberts & Maureen Pfahler

According to the Global Burden of Disease (2010), low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide. The American Chiropractic Association further points out that one half of all working Americans suffer from back pain and that this is the most common reason for missed work and second only to upper respiratory infections for the reasons behind visits to doctors offices.

The facts alone are enough of a reason to draw attention to preventing back pain as a major purpose behind personal trainers, Medina Roberts and Maureen Pfahler. But the two, who opened their own studio in January through their company m&mXtreme, also have their own personal and professional reasons for providing programs, exercises, and workouts that center around protecting the core of our bodies.

The core is the foundation of our body. And from this core we draw on the muscles to hold a healthy posture from which we sit, stand, and move. Which muscles are we drawing on? We first draw our breath in using the diaphragm as the first step in developing a healthy neutral spine for movement or in any sitting or standing posture. We rely on the corset of our body, the transverse abdominis that wraps completely around our center from one rib to the other to give us that “drawing in/tightening” posture we act on to find neutral spine. The rectus abdominus is layered superficially on top which is where we strive to train and develop that elusive six pack. Further the internal and external obliques are also responsible for the rotational movements from our core. And the “basket” at the bottom of our core that anchors, assists with balance and stability are the pelvic floor muscles. The core musculature from our abs provide support and are responsible for developing proper spine alignment where there is optimal tension and no excessive curvature in the cervical, thoracic, or lumbar region. And the major muscles in layered in our back, including the multifidus serve as a scaffold of support to help balance the spine.

So while all muscles are engaged and acting in a balanced approach, the neutral spine position is critical for proper alignment in our body positioning to create the best situation where there is the least amount of strain on the supporting ligaments and muscles in our body. Too often, postural deviations create situations that lead to injury because the spine has not been engaged properly through the movement and muscle compensations occur. Further, the most debilitating conditions that occur in our population that result in that 80% of cases most often come as a result of poor postural habits, sitting and standing, and from the lack of awareness in any sport or athletic movement that spinal alignment must be corrected to prevent injury.

So, when recognizing the importance of postural habits and core development, think of the core as a foundation like a big, beautiful house, but if the foundation is weak, it will collapse. The m&m philosophy is simple: train and strengthen the core first and then build up all the other muscles upon it. But this does not mean we are neglecting the other muscles that are active in our total body workout routines. And, we are also keeping in mind at all times how our posture in each position and movement must be in a corrected, neutral, healthy alignment in order to achieve muscle balance. The effects of gravity and all the external forces acting on our spine should be evenly distributed across the spine and all its functional units including the fascia, ligaments, discs, and muscles to conserve a healthy, balanced spine and posture. We must train for muscle balance and healthy posture. This is our goal!

The m&m model holds firmly that all of our muscles are core muscles because one weak area will affect all the rest in a domino effect that causes muscle compensations, imbalances, and injury. For example, tight calf muscles affect our knees. The knees not moving freely will impact the gait and walk of the individual which then impacts the hips and spine. We have come back to the center where we started. Each person’s weak and tight muscle situations create unique scenarios for training and explain why certain exercises should be avoided and others encouraged.

For instance, those with back pain should not place any load directly on the back like having a weighted barbell used in squats. There are other ways that the glute muscles can be strengthened without having load on a person’s back during a squat exercise. See the pictures attached with this article on the variety of exercises such as hip bridges, single leg hip bridges, single leg squats, and low squats sitting and up using the BOSU. A person training could still hold dumbbells to the side but the barbell is not recommended. Further, leg lifts and crunches should be avoided for individuals with back pain because many times the back becomes arched in these positions and the goal of the exercise should not be to add more force and pull from the back. Each movement should draw the core muscles first but because muscles in the abdominal area are not yet strong enough, the back muscles will sometimes try to compensate. Bad form!

And as we list those exercises that are best and worst for your back, let’s throw in a discussion on the chest press. While a very popular exercises and very common to body builders, it is not a good selection as an exercise for someone overcoming back injuries. The reasons are three fold: First, the back does sometimes again become arched in the positioning as the person is using two hands to push the load away on the bar. Second, one arm might dominate or become stronger and the load will not be evenly distributed which will cause improper body mechanics with the spine being twisted or manipulated in a way that is not supporting good neutral spine alignment. Thirdly, it is very common for the shoulder to be the dominant pusher, but the anterior deltoids should be retracted in this exercise and so that the wrong muscles for the intended exercise are not being recruited.

Finding the right combination of exercises that builds the entire body as one strong core system is pivotal for the m&m trainers. The m&m trainers Roberts & Pfahler first met when working as group exercise instructors and personal trainers together at Sport & Health. Pfahler was hired and then trained by Roberts for her first bodybuilding shows and the pair has encountered so many injuries in the sport as a result of how a competitor approaches his/her exercise program. Pfahler herself suffered from postural distortions(extreme arch in her lumbar curve) that wreaked havoc on her entire body as she tried to train and lift heavy with squats and power cleans for her college sport but had not developed abdominal strength nor had developed proper strength and flexibility of her hamstrings and lower back and as a result a more excessive inward lumbar curve contributed to significant muscle imbalances and pain. She can empathize with clients and focuses on tucking her hips in and drawing her core tight during plank holds and stabilizing her body from the center and keeping her abs tight during pull-downs as just a couple of examples of how to protect the alignment and positioning of the body during any movement.

