By: Peter McDaniel ATC, CSCS
Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Maine Medical Partners, Family Medicine
Strengthening your core: it’s a favorite topic of fitness experts, women’s magazines and your cross-fit fanatic of a friend. But what is your “core”? Why does it matter if it’s strong? And are there ways for everyday folks to make it stronger? The answer to the last question is a definite yes. In this article, I will explain why your core matters and give you some suggestions for how to make it stronger.
What is my “core”?
There is no universal or official definition of the core of the human body. Think of the core as center of your body – the muscles that make it possible for you to sit, stand, go from lying down to sitting to standing, and keep your balance. For our purposes, the core consists of every muscle that goes from your elbows to your knees. Most of these muscles have a direct connection to your head, shoulder blades, spine and pelvis.
There is an inner unit and an outer unit to your core that work in harmony, allowing us to squat, bend, reach, lift and much more, without injuring our bodies – especially our backs.
One important type of muscle from the inner unit is the transverse abdominals, a natural “weight belt” that supports your back as you move. The other is the diaphragm, which is located below your lungs and above your stomach. Take a deep breath in through your nose and fill your belly with air. Your diaphragm is moving down to allow your lungs to expand to their fullest.
The muscles in the outer unit are our prime movers of our core and extremities. With names like obliques, rectus abdominis, and latissimus, these muscles are visible in very fit people and include the famous “six-pack.” But they are not primarily for show; these back, leg and torso muscles keep you from straining your back, falling when you trip on something and more.
A simple test to demonstrate how to activate the inner and outer units muscle would be to stand on one leg with your opposite arm in the air like you’re going to give a high five. Now let your belly and body relax. Have a friend push on your hand and try to resist. Now do the same thing again except this time tighten your abdominals like someone is going to hit you in the belly and resist your friends pressure again. Make sure you are actually bracing your core and not just sucking in your belly. Notice a difference? When your core is active, you have stability in your joints and your muscles are ready to function and move.
A strong core prevents injuries – especially back injuries
Low back pain is the number one musculoskeletal complaint in America and is often the result of poor core stabilization and strength. As mentioned above, we have many muscles that connect to our core, and they are essential for doing the most basic tasks of everyday life. These are the muscles that keep us upright and allow us to bend down, lift things, stand up and reach for things. Core muscles make you stable, even when you are sitting all day at work. Because they are constantly at work, the core muscles can fatigue quickly, so the stronger your core muscles are, the longer they will be able to support you during the day. When the core gets tired, other muscles try to make up for it, and it doesn’t always go so well. Back pain is a common result.
Five simple core exercises
Now that you know how important your core is, you probably want to keep it as strong as you can. Here are five simple core exercises to try. As always, be aware of your fitness level, listen to your body and talk to your doctor before you start a new exercise routine. There are many ways to change and modify the following exercises to make them successful for you!
Squat sit to stand squat:
This is an essential movement that we need to perform for daily living. At one time the squat was one of our primal movements needed for survival. The squat has taken a bad rap but has recovered strongly; it will use every muscle from head to foot if done correctly. For this exercise, it may be helpful to practice squatting to a chair, bench or box with minimal touch so that you can get your hips involved versus getting too much movement through your ankles. Start with your feet approximately hip-width apart. Keep your feet straight or slightly turned out. Lower yourself to your to the chair or bench by pushing your hips back. For you upper body, think that you have a superhero logo or a light shining from your chest. You want everyone to see your logo and you want your light to shine straight ahead during the whole movement. For your head, maintain a double chin position. Once you lightly touch the chair or bench push through your whole foot like you want to leave a big imprint in the ground. The squat is an exercise that we do often in daily life and it is essential that we can do this with good form to provide a foundation for other movements to build from.
Lie on your stomach, propped up on your elbows and resting on your forearms, which should be straight out in front of you. Tighten (“brace”) your stomach muscles and lift up through your hips so you’re balanced on your toes and forearms. Your hips should be slightly higher than your shoulders. Your head should be looking straight down. Don’t let your back sag down; you should feel this in your stomach muscles as you keep your back straight. You may need to drop your chest slightly while keeping your body tight to have your shoulder blades move closer together.
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Keep your back in a neutral position (not arched and not pressed into the floor). Tighten (“brace”) your abdominals, push through the heels of your feet and raise your hips off the floor until your hips are in line with your knees and shoulders. Vary the hold for this exercise from 3 to 30 seconds. You should feel your glutes (butt muscles) tighten during this exercise. Vary your repetitions (up and back down to the floor) from 1 to 15, depending on how long you hold the bridge.
Double Chin or Wall Lean:
This is a great exercise for retraining your neck muscles, as our heads spend way to much time flexing forward while looking at screens, commuting, and sleeping. For this exercise you will want to stand tall against a wall, with your head, shoulders, buttocks and heels against the wall. Move your feet approximately a foot away from the wall. Brace your abdominals. Bring your head in by making a double chin with your head and neck. Try to swallow. If it feels like you have a sore throat or something stuck in your throat you are doing this correctly. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat 3 to 4 times during day. If you want, you can even try doing some bicep curls while maintaining this position.
Cobra or Superman:
These are also known as “I”, “T” or “W” exercises. They are a great way to give you better posture and also make a good endurance exercise. Lie face down with your palms of your hand touching the ground by your side. Slowly raise your chest off the ground while simultaneously pulling your shoulder blades together and lifting your hands off the ground while turning your thumbs toward the sky in a thumb up position. Keep your head in a double chin position while keeping it from flexing or extending. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and repeat for 5 to 10 repetitions.
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