We’ve all heard of “core” and “core strength,” but many of us aren’t sure of what this refers to in our bodies. When we hear “core,” many of us think of our stomach muscles (the abdominals); however, there’s a lot more to your core than you might think.
“Core” refers to:
* Our midline abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus) – these are the muscles that we see in a “six-pack”
* The muscles along the sides of our waist (external and internal obliques)
* Our deep abdominal muscles (transverse abdominus) – these muscles wrap around our spine for protection and stability
* The back muscles that extend from our neck to our lower back (Erector spinae)
When the core muscles are weak or imbalanced, a typical side effect is back pain. “Weak” refers to muscles that don’t often get strengthened (whether through a workout or everyday activities); “imbalanced” refers to one set of muscles being worked above all the others. For example, a person who only does crunches and really strengthens their middle abdominals may have back pain due to the other core muscles being less strong. Many muscles have to contract and relax in order to allow you to stand and move. Back pain is common because if we have weak muscles, poor posture, and/or excess weight, the back will be one of the first places we feel the strain. For this reason, it’s important we work on all the core muscle groups when building core strength!
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
A strong core means a lot of things:
- improved posture
- improved balance
- injury prevention
- toned midsection
- ability to perform everyday activities more easily
- improved overall strength
Here are a few simple exercises we can do to strengthen our core:
1) Crunches: Targets the midline abs. Lie comfortably on a mat with your hands behind your head, your knees bent, and your feet planted on the floor. Keep your chin up; pretend like you’re holding an apple under your chin; keep elbows out. Lift the tops of your shoulders off the ground and contract your stomach (pretend you’re bracing yourself to be punched in the belly!). Only bring the shoulders up as far as feels comfortable, then lower back down and repeat. Do at least 15 repetitions and see if you feel a “burn” in your abs!
2) Bicycle: Targets the obliques. Lie comfortably on a mat with your legs straight and hands behind your head (same head position as for a crunch). Lift both feet slightly off the floor, and bring your left knee up towards your chest (your right leg stays straight). At the same time, twist your body so that your right elbow comes towards the left knee (they don’t need to touch; just bring your elbow towards your knee). Move back to the starting position and repeat with the opposite leg & elbow. Do 12-15 repetitions on each side.
3) Plank: Targets the deep ab muscles (transverse abdominus). Lie on your stomach on a mat, with elbows bent and planted on the floor. (You are supporting yourself with your elbows). Keeping your back straight, use your toes to lift your lower body off the ground. Think about contracting your stomach muscles while holding this position. If you feel any lower back straight, lift your bum up a little. Hold this position for as long as possible; aim for 15-30 seconds. Every time you do this, see if you can beat your time from before! (Note: this exercise also inadvertently works your shoulders, upper back and thighs.)
4) Supermans: Targets the erector spinae of our back. Lie on your stomach on a mat with your hands straight out in front of you (your chest will be against the mat). Using control, lift your right hand and left leg off the floor. Lower back down, and then repeat with the left hand and right leg. Do 12-15 repetitions on both sides.
If you perform all 4 of these exercises 2-3 times a week you will help to build up your core strength. Once you get the hang of them, perform 2 sets of each exercise for more of a challenge. Remember to stretch as often as possible to loosen the muscles you've worked.