Most people when they think about “the Core” they think about abdominals, mostly the visible ones, or your “6-pack.” While it’s important to have strong abdominals, there is so much more to “Core Strength” than having 6-pack abs.
What is core strength?
True core strength involves all 4 abdominal muscles (Rectus abdominis, Transverse abdominis, Internal obliques, and External obliques), the pelvic floor (Perineum), the buttocks/hip extensors and abductors (Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus), the spinal muscles (Erector Spinae group), the hip flexors (Iliopsoas, rectus femoris, Tensor fasciae latae) and the inner thighs (adductors). Strengthening all of these muscle groups gives you true core strength, allowing you to move about the world with ease and stability.
Back when I was a dancer, we were always talking about our “Center.” This was the same thing as the “Core” that I am going to talk about today. It is our center of gravity, our center of movement, the place from which all other movements occur. When you hit a ball with your tennis racquet, do a weighted squat, or swim, your power comes from your core. You are employing other muscles to complete the movement, but you initiate the movement from your core. If you are only using your arms and legs, you are missing out on tapping into your full strength.
why does this matter?
Having strong core muscles supports everything we do, whether we are playing a sport or moving through our daily lives. When the core is weak, over time we start to have pain and dysfunction:
- When the glutes are weak, we can overuse the hamstrings and lower back muscles and feel pain in our lower back.
- Often having weak abdominal muscles causes overuse of the hip flexors, which can cause hip pain.
- If the pelvic floor is weak, this can lead to uro-genital problems, like sexual dysfunction and “leakage.”
- When the erector muscles of the back are weak, it’s difficult to stand up straight which can lead to strain in other muscles.
Aging is hard enough, we don’t need pain and dysfunction compounding everything else.
4 ways to strengthen your core
While most people think about doing endless crunches to strengthen the core, there are so many other exercises that are better for functional core strength, like Planking, extension exercises, mindful twists, and ad/abduction. Here are a few exercises that will help strengthen your core in a mindful way:
Plank and Side Plank
Plank: This can be done in many ways. If you are new to planking, I recommend starting with your knees on the floor. You can be on your hands or forearms, depending on the strength and mobility of your wrists. Holding a plank can be tedious, so I prefer to move in and out of plank to make it more interesting. There is nothing wrong with just holding your plank, but why do something boring, when you can enjoy what you are doing? Planks strengthen the whole body and are great for general core stability.
Start in Table with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. If you prefer to plank on your forearms, they are parallel with your shoulders over your elbows. You can either walk your knees back behind your hips until you feel your abdominals kick in, or you can extend one leg at a time behind you, coming to the balls of your feet (see photos). Make sure not to drop your head; try to look either toward your thumbs if your elbows are down, or about 6″ in front of your fingertips if you are on your hands. Your hips should be lower than your shoulders but higher than your heels or knees. Squeeze your buttocks, inner thighs, and quads. Lift your pelvic floor and activate your lower abdominal muscles. Be sure not to round your upper back, your shoulder blades are centered on your upper back (neither moving apart nor together). Hold plank for 3-5 breaths, then you can move to side plank (see photo above–this can also be done on your hands rather than elbows).
Side Plank: Shift your heel to the right, toes to the left. Press your right hand (or elbow) into the floor and lift your left hand toward the ceiling. Feel the right shoulder blade moving toward your waist and away from your spine (protraction). You can place your right knee on the floor for more support if you need it. Squeeze your inner thighs, glutes, and quads. Lift your pelvic floor and activate your lower abdominals. You will feel your right obliques working as well. Hold 3-5 breaths, then switch to the other side.
You can also flow between Plank and Side plank, moving mindfully from one position to the other. Make sure you are not holding your breath, but that you are breathing smoothly and evenly through your nose.
Extension exercises focus on the back of the body, namely the back extensors, glutes, and hamstrings. Most of our day is spent moving forward, and gravity causes us to flex (round) our neck and spine. Extension exercises aim to counterbalance that flexion so that we can stand up straight and have less neck and back pain. This is especially important with running, biking, and swimming (butterfly anyone?). The less you extend your back, the less you will be able to as you age. When you imagine an “old lady” or an “old man,” typically you picture someone hunched over like a candy cane. Let’s avoid that! Try this:
Oppositional Back Extension: Start by lying down prone (face down), with your forehead on the floor, arms extended in front of you. Place your feet mat distance apart (about 2′) and rotate the knees and thighs to face outward (lateral rotation). As you inhale, lift your chest, left arm and right leg off the floor. Be sure to engage your glutes to initiate the movement, as well as the pelvic floor and lower abdominals. Keep your shoulder blades moving toward your waist (depression), and your head in line with your spine; try not to reach the chin forward, reach forward with the top of your head. As you exhale, return everything to the floor. On your next inhale, lift the chest, right arm, and left leg; exhale return to the floor. Keep alternating as you breathe in and out. Repeat each side 5-10 times, then rest in Child’s pose to stretch out your back.
Twisting strengthens the Obliques, both internal and external. The internal and external work together to rotate the rib cage independently of the pelvis. When doing any type of twist, you want to keep the pelvis still and move the rib cage smoothly. In these twists, we are intentionally activating the obliques to move the rib cage. Make sure not to pull on the head, the arm and head are just coming along for the ride. Twisting is important with any type of rotational sport, like tennis, golf, softball, or swimming (freestyle and backstroke).
Twists for the Obliques: Start on your back with the knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Bring your left hand behind your head (for support, not to pull), and extend your right arm to the right, palm on the floor. Inhale a breath. As you exhale, engage your abdominals (all 4) and your pelvic floor to bring your left elbow toward your right knee (knee comes toward the right shoulder). Inhale to release the upper body and right foot back to the floor. Repeat twisting to the right like this 3-5 times, then switch sides. Be sure to move slowly, smoothly, and intentionally from the abdominals, not by pulling on your head to bring your elbow toward your knee. Keep your pelvis still and just move the rib cage.
Abduction and Adduction
This type of lateral movement strengthens (wait for it) the abductors and adductors, which are the outer hips/glutes and the inner thighs, respectively. Abduction means moving away from your midline, and adduction means moving toward your midline. For this discussion, it is your legs that move toward and away. Lateral movements are important for activities like roller blading, tennis, and swimming (breaststroke). We don’t tend to move laterally in our daily lives, but it is important to keep these muscles strong to prevent hip and lower back pain.
Abduction and Adduction: Lie down on your left side with your head resting on your extended left arm. Stack your right hip directly above your left and reach your right hip slightly away from your ribs so that your left waist is off the floor (neutral pelvis). You can either have both knees bent or your top leg straight; both options are challenging in their own ways, so you can play with which one works best. Or do both! Inhale a breath. Without moving the pelvis, press your right leg toward the ceiling (abduction), keeping a parallel alignment with the thighs (both knees face forward). You will feel your outer hip muscles working (Gluteus medius and minimus, and tensor fasciae latae). Be sure to engage your pelvic floor and lower abdominals to keep the pelvis stable. As you inhale, intentionally bring the legs back together (adduction). Repeat slowly and mindfully with your breath 3-5 times, then switch to the other side. To make this more challenging, you can do ab/adduction from a side plank with either the knee or foot on the floor (See photo above).
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