Why a Strong Core is More Than Just For Looks
Have you ever wondered how to get those ridiculous washboard abdominal muscles, the rippling cores featured in fitness magazines and strutting the beaches of reality tv shows? Well, what if we told you that your core could be strong without looking like that. It’s about a lot more than just looks! There’s a whole group of muscles that you never see, and strengthening them is essential for everyday health and to have you working out and at your peak.
Muscles that make up your core
The topmost muscle that runs vertically in the front of your abdomen. It’s what used to flex your torso forward, like a crunch, and it’s that infamous 6-pack muscle.
The deepest abdominal muscle. It’s on either side of your lumbar spine, starting at your lowest rib and ending at the top of your pelvis. It’s common to have pain here because you use this muscle for sitting, standing, and walking.
The obliques are composed of two muscle layers, the internal and the external, located on either side of your torso. They control lateral flexion, used for side bends, rotation and other spinal movements.
This is a deep muscle that lies underneath your internal obliques and wraps around your spine and abdominal organs, stabilizing your spine and pelvis and protecting your inner organs.
Your core is more than just abs
Other muscle groups contribute to core strength:
In your hip area, there are three glute muscles (maximus, medius and minimus). Their function is to move your legs away from your body (hip abduction) and move your legs inward (hip adduction), supporting balance, stability and alignment. The gluteus maximus is responsible for much of the strength and power in your lower body.
Back muscles also contribute to core strength. The latissimus dorsi, the “pull-up muscles,” run the length of your back from just below your shoulder blades to your hip bones. The erector spinae includes three muscles that lie next to your spine and help you move side-to-side. These muscles also help you rotate your torso.
Pelvic floor muscles
These are a collection of small muscles supporting your bladder, bowel and reproductive organs, and are part of your core, too. If you’ve given birth, you are probably well versed in the importance of pelvic floor muscles and have most likely been in pelvic floor physiotherapy.
Conditioning your glutes, lats, and pelvic floor contributes to overall core strength, physical fitness and wellbeing.
How to tell if your core is weak
Here’s how you’re moving during these exercises if you’re compensating for a weak core:
Push-ups – Your hips sag, the lower back is arched, and your stomach touches the ground first.
Overhead press: Your lower back arches and your ribs pop forward to get the weight up.
Deadlifts: Your back is forced to either hunch forward or arch.
Squats: Your weight moves forward, causing your body to fold forward.
Walking: Your lower back is sore, and you’re unable to stand up straight.
Why a strong core goes way beyond 6-pack abs
Your body is a fantastic machine; the nervous system anticipates activity and braces for support by activating core muscles before movement. A strong core is your entire body support system; it’s the source of your power and strength. A secure midsection maintains an upright and erect posture and helps you with everyday tasks, called functional fitness. You can absorb movement well, your spine stays put, and you can move without compromising your back.
A weak core is the top cause of lower back injuries. With a weak core, movements are wobbly and unbalanced; without that core stability acting as a brace for your spine, you compensate with other muscles creating injuries in the hips, shoulders, knees and ankles.
Other benefits of a strong core include:
Better posture: Preventing neck and back pain when you’re hunched over the computer all day long.
Improved balance and stability – Helping with everyday tasks like putting your shoes on and getting dressed. This may seem unimportant now when you’re young and healthy but trust us; it’s crucial as you get older.
Expend less energy – Less rocking and moving and more smooth solid movements with robust and upright body formation.
Protect organs and tissues – Protects them from external force and damage.
Superior athletic performance – Improve your running, jumping and reaction ability.
Ease of breath – It’s easier to breathe, with hips, organs, and diaphragm appropriately stacked.
How to strengthen your core
Your core is at the centre of every movement. You want to ensure your core stability and joint mobility are on point before doing any other workout, especially if you’ve recently taken a break from working out. You want to work your core in various ways; doing endless crunches will only end up hurting your back and neck, and they’re not necessarily healthy for the spine either.
As with any exercise, form is critical. Ensure you’re employing proper breathing techniques and bracing your core. To do this, you want to squeeze and activate your core with the movement consciously. For example, as you’re getting into squat formation before you squat down, take a big belly breath, pushing your abdomen out, feeling it expand at the front and side of your body. Hold the breath, so it braces your core as you squat down. You may also want to use a lifting belt to support proper breathing and bracing. The belt gives you something to push against; it provides resistance, signalling flexed abs, using your core and not your back.
Create a workout program that incorporates unilateral training. To build up core endurance, you only need to spend a few minutes a day, 3 to 5 days a week. Here are a few exercises to try:
On the floor, in a tabletop position, extend the opposite arm and leg simultaneously. Keep your hips square to the ground, raising your leg as high as you can without your lower back sagging. Hold for a few seconds, then bring your arm and leg back to the tabletop position. Switch to the other side. Repeat 5-10 times on each side.
Lie down on your back, on a yoga mat or slightly padded surface. Put a small rolled towel under your neck if that makes it more comfortable. Start in a reverse tabletop position with your legs up, bent at the knee and arms straight overhead. Exhaling, extend one leg out and move the opposite arm overhead so it’s perpendicular to the floor. Hold for a few seconds and then inhale, bringing it back to the starting position. Switch to the other side. Repeat 5-10 times on each side. Keep your lower back firmly planted on the ground, with no arching of your lower back.
Plank and side plank
You are probably very familiar with this isometric core exercise. There’s a plank formation for any skill level; it can be done on your arms or hands, on your toes or knees. Start where you’re at and hold for as long as you can. Repeat 3-5 times, keeping your core strong, no sagging lower back. This move is great because you can build in a progression (starting on knees and then moving to toes when you’re ready) and use a quantitative measure (timing how long you can hold) to track your progress.
Pro-tip – Prolonged, sitting, hunching, and arching puts you at a higher risk of injury. If this is you and you don’t know where to start, look into hiring a personal trainer, at least for a few sessions. They’ll be able to give you the right exercises for your body and will tell you what to focus on as you build your core strength.
As you’ve heard with personality, it’s what on the inside that counts. It’s true for core strength as well. Seeing your abs means that your body fat percentage is low enough to show the muscle that lies underneath the fat. Visible abs don’t serve a purpose other than vanity – you can have super core strength without the visible abs. Keep your head held high; you work hard, and you will feel the benefits of a strong core for decades to come.
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