Pfahler is one of many athletes who compete that find themselves in a place of injury. The seemingly strongest athletes like those with the Adonis physique of the bodybuilders can be the most susceptible to injury and Roberts, as NGA chairman, IFPA & NGA figure pro competitor, has had direct experience with athletes in training that have built the muscles up for shows, but had not developed the proper core foundation first and developed severe pain as a result.

So for any prospective or current athletes, take attention: One particular bodybuilder athlete and friend of Roberts was not keen while training for a show on some of her recommendations. She advised balance exercises like standing on one leg or performing exercises on top of the bosu to develop strength from his abs first. Four years later, he was in surgery due to the back pain he was experiencing and only then did he approach Roberts. At the time he was not able to stand or walk and had lost a lot of muscle. She began training him first simply with exercises like glute lift bridges on the bosu and balancing on one leg at a time before progressing to standing only on toes to balance. One side of his body was weaker. Isolating both sides of his body by standing one at a time on each leg achieved the goal of gaining strength in the core and equally distributing weight on each side of the body.

Isn’t that what we are continually trying to achieve in our programming? Injury prevention and feeling better is priority. Muscle growth & fullness, strength, tone, and weight loss all follow when programs are built in a way that is centered on protecting the spine in each movement and through the sequence of exercises.

Each muscle group could be trained in this way to achieve the right symmetry and proportion and muscle balance. So the goal of symmetry for stage and function for injury prevention can be achieved. All the muscles are moving together in harmony when a person performs any movement. All of the muscles in our body work together through each motion so whether it is a total body exercise like a squat or a functional task like lifting an object from the floor. So when an imbalance occurs, one part of the body that is stronger will try to overcompensate for the weaker part and the result is one area gets a lot more load and force placed upon it and the surrounding joints which results in injuries and even greater postural distortions. Trainers must realize like the motto of the m&m Trainers Roberts and Pfahler, that building symmetry and starting exercises in programs that strengthen the core and every muscle is connected to our core: this is the best scenario to keep clients injury free and achieve any goal.

For some main goal is to just become pain free. Again, Robert’s experience with a client who was under a lot of back pain. She was getting epidural and back pain medication for 8 years before she started to train with Medina. After her first assessment, Medina discovered that her client had tightness in her hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves as well as weak glutes. Because of this her programming consisted of lots of stretching and exercises for strengthening the core that did not place load on her back or require her to arch or twist in any position. Also, she focused on developing the glute muscles in her legs to protect her back. After only one year’s consistently with her, she was pain free.

So, driving the pain away and preventing it are also major tenants of the m&m programming. Sedentary lifestyles and too much sitting on our bottoms in the car, at our desks, or on the couch create a vicious cycle where the hamstrings and hip flexors become tight, the calves shorten, the glutes are weak and the posture of a person is compromised. So back pain, even if not present now, will become inevitable if the muscle compensations are not addressed by strengthening the glutes, stretching the hamstrings, and calves, and always focusing on proper body alignment and a neutral spine in all positions. Thi is essential to protecting the spine and preventing injury.

Pfahler’s own postural distortion and pain is countered by exercises that consist of hip bridges, hamstring stretches, and core plank holds to stabilize, strengthen, and stretch what was weak and tight in her own musculature. She avoids putting load on her back, doing sit-ups, and leg lifts and adapts her own program. And for clients that are already in lots of pain, do not fret because the right movements and stretching can alleviate and lessen the hurt. Roberts and Pfahler continue to seek out the best exercises to fit each client’s unique physique and movements to protect their spine, strengthen the core and then build on this strong foundation.

We only have one spine and we must take care and protect it. To understand how we can fight back, we must understand how our bodies are made and move and put the right exercises together. It starts from the core. The rest follows. Below are a sample of some of the exercises implemented in the m&m training programs, mentioned in this article, and discussed at the Fredericksburg Flex Symposium where these were presented to an audience of athletic and personal trainers in the local area. To learn more and follow trainers, Medina Roberts and Maureen Pfahler, visit their website or follow on Facebook at

For those with back pain:

INSTEAD OF: sit-ups, DO: ball knee tucks

INSTEAD OF: leg lift, DO: Single leg bridge on BOSU

INSTEAD OF: russian twists for oblique, DO: Supermans alternating arm and leg, drawing in opposite elbow to knee

INSTEAD OF: ballistic bouncing movements, DO: non-impact swimming, walking, cycling activity

INSTEAD OF: Barbell squats, DO: sit and up squats on BOSU

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