Core strengthening exercises: How and why
Last week I talked about why I really don’t like doing crunches. (You can read that here). Not only are they potentially dangerous, but they really are not effective for core training. But what exactly do I mean by “core strengthening”? Maybe we should start there first.
What is core?
Depending on how you view the core, the particular muscles involved might vary. For some people, core is simple another word used in place of “abdominal.” For these people, core training brings up images of hundreds of crunches in hopes of achieving that glorious “6 pack.” (I’m sure you already know that by “some people” I don’t mean me.)
Because the core serves as a natural stabilizer for complex movement, other muscles that surround the spine and connect to the pelvic floor become essential in core training. That’s why crunches aren’t necessarily doing anything for true core strength. It’s more than just our six-pack muscles that provide true core support. On top of muscular strength, proprioception (a sense of one’s own limbs in space) is another vital component in achieving stability and balance.
Why core strengthening?
Not sure why you should care about core strength? Consider what a strong core and true core support can offer you:
- Core support improves your balance and stability. This is especially important for us as we age.
- A strong core that is connected to your entire body makes all movement easier and fuller. Whether you are a soccer player, a dancer, a mom, or run your own business—you will be amazed at how much more grace, coordination, and ease you will find within your body… even in your daily tasks.
- Core strengthening will improve your posture and make you look thinner! Who doesn’t want that?
- Your core provides a protective shield for your spinal cord and internal organs. It also keeps your entire system better aligned and functioning properly, improving digestion and enhancing your circulatory system.
- Core training can be done without any equipment, memberships, or huge time commitments. Ten minutes a day will do wonders.
Muscles involved in core support
My training took me beyond anatomy to consider that core support is not just about strengthening muscles. It is also connected to our distal ends, our breath, our organs, and the environment around us. With that said, however, there are key muscles that are involved in core training. Let’s briefly look at those, shall we?
- Transverse Abdominis (TA) – the deepest of your abdominal muscles, lies under your obliques
- External Obliques – located on the side and front of your abdomen, around your waist
- Internal Obliques – lie under your external obliques, and run in the opposite direction
- Rectus Abdominis – a long muscle that extends along the front of your abdomen. This is the ‘six-pack’ part of your abs that becomes visible with reduced body fat
- Iliopsoas – this muscle’s primary role is hip flexion, but because of its deep relationship to both the legs, spine, and diaphragm it can help coordinate the core, especially when complex movement is involved.
- Pelvic floor muscles primarily the levator ani, the coccygeus.
- Multifidus which stabilizes a number of vertebrae in the spine.
- Erector spinae including the longissimus thoracis also stabilize the spine.
- Thoracic diaphragm which helps control breathing.
Don’t worry if you don’t fully understand or just don’t care about the actual anatomy. For some they are useful to help better understand the body. For others they just add more “stuff” to worry about and get in the way of holistic movement. If knowing the muscles helps, great. If not… let it go.
My favorite core strengthening exercises
Okay, let’s get to the “meat” of this post! The core strengthening exercises. Keep in mind that these do not represent all the possibilities for proper core strengthening. But these are a few of my favorites. You can find these exercises and many more in my book Pain Free.
Hopefully through the descriptions and pictures provided you will be able to get to the heart of each experience. Remember, quality over quantity. Most of these experiences will ask you to take some time and tune into your body to sense connections. For this reason, I would highly recommend doing these without distractions like music or TV. Think of this as a mini-vacation and self-pampering session.
Locating and Strengthening the Transverse Abdominis (TA)
The TA is like your natural girdle. Most muscles have specific roles in terms of joint action. However, the TA’s primary role is spinal stabilization. Because of our society’s over-abundance of “ab” work that focuses on surface muscles only (go away crunches!), most people have a hard time using their TA. Combined with poor posture and tendency to “tuck” the pelvis under when doing ab work, one of the best things you can do in core strengthening training is understand and feel your TA working. Here are two exercises to try:
- Deep Breathing TA Experience: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor. Place one hand on your belly. Slide the other hand underneath your lumbar spine. (There should be a natural curve there—do not “flatten your spine” against the floor). For this experience you will be doing some deep breathing. As you breathe in, allow your belly to gently rise as the diaphragm pulls down to bring rich oxygen into your lungs. As you exhale feel the front side of your belly pull inward, creating a soft hollowing sensation, but without letting the pressure on your back hand change. You want to engage the TA without tucking the pelvis or flattening the spine.
