I am passionate about exercises that engage and strengthen the core. I include them in all classes and personal training sessions. Many ladies cite their tummy as an area where they hold fat, myself included! This can be linked to pelvic floor issues, childbirth or declining oestrogen during the menopause. An effective core programme can help address this.
Having core strength is not just about about having flat abs. In my early forties I suffered with slipped discs and debilitating back pain. My road to recovery lay in core training and postural exercises. I now incorporate them into my workouts on a regular basis. They have been far more effective than any medicine in preventing back pain.
So this article is all about the core:
What is it?
Why is it important for you?
How to engage it
Some recommended exercises to strengthen it
A Quick anatomy lesson
The core is made up of more than 12 different muscles that encase your entire trunk, they include muscles in your abdomen and back.
The transverse abdominins sometimes called the “corset” of the core are the deepest layer of abdominal muscles and stabilise your spine and pelvis. This muscle also helps with respiration and breathing. They help protect the spine.
The inner and outer oblique muscles help you to bend sideways and to rotate
The rectus abdominis is the topmost muscle and runs vertically in the front of your abdomen. It flexes your torso forward like a crunch
Pelvic floor muscles - muscles low in your pelvis that help control continence and support vital organs
Back muscles (Erector spinae). These muscles run along your spine help you to bend backwards and rotate your back as well as side-to-side movement.
Multifidus deep muscles of your lower back. Your hip and glute muscles also contribute to core stabilisation but not as much as the above muscles.
Why should you engage your core?
As the name suggests, our core muscles are at the centre of our physical well-being: they allow us to function better and protect us from injury
A strong core is essential to having good posture and keeping you more upright whether sitting at a desk or being active. This helps us not only look better but also improves skeletal and muscular function: it’s how we are intended to work.
The core muscles support all the activities. If we don’t have strong core muscles acting like a brace for the spine we are likely to compensate with other muscles. The core muscles protect out spine when we lift heavy objects.
It creates a stable ring of musculature around your spine that keeps your vertebrae from flexing, extending or bending too far to the side. For example in the shoulder press as the shoulders fatigue you may start arching your lower back which puts a dangerous strain on the spine and muscles around it. By zipping up your abs and squeezing your glutes your spine is more protected and you can move your shoulders through a safer range of motion. It is also important to engage the core whilst doing cardio work as it will improve your posture and reduce any aches any pains you experience during and after. For example if you engage your core whilst running this will help to keep your chest high and shoulders back which can alleviate pressure on the lumbar spine and neck.
Reduces lower back pain and stiffness
A weak core is the number one risk for potential injuries, especially lower back injuries. Injuries to the spine are not usually linked to one specific incident such as lifting something heavy but rather to a history of excessive load with bad mechanics. In order to protect the back we should ideally create 360 degree stiffness around the spine as we move, jump run throw, lift objects and transfer force throughout our body.Research has shown that core strength training can help alleviate lower back pain.
If you have a weak core you are more likely to have injuries in other parts of your body such as shoulders, hips and knees.
A strong core aids balance and can help to prevent falls.
How to engage the core?
You should constantly engage your core, whether you are sitting at a desk, working out, standing in the kitchen cooking a meal. Engaging your core during your workouts helps reduce the risk of injury especially of the lower back. Your abs should be tight and pulling in but you should be able to breathe and move normally. It is not sucking in your stomach and holding your breath. You can practise engaging your core at any time by feeling your ribs expand to the sides while you inhale then as you exhale contract and zip up your abs thinking about pulling your navel up and in towards your spine. Keep breaking normally while you continue to hold your abs in.
Practice engaging your core in all your day to day activities - whilst cooking, lifting shopping bags, cleaning and sitting at your desk.
Firstly the prerequisite to any core strength and stability training programme is the attainment of neutral spine as this places the least amount of stress on the discs, ligaments, joint surfaces and other soft tissues.
How to find neutral spine
Place your hands on your hips. Actively but gently rock your pelvis backwards and forwards using the muscles of your back and abdominals. You will come across a mid- point which should encourage a natural curve in your lower back. Hold this position. This is neutral spine, the centre point for good posture. To complete the good posture checklist keep knees slightly soft, lift the chest upwards and outwards while pulling the shoulders back and down, lift the head and chin and keep abdominals firm and buttocks relaxed.
