Maintaining overall fitness is the goal for most people who exercise, but the “core” of your body, that area between your shoulders to the top of your legs, is one of the most crucial areas for staying active and strong. Core strengthening not only helps you to excel at athletic activities and keeps you looking lean, it also helps you to maintain balance, preserve flexibility and prevent back injuries. Here’s a look at why your core is so important and how you can keep the muscles and ligaments of your core in top form.
Understanding the Core of Your Body
The core of the body includes the muscles of the back shoulders, abdomen, pelvis and chest. These areas are the foundation of all movement and all motion in the extremities is dependent on the neural connections that run through the core to the spinal column. Core strengthening allows you to move confidently, adjust your balance easily and maintain strength throughout the body. Your core allows you to move freely, easily and without strain on individual muscle groups. It allows you complete coordination when you engage in athletic activities, protecting your body from overuse of any one area.
Core strengthening becomes even more important as you age, because activity levels often drop, leaving muscles weakened and vulnerable to injury. A strong core helps to improve balance to prevent falls and increase flexibility to stay active.
Exercises For Core Strengthening
These exercises work directly on the muscles of the core to provide the increased strength and stability that will help you to perform well in athletic activities and in everyday life:
1 – The Bridge – For this exercise, lie on your back on a gym or yoga mat. Bend you knees, bringing your feet in closer to your body. Press your feet into the floor, lifting your hips off the mat. Hold for 3 deep breaths. Then, bring your hips back down to the mat. Repeat 10 times.
2 – The Plank – Lie on your stomach on the gym mat. Raise the upper part of your body with your arms, holding your arms extended. Lift the hips off the mat, trying to keep the line of your body as straight as possible. Hold for 3 deep breaths, and then lower your upper body back down to the mat. Repeat 10 times.
3 – Abdominal Crunch – Lie on your back on the mat near a wall and place your feet on the wall with knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Cross hands over your chest, while lifting your head and shoulders off the floor. Hold for 3 deep breaths. Then, release. Repeat 10 times.
4 -Segmented Rotation – Lie on your back on the mat. Bend knees to a 90-degree angle, and then twist at the waist, turning the knees to the right and down to the mat surface. Hold for 5 seconds. Return to the upright position, and then turn the knees to the left and lower to the mat. Repeat each side 5 times.
5 – Quadruped – Start on hands and knees, with hands placed directly below the shoulders. Raise the right hand off the mat and reach. Hold for 3 deep breaths and release. Then, stretch the right leg straight backward & off the mat. Hold for 3 breaths and release. Repeat for the left arm, and then the left leg. Repeat on each extremity 5 times.
6 – Superman Stretch – Lie on your stomach. Stretch your arms straight above your head in line with your body. Lift the upper body off the mat and hold your legs straight outward, just above the surface of the mat in a “Superman” flight position. Hold for 5 seconds, and then release. Repeat 10 times.
If you have a back problem or a serious medical issue, check with your doctor before engaging in any strenuous exercise.
Locating and Strengthening the Transverse Abdominis (TA)
The TA is like your natural girdle. Most muscles have specific roles in terms of joint action. However, the TA’s primary role is spinal stabilization. Because of our society’s over-abundance of “ab” work that focuses on surface muscles only (go away crunches!), most people have a hard time using their TA. Combined with poor posture and tendency to “tuck” the pelvis under when doing ab work, one of the best things you can do in core strengthening training is understand and feel your TA working. Here are two exercises to try :
Deep Breathing TA Experience:
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor. Place one hand on your belly. Slide the other hand underneath your lumbar spine. (There should be a natural curve there—do not “flatten your spine” against the floor). For this experience you will be doing some deep breathing. As you breathe in, allow your belly to gently rise as the diaphragm pulls down to bring rich oxygen into your lungs. As you exhale feel the front side of your belly pull inward, creating a soft hollowing sensation, but without letting the pressure on your back hand change. You want to engage the TA without tucking the pelvis or flattening the spine.
