Complete a faster 10K. Increase the weight on your back squat. Up your yoga game. These are very different fitness goals, but they all rely on one crucial thing: core strength. This term is thrown around a lot, but there is still a lack of understanding about what it means. In this blog, we’ll delve into what the core actually is, why it’s important and how you can strengthen it.
If they were asked to define the “core”, many people would point to their midsection and say, “the abs”. And if asked how to strengthen the core? Picturing a sleek six-pack, they would likely say something like “crunches”.
But the core is actually a complex series of muscles that extends far beyond the abdominals, to include all muscles that attach to the pelvis, the centre of your body’s stability. Some of these are the rectus abdominus, trasversus abdominus, iliopsoas, erector spinae, pelvic floor muscles, gluteal muscles and quadratus lumborum.
With functional movement across all three planes of movement, the core is recruited for almost every single move that we make. Strong core stability will be a vital driver in helping you to perform any sport more efficiently, whether that’s running or weight-lifting. As well as enhancing your posture, range of motion, agility and reaction times, developing a strong core is also critical to prevent injury.
Properly engaging the core is critical when exercising, as this is key to developing the neutral spine position that is needed for correct form. This will help to ensure your workout is not only effective, but safe. However, because many of us don’t really know what the core is, chances are we’re not sure how to engage it, either. So, you need to practice identifying your core and get used to bringing your spine into neutral alignment.
Lay down flat on the floor, facing upwards. Keep your hands down at your sides, with your palms up to make sure that your shoulders stay flat against the floor. Zero in on your transversus abdominus – to do this, it can be helpful to think of this deep core muscle as a corset that wraps around your torso and keeps everything in place. Imagine gently drawing this corset tighter around your body. This will engage the transversus abdominus.
Once you’ve located the TA, keep it engaged and at the same time, tilt your pelvis into correct alignment. Imagine that you have a glass of water balancing in between your hips that you mustn’t spill. It can help to place your hands on your hip bones – form a triangle with your hands so that the tips of your thumbs meet just under your navel and your fingers point downwards. As you engage your TA and tilt your pelvis, you should feel the muscles next to your hip bones contract (the same muscles you feel when you laugh or cough). This is your core engaging.
To engage your pelvis as you tilt it “up and in” to create that flat surface, it can help to think about contracting the same muscles that you would contract when stopping your bladder. Another helpful cue is to think about your pelvis as a heavy anchor sinking into the floor.
Focus on breathing deep into your lungs, pushing your ribs back into the floor to prevent your lumbar spine from arching too much and leaving a gap between the floor and your lower back. Breathe in through your nose and exhale more forcefully through pursed lips, focusing on maintaining your position with an engaged TA, relaxed shoulders and flat pelvis.
Unfortunately, our lifestyles have become a lot more sedentary over the past few years, not helped by the fact that many of us spend hours at a time sat hunched over a desk in front of a computer. In this position, the core is not engaged and the spine is compressed and curved, putting lots of undue pressure on your back, which can cause a myriad of problems, including lower back pain.
There’s a quick and simple way to test your core strength. Lay face down on the floor with your hands flat, shoulder-width apart in between your chin and collarbone. In one smooth motion, perform a push-up, focusing on keeping a completely straight body. Your body should move all at once, with your chest and stomach leaving the ground at the same time. Struggling to do this is a good indicator that your core needs some work.
Regularly practicing engaging your core using the steps explained above will be critical to strengthen the core. Once you are happy that you can identify and engage the core, exercises like the tabletop are great for building strength. To do this, begin in a prone position, with bent knees, engaging your core by following the cues above. Gradually lift your legs until your shins are parallel to the floor with your knees in line with your hips. Hold, then slowly lower back down. If this is too difficult and you find yourself struggling to keep your core properly engaged, you can start with one leg only, keeping the other one on the floor.
Focus on carrying out a controlled movement, fully engaging your core instead of letting your legs do the work. From the full table top position with both legs up, you can add an extra challenge by slowly extending one leg at a time, keeping the core tight throughout the movement.
When it comes to your workouts, if you want to strengthen the core it might be tempting to add some crunches to your workout and assume those will do the job. But as we’ve shown above, the core is about so much more than just your abdominals, so just isolating these muscles doesn’t make sense. Once you know how to properly engage the core, compound lifts like deadlifts and squats will work your deep core muscles, as you need to keep them engaged throughout the movement to properly support your back and keep your spine in neutral alignment. Some other exercises you can try to really work your core include the plank and all its variations, commandos, push-ups, lunges with a twist and mountain climbers.
Our trainers would be more than happy to show you any of these exercises – the key to all of them will be focusing on maintaining proper form including a tight core throughout the movement. It’s better to do an exercise slowly, with excellent control and perfect form, than to rush through it without properly engaging the core first.