A core exercise routine should incorporate exercises to strengthen all of the muscles around your trunk front, sides and back. It’s not about just doing a few crunches as these only target the rectus abdominis ( the outermost abdominal muscles) whilst neglecting the deep- lying, powerhouse muscles.
Remember to find neutral posture.
Contract the pelvic floor.
Maintain normal breathing, don’t hold your breath.
Engage the core.
Listed below are 8 exercises that I would recommend incorporating into your core routine.
Planks - How to: Start sitting on heels, then walk hands out until wrists are under shoulders when legs are extended fully and body forms a straight line from shoulders to heels. Balance on balls of feet, keep abs engaged, and gaze slightly forward.
Targets transverse abs
Side planks - How to: Start lying on side with right forearm flat on the floor, elbow under shoulder, and both legs extended. Body should form a straight line from head to feet, which are either stacked or staggered. Engage your core and lift hips up. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Targets obliques transverse abs, rectus abdominis.
Deadbugs - How to: Start lying on back with arms extended toward ceiling in line with shoulders and legs bent to 90 degrees (knees above hips). Keep low back pressed into the floor, engage abs, and slowly extend and lower right leg until heel nearly touches floor and left arm until your hand nearly touches floor overhead at the same time. Pause, then return to start and repeat on the opposite side. That’s one rep. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.
Targets the rectus abdominis, obliques, traverse abs.
This slow and controlled move strengthens and stabilises ( good for posture and easing lower back pain without the threat of neck pain.)
Glute bridge march - How to: Lie on your back with your legs bent, heels under knees, feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms over your chest, palms facing. Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Brace your abs and lift your right knee over your hip, maintaining 90-degree angle of that leg. Hold for a moment, then lower your right foot. Repeat with the left. That's one rep. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds
Targets rectus abdominis, transverse abs
This exercise also works your glutes which will help with overall stability.
Heel taps - How to: Start on back with knees bent and feet on floor, hands by hips. Lift chest toward the ceiling, keeping neck relaxed and bringing shoulder blades off the ground. Tap right hand to outside of right ankle, flexing right obliques in the process. Come back to centre keeping shoulders off the ground, then tap left hand to outside of left ankle. That's one rep. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds,
Superman pulls - How to
Lie on the floor in a prone (facedown) position, with your legs straight and your arms extended in front of you.
Keeping your head in a neutral position (avoid looking up), slowly lift your arms and legs around 6 inches (15.3 cm) off the floor, or until you feel your lower back muscles contracting. Engage your glutes, your core, and the muscles between your shoulder blades simultaneously.
Aim to lift your belly button slightly off the floor to contract your abs. A good way to picture this is to imagine you’re Superman flying in the air.
Hold this position for 2–3 seconds. Be sure you’re breathing the entire time.
Lower your arms, legs, and belly back to the floor. Repeat this exercise for 2–3 sets of 8–12 reps
Targets lower back, glutes, hamstrings and abs.
Swimmers - How to: Start off on the floor lying face down with your arms stretched out overhead. Lift your upper body into a back arch by lifting your chest away from the floor and contracting your glutes and back muscles. Keep your chin tucked so that you are looking towards the floor.
From here, lift your right arm up away from the floor and at the same time lift your left leg away from the floor. Aim to lift both limbs approximately one foot off the floor.
Then as you lower your right arm, lift your left arm. Similarly for the legs, as you lower the left leg, lift your right in a controlled swimming-like motion. Make sure you keep your glutes engaged during this exercise and don’t over lift your legs as this can cause you to overarch your lower back.
Targets, abs, upper back, lower back, shoulders, glutes and hamstrings.
Windshield wipers - How to:
Lie on your back with your arms straight out at your sides in a “T” position for stabilisation.
Lift your legs up, first with knees bent in a tabletop position, and then straightening your legs towards the sky, engaging the core.
Using your abs to control the movement, slowly lower your legs to the right hovering a few inches off of the floor.
When your feet get close to the floor, reverse the movement of your legs, moving them back through centre and down to the left side of your body.
One movement of the legs from the right to the left completes one rep. Repeat the move 10 times.
Targets obliques and rectus abdominis . It also works the glutes and the hip flexors.
Yes, I know I am a core bore - but core bores are not sore!!! Develop, maintain and use the strength all around your trunk and your body will reap the rewards not only aesthetically but in all that you do in every day life and whilst exercising