According to the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, Windex® is the solution to most everything. We hear about a strong core in the same way. Want better posture? Strengthen your core. Want to help alleviate back pain? Strengthen your core. Want more power to lift, run, dance, throw, jump and speak 5 languages? Strengthen your core. Yet there’s more to the story. Cover story image: scott-eaton.com
We don’t simply spray Windex and walk away – there’s some action involved to clean that window. Similarly, isolating a strong core is not the end-all to physical fitness.
We are functional, ever-moving beings. And while improving our core strength is a must for strong, coordinated movement, remember, we don’t stop there.
Building mindful awareness for how we move, and how often – along with a strong center – results in physical improvements and safeguards against injury.
“Functional strength is very important for vitality and well-being. Isolating muscles to strengthen them, even important muscles like the abdominals, can interfere with the way we recruit them. We need to look at how we integrate and organize our strength into our daily movements.” Huffingtonpost.com
At the Center of it
Know Your Core
So we’ve all heard the pitch “…gotta strengthen your core”. Yet do we have the full picture of what that means and what a ‘strong core’ can do for our overall fitness level?
A strong core stabilizes the body and balances functions.
There are some terrific benefits to having a strong core that we may not always think about. There are also a variety of methods to train our complex midsections that go beyond simply doing some crunches to get that six-pack look (a somewhat superficial approach to strengthening).
The core is amazingly designed, inherently strong and synchronized to support what the body does. Again – it’s so much more than the coveted six-pack. Imagine all of these key core muscles working for us!
- Transverse Abdominis (TA) – the deepest of your abdominal muscles, lies under your obliques
- External Obliques– located on the side and front of your abdomen, around your waist
- Internal Obliques– lie under your external obliques, and run in the opposite direction
- Rectus Abdominis– a long muscle that extends along the front of your abdomen. This is the ‘six-pack’ part of your abs that becomes visible with reduced body fat
- Iliopsoas– this muscle’s primary role is hip flexion, but because of its deep relationship to both the legs, spine, and diaphragm it can help coordinate the core, especially when complex movement is involv
- Pelvic floor muscles – primarily the levator ani, the coccygeus
- Multifidus – which stabilizes a number of vertebrae in the spine
- Erector spinae – including the longissimus thoracis also stabilize the spine
- Thoracic diaphragm – which helps control breathing
Benefits of a Strong Core
I like to think of our core-center as a transfer station of power between the upper and lower body. When all the key muscles noted above are working in unison, we don’t necessarily think about them. We go somewhat on auto-pilot and enjoy the outcome of twisting, lifting, throwing, pushing, carrying, etc., with ease, with power and without pain.
Alternately, when our core muscles are weak and not properly working to support our movements, it can affect balance, torque our backs, add stresses to joints, hinder our coordination and mobility.
When you’re heading out to exercise, consider this:
“No matter where motion starts, it ripples upward and downward to adjoining links of the chain. Thus, weak or inflexible core muscles can impair how well your arms and legs function. And that saps power from many of the moves you make. Properly building up your core cranks up the power. A strong core also enhances balance and stability. Thus, it can help prevent falls and injuries during sports or other activities. In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do.” Health.harvard.edu
Some Terrific ‘Side Benefits’
In addition to what we’ve talked about, consider these ‘auto-pilot’ functions that we take for granted (until something goes wrong):
Internal organ function (and protection)
Think of where our internal organs and digestive systems reside…smack in the center, right? And with our ribcage, pelvis and core musculature surrounding them, what a wonderfully designed “housing” for these mission critical components.
With strong abdominals and core muscles engaged, our ribcage is lifted up from our pelvis, allowing space for our organs to operate properly. What’s more – a strong core helps protect these vital organs, veins, arteries and spinal cord. We stabilize the core, we enable the body’s center of operations to function well.
“A simple but effective exercise for building core stability is to draw in the abdominal muscles (think about your belly button pulling away from your pant line), hold for five breaths, and then relax. Repeat 10 times. Purdy recommends doing this 10 times a day. She also suggests women practice Kegel exercises’ drawing in the pelvic floor ‘to strength the lower end of your core (with the added bonus of better bladder control).” Besthealthmag.ca
Related to improving your posture, “standing up straight” translates to: Lift the chest, roll the shoulders back and down, pull the chin in a bit and lengthen the back of your neck, extend the crown of your head upwards.
This lengthening of the space between your ribs and hips while pulling the shoulders open requires strong abdominal and back muscles. Maintaining this length and ‘standing tall’ with core engaged can increase your height!
Practice This 3-5 times a day and create a strong core habit:
- Whether sitting or standing, imagine your spine lifted/extended up through the crown of your head; If your spine was a garden hose, you’d want to straighten it out and shake out the kinks for the best flow, right?
- Now actively squeeze in your waist, like tightening a wide belt around your middle; take full breaths while continuing to tighten your middle
- Notice how with a tight, 360-degree center – like “bracing for the punch” with your back tall and active – inhibits the bad slouching habit
“At the root of the natural laws of life and the natural inner rhythm is breathing. [Joseph] Pilates wrote in Return to Life Through Contrology, “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last…above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” Pilates, Rael Isacowitz
The diaphragm is a key player in the role of breathing. “Diaphragmatic breathing” – or breathing with a lateral and posterior expansion of the ribcage – is commonly practiced with Pilates, and recruits the abdominal muscles to both stabilize the trunk and actively squeeze out stale air from the lungs.
This powerful action requires focus and engagement of the abdominal core muscles.
“This in turn promotes deeper inhalation on the part of the primary respiratory muscles and the auxiliary muscles (including the back extensors), bringing a healthy quantity of oxygen-filled air to nourish and rejuvenate the body.” Pilates, Rael Isacowitz
Improved balance and awareness for how we move
It’s not just an age thing. It’s a core thing.
A strong “transfer station” brings awareness and control to how the arms and legs move. How often do we inadvertently throw ourselves off balance by flinging out an arm or leg to catch us? Training our core muscles wakes them up, gets them firing in an effort to stabilize our movements.
“Activating your core helps stabilize the hips and provides an opportunity to move from your midline, creating more control while standing on one leg.” Ace Fit Life
When we know how something works are then able to take advantage of the benefits. Like riding a bike – once we learn how to balance on that narrow apparatus with two skinny wheels, we never forget and can hop on without thinking.
It takes some practice, but we can learn how to activate our core. With Pilates-style exercises, planks, squats, bridges and more, we can transfer that strength and awareness into other activities. We get to experience more power, and our risk of injuries goes down.
Great for the Core – The All-around Plank
A powerful, multifaceted exercise that can target the entire core plus back when done properly. It can also be modified to make more or less challenging by lowering the knees, coming onto the forearms, holding for shorter or longer periods, etc.
Happy core building!
- Begin on hands and knees
- Walk your hands one hand-length forward and shift your weight forward so your shoulders come over your wrists and your hips are lower than your shoulders
- Adjust your position so your body is in a straight but descending line from your shoulders to your knees (use a mirror or a friend to find the right position)
- Engage your core muscles and soften your shoulders
- Start breathing long, full inhales and exhales
- Hold for 30 seconds or more
- To make it harder, tuck your toes to lift your knees off the ground. Stay in that strong, straight line
- Take it to your forearms if this bothers your wrists, but make sure your hips stay low but supported
Remember that the most effective plank is the one that is in correct alignment, so if you feel your form disintegrates, it’s time for a rest.