This experience will provide your TA the opportunity to engage and stabilize your whole body. Position yourself on your hands and knees with your hands directly below your shoulder and your knees right underneath your hips. Start by extending one leg back, being careful not to outwardly rotate the leg. You should not feel your hips rotate or tip at all. Focus on the energy going out through the inside of your leg. If you feel stable here, extend the opposite arm out, keeping the spine in a neutral position (make sure the head isn’t drooping down and crunching up.) Hold this position while taking a few deep breaths. Think of your belly button reaching back and up towards your spine to help you stabilize. Repeat on other side up to five repetitions each.
Proprioception — from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own,” and perception — is one of the human senses. Rather than sensing external reality, proprioception is the sense of the orientation of one’s limbs in space. This is distinct from the sense of balance, which derives from the fluids in the inner ear. Proprioception is what police officers test when they pull someone over and suspect drunkenness. Without proprioception, we’d need to consciously watch our feet to make sure that we stay upright while walking.
Both stability balls and balance discs help us train our core by creating unstable environments. Our muscles must constantly shift and reorient their relationship to core, and our TA and other deep trunk muscles get a chance to really shine as they commit to keeping us oriented in space.
There are a lot of things you can do on a stability ball to help improve your core support. Sitting on a ball at the desk, doing your normal “ab” work, or just improvising through large-range movement can help improve your stability.
These balance discs are great to have at home. For beginners I’d recommend just standing on it. As your core becomes better engaged you can try one leg, eyes closed, bending the knees, and move eventually move into full motion. You’ll be amazed at how a few minutes each day can greatly improve your balance over a period of just two weeks.
Strengthening Core Connections
These experiences were all introduced as I was doing my certification work in Laban Movement Analysis. These feel more alive and embodied for me than typical “exercises” because they require a certain amount of personal responsibility and sensing into the whole body.
- Hang and Hollow: Knees are bent while you rest on your forehead or elbows. Keep the knees directly over the hips and allow the trunk of the body to simply “hang.” As you allow your body to drip down towards your head, take a few quick deep breaths while making a “ha ha ha” sound. As the diaphragm engages, this position allows you to feel the subtle hollowing sensation of the Iliopsoas (aka: psoas) muscle. (Make sure you are exhaling on the “ha.”) The sensation will be “deep and low” close to the pubic bone. Because the psoas connects from the top part of our leg back towards the thoracic part of our spine, this experience can help us feel that deeply embedded muscle that provides an essential connection of legs to torso and breath to pelvis.
- Big X Opening and Closing: Start by lying on your back with your legs open and arms extended outward. Be careful that you are not letting your shoulders sneak up around your neck. Take a deep breath in. As you exhale wait until you feel that same tugging sensation from the “hang and hollow” and then allow all six limbs (arms, legs, head, and tailbone) to close simultaneously into core until you lying on one side in the fetal position. Take another deep breath in, and one the exhale allow all six limbs to open back up to the X. The point of this experience is to feel the whole body connected to core—and to let core really be the initiator of the movement.
If you read nothing else, read this:
As you move through these experiences you may notice a big difference from your normal “ab work.” For one, these are not the “do it until it hurts” or “you should be sweating bullets” type exercises. But there is a reason for this:
Your core muscles are inherently strong.
Read that sentence again. Repeat it until you believe it. The muscles that are designed for core support are attached in the most optimal locations in your body. They are deep to the core and they are close to the joints. In other words: They are a sophisticated lever system that when utilized properly require very little effort to do a lot of work.
That’s just one more reason why I hate crunches. They focus on surface muscles and we feel like we need to have “abs of steel” when what we really need is to let our core muscles do the job they were designed to do. That’s easier said than done in this “six pack” happy world. We’ve spent so much time drilling it into our heads that we need to grunt and hurt to be strong that we’ve lost our connection to our core strength. It’s a shame.
The body is inherently strong. And when we focus on the deeper core muscles you will be amazed at how more coordinated you will feel. You will also improve your posture and get a more “toned” looking body because you are working with nature instead of against it.
And this is why I love movement training. It’s really another chance to learn about life. When we let go of surface worries and get to the deeper matters and live by core values we find that this life doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems.