Think of your core as a corset made up of all the trunk muscles stabilizing your spine. The core creates a solid foundation for all body movements. The transverse abdominis, your core abdominal muscle, forms a wide belt covering the front of the lower belly. In your lower back, the multifidus crosses between your bottom ribs and the top of the pelvis. Other core muscles are the internal and external oblique muscles wrapping around the sides of your trunk, and the deep erector spinae muscles, two columns running down each side of the spine.
The rectus abdominus or ‘six pack ab’ muscle might seem to be the most important for core strength. Although this abdominal muscle controls primary voluntary movements of the trunk, it does not stabilize the spine. Another popular myth is that core strengthening will flatten your abdominal area. However, you cannot spot reduce!
If you’re trying to find your core muscles for the first time, think of how your trunk muscles tighten when you have a big sneeze or laugh really hard. To contract the muscles, try to pull your belly button in towards your spine. The squeezing feeling around your trunk is the result of your core muscles contracting.
Better athletic performance - Core strength provides a solid base for activities involving trunk rotation like golf and tennis. It helps improve balance for sports like downhill skiing, snowboarding and mountain biking and lends agility for soccer, football and hockey. Envision a tennis player driving through a powerful hit. The core muscles are the ones that stabilize and control movement coming from the centre of the body. Core strength increases the amount of force that your body produces and helps make body movements more efficient.
Enhance daily function - Although core stability is essential to sports, it also helps with the actions of daily living. Core strength helps you keep fit and prevents injury, especially when lifting heavy objects like shopping bags or small children. Chores like ironing, gardening, mowing the lawn or shovelling snow become easier to perform. Strengthening your core gives you more functional strength, allows you to move safely and efficiently and enhances your overall quality of life.
Low back injury prevention and treatment – The spine bends in many directions. Sometimes ligaments and muscles in the lower back become injured during sport or daily activities. Resulting low back pain can reduce movement and further weaken muscles, leading to more serious injury. Core strengthening exercises are important in both prevention and rehabilitation of lower back injuries. Finally, core strengthening helps improve body awareness and promotes good posture.
Core muscles should be trained in isolation. Most core strengthening exercises do not require great effort, but use small, slow and precise movements. Many can be done without additional equipment. This set of simple core strengthening exercises can help you get started. Three sets of each exercise should be repeated 3-5 times each. Rest between each set and before the next exercise.
As your core gets stronger, incorporate various types of equipment to make the exercises more difficult. For instance, the Leg Lowering exercise can be performed lying on a foam roll (unstable surface), while the Back Bridge can be done with your feet on a stability ball instead of the floor. Other types of equipment include wobble-boards to challenge balance, medicine balls to increase power and specially designed equipment such as the ‘BodyBlade’ and Reebok ‘Core Board’.
Remember, you can always get a great core stability workout with absolutely no equipment.
Certain techniques such as Pilates focus on core strengthening and body alignment. The Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method both focus on body awareness to strengthen core muscles and produce controlled, efficient movements. These techniques are generally taught in small classes or one-on-one. Instruction for any type of core stability exercise always helps ensure that you are performing exercises correctly.
If you are not already exercising regularly or are unsure about starting a core strengthening exercise program, check with your doctor first. As well, if you feel any discomfort, aggravation or pain with any of these exercises, stop immediately and contact your physician. If you feel uncomfortable starting a program on your own, most community fitness facilities offer core strengthening classes.
To see results, be consistent in training and practice frequency and repetition of exercises. Setting goals helps keep you motivated and monitors your progression. These exercises are just the beginning. Incorporating core stability exercises into your lifestyle and daily activities will help keep your core strong.
Leg Lowering (transverse abdominis muscle)
Back Bridge (multifidus muscle)
Side Bridge (internal and external oblique muscle)
Front Bridge (all muscles)
Stability Ball Crunches (mainly rectus abdominus)