Let’s Talk About Our Core

Fitness buzz words. They’re so annoying. They fly around the interwebs and with each post a little bit of the definition gets lost until we lose the meaning altogether. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s bullshit.

I’m new to the fitness world. I’m not a certified personal trainer nor have I ever studied exercise physiology. I’m a consumer just like you. I’m on a journey to lose 50 excess pounds and improve my health. I’m willing to spend whatever it takes to achieve my goals, but I don’t want to throw my money away, so I research fitness in my spare time.

One of the buzz words I hear the most is ‘core’. My personal trainer tells me the workouts she plans for me each week are ‘core’ focused. Mary has taught me that my core is the most important group of muscles in my body. My core muscles are what support my body for mobility. All body movement originates from the core. Strengthening my core muscles will ease lower back pain, improve balance, and give me better posture helping me look taller. I barely cap out at five feet so anything other than a pair of high heels that makes me look taller is what I call a bonus win!

The real case for building core strength is that it allows us to perform our activities of daily living with ease. Core training is an insurance policy that I will continue to be able to do the things I enjoy as I age. I’ll be 46-years-old this summer. I want to enjoy the second half of my life even more than the first. Core training is the best way I can ensure that happens.

If you’re still reading you must be thinking “What are the core muscles?” I’m glad you asked. Core muscles are located in the trunk of our bodies. They comprise the lower back, abdomen, and hips. Our core is our body’s central power station. All of the muscles in this region work together to allow us to move. When we squat down to clean, plant a flower in our garden, or play with our kids and grandkids our core muscles engage to maintain the integrity of the vertical movement and prevent a fall. When we lift an object overhead such as putting away clean dishes our core muscles engage to support us and provide balance.

Core training may be a 21st century buzz word but it is not a fad. Core training is for everyone. Athletes use core training to improve their accuracy and increase their power. Physical therapists include core training in their program designs for people who want to get through the day without pain. Personal trainers turn to core exercises when want to help their clients achieve the ‘six-pack.’ Elementary school gym teachers now include core training in children’s fitness programs. We all need to love our core.

BASICS OF CORE TRAINING

The key theory behind core training is treating the body as a unified whole. Core focused workout programs are designed to improve muscular function while strengthening and stabilizing your entire body. There are three keys to core fitness:

      1. Breathing – The pace of each breath should be natural and steady. No panting!
      2. Form – Good form is critical to the success of any exercise program. Personally, I’m a bit obsessed with good form. Every exercise has its proper starting position, movement path, and action. Always take your time to properly execute each step of any exercise with control and precision. Controlled exercise develops strength, stamina, and flexibility. I always go for quality over quantity. I would rather perform 8 repetitions of an exercise with good, controlled, precise form than 25 reps of the same exercise with crappy form. Crap form increases your risk of injury and lessens the effectiveness of the exercise.
      3. Speed – Maintain a natural pace. Core workouts are not a race. Take your time to check your form and align your breathing.

There are two groups of core exercises – stabilizers and strengtheners. Stabilizing exercises work the muscles that support our body during motion. To stabilize our bodies we need to secure our spine and work our abdominal muscles. The spine always remains in neutral position during stabilizing exercises. Neutral position or neutral spine is the most efficient body position from which to begin any movement. Neutral position is a key element of core training.

To find your neutral position lie on the floor on your back and place your thumbs on your hip bones with your fingers over your pubic bone creating a triangle. If you are in your body’s neutral position all of the bones will line up on the same plane neither tipping back or shifting to one side. If you are on your stomach you can find neutral position by pressing your pubic bone into the floor until you feel your back flatten slightly or your stomach lightly lift. Tuck your chin so that your forehead rests against the mat.

Core strengthening exercises work your core directly. They build strength, endurance, and definition. These are the exercises that give you a six-pack.

So, now that we understand the key elements of core training and know how to find neutral position its time to learn a few exercises.   Below are my favorite stabilizers and strengtheners. If these aren’t your favorites don’t worry! There are so many core exercises to choose from I promise you will find a few you can do. Try to pick at least one from each group to include in your daily workout no matter what muscle group you are focusing on. There isn’t a core training day like leg day or arm day. Core training is for every day.

STABILIZERS:

      1. Plank – This is an isometric (contraction) exercise that works the entire core. Yoga, pilates, cross-fit all include planks in their programs because they are the most reliable way to build endurance in the abs and back as well as the stabilizer muscles. To properly execute a plank begin by kneeling on an exercise mat and place your hands on the floor to come onto all fours. Plant your forearms on the floor parallel to each other. Raise your knees off the floor and lengthen your legs until they are in line with your arms. Remain suspended in plank for a minimum of 30 seconds gradually building on this exercise until you can hold a plank for 3 minutes. CORRECT FORM- Keep your abdominal muscles tight and your body in a straight line. DO NOT put your butt in the air. This makes the exercise easier but takes the stress off the working muscles reducing the effectiveness of the exercise. Note, if you have a rotator cuff injury this exercise is not for you!.
      2. Side Plank – This exercise is great for stabilizing the spine but it also strengthens the abdominals, lower back, and shoulders. This helps to whittle down our waistlines which I’m all about right now. Start by lying on your side with your legs straight and parallel to each other. Keep your feet flexed. Do not point your toes. Bend your left arm to form a 90-degree angle with the knuckles of your hand facing forward. Now, place your right hand on your waist or, if you’re up for a challenge extend it along your side. Pressing your forearm down into the floor, raise your hips until your body is in a long, straight line and hold for 30 seconds working up to 3 minutes. Release and repeat on the other side. Note, if you have neck issues or a rotator cuff injury, this exercise is not for you.
      3. T-stabilization – This is an advanced form of the plank. Its great for targeting the abs, hips, lower back, and obliques. Start in a push-up position with our arms extended and your fingers facing forward. Your legs should be outstretched and your body weight supported on your toes. Now, turn your hips to one side stacking one foot on top of the other and raising your top arm across your body until it is extended up with your fingers pointing toward the ceiling. Hold for 30 seconds working up to 3 minutes and then repeat the exercise on the other side. CORRECT FORM:       Your body should be in one straight line. DO NOT arch or bridge your back. Note, if you have shoulder issues, neck pain, or wrist pain this exercise is not for you.

STRENGTHENERS:

      1. Medicine ball slam – You will really feel this exercise in your shoulders. In fact, they should be screaming after this exercise, but don’t forget to engage your core muscles. You can do this with a medicine ball but I like the weighted slam balls. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, hold the ball in both hands while lifting your arms overhead. Keep your back as straight as possible, bend your knees and stick your buttocks slightly out as you bring the medicine ball over your head down onto the floor. You should throw the ball straight down onto the floor with force. Immediately pick it up, bring it back overhead and repeat. Work up to 3 sets of 20 slams. CORRECT FORM- Keep your arms and torso straight. Your core should be engaged the entire time. DO NOT bend your arms, lift either foot off the floor, twist your torso to either side, or round your back. Note, if you have back issues this exercise is not for you.
      2. Wood chop with medicine ball – This exercise strengthens the oblique muscles. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart holding the medicine ball in front of you in both hands. Rotate your torso to one side bringing the ball up with you. Rotate to the other side bringing the ball down in a chopping motion as you turn. You should feel your abdominals contract. Lower your arms as you bring your torso back to center. Repeat the same range of motion on the other side working up to 3 sets of 20 per side. CORRECT FORM: Perform the wind up motion slowly and the swinging action aggressively. DO NOT twist too hard or fast. Note, if you have lower back issues this exercise is not for you. P.S. you can also perform this exercise with a fitness ball or a fitness band. I prefer the weighted medicine ball but try all three and choose what is right for you.
      3. Standing Russian twist with a medicine ball – I like this exercise because it strengthens all the major muscles of your core. The challenge here is to keep the rest of your body stable and aligned while your core is active and engaged. Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Keep your knees soft and hold the medicine ball out in front of you. Rotate your arms and torso to one side, return to center, and then rotate to the other side. Return to center and repeat. Work your way up to three sets of 20 rotations. CORRECT FORM – Twist in a smooth controlled motion. Keep your arms extended and follow the movement of the ball with your gaze. DO NOT lock your arms or legs or hunch your shoulders or slump forward. Note, if you have lower back issues this exercise is not for you.

Lastly, below is a great beginner’s core workout that blends stabilizers and strengtheners. You can look up how to perform each exercise listed on YouTube. Remember to check with your doctor before performing any exercise or starting any new workout regime. Start slow and gradually build up your time and number of repetitions. Remember it’s about quality over quantity!

    1. Plank
    2. Fire hydrant in and out
    3. Fitness ball rollout
    4. Fitness ball hyperextension
    5. Hip crossovers
    6. Situps
    7. Crunches
    8. Reverse crunch
    9. Good mornings
    10. Leg raises

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