- TA Flying: This experience will provide your TA the opportunity to engage and stabilize your whole body. Position yourself on your hands and knees with your hands directly below your shoulder and your knees right underneath your hips. Start by extending one leg back, being careful not to outwardly rotate the leg. You should not feel your hips rotate or tip at all. Focus on the energy going out through the inside of your leg. If you feel stable here, extend the opposite arm out, keeping the spine in a neutral position (make sure the head isn’t drooping down and crunching up.) Hold this position while taking a few deep breaths. Think of your belly button reaching back and up towards your spine to help you stabilize. Repeat on other side up to five repetitions each.
Proprioception — from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own,” and perception — is one of the human senses. Rather than sensing external reality, proprioception is the sense of the orientation of one’s limbs in space. This is distinct from the sense of balance, which derives from the fluids in the inner ear. Proprioception is what police officers test when they pull someone over and suspect drunkenness. Without proprioception, we’d need to consciously watch our feet to make sure that we stay upright while walking.
Both stability balls and balance discs help us train our core by creating unstable environments. Our muscles must constantly shift and reorient their relationship to core, and our TA and other deep trunk muscles get a chance to really shine as they commit to keeping us oriented in space.
- Stability Ball: There are a lot of things you can do on a stability ball (like this one) to help improve your core support. Sitting on a ball at the desk, doing your normal “ab” work, or just improvising through large-range movement can help improve your stability.
- Balance Disc: These balance discs (like this one) are great to have at home. For beginners I’d recommend just standing on it. As your core becomes better engaged you can try one leg, eyes closed, bending the knees, and move eventually move into full motion. You’ll be amazed at how a few minutes each day can greatly improve your balance over a period of just two weeks.
Strengthening Core Connections
These experiences were all introduced as I was doing my certification work in Laban Movement Analysis. These feel more alive and embodied for me than typical “exercises” because they require a certain amount of personal responsibility and sensing into the whole body.
- Hang and Hollow: Knees are bent while you rest on your forehead or elbows. Keep the knees directly over the hips and allow the trunk of the body to simply “hang.” As you allow your body to drip down towards your head, take a few quick deep breaths while making a “ha ha ha” sound. As the diaphragm engages, this position allows you to feel the subtle hollowing sensation of the Iliopsoas (aka: psoas) muscle. (Make sure you are exhaling on the “ha.”) The sensation will be “deep and low” close to the pubic bone. Because the psoas connects from the top part of our leg back towards the thoracic part of our spine, this experience can help us feel that deeply embedded muscle that provides an essential connection of legs to torso and breath to pelvis.
- Big X Opening and Closing: Start by lying on your back with your legs open and arms extended outward. Be careful that you are not letting your shoulders sneak up around your neck. Take a deep breath in. As you exhale wait until you feel that same tugging sensation from the “hang and hollow” and then allow all six limbs (arms, legs, head, and tailbone) to close simultaneously into core until you lying on one side in the fetal position. Take another deep breath in, and one the exhale allow all six limbs to open back up to the X. The point of this experience is to feel the whole body connected to core—and to let core really be the initiator of the movement.
If you read nothing else, read this:
As you move through these experiences you may notice a big difference from your normal “ab work.” For one, these are not the “do it until it hurts” or “you should be sweating bullets” type exercises. But there is a reason for this:
Your core muscles are inherently strong.
Read that sentence again. Repeat it until you believe it. The muscles that are designed for core support are attached in the most optimal locations in your body. They are deep to the core and they are close to the joints. In other words: They are a sophisticated lever system that when utilized properly require very little effort to do a lot of work.
That’s just one more reason why I hate crunches. They focus on surface muscles and we feel like we need to have “abs of steel” when what we really need is to let our core muscles do the job they were designed to do. That’s easier said than done in this “six pack” happy world. We’ve spent so much time drilling it into our heads that we need to grunt and hurt to be strong that we’ve lost our connection to our core strength. It’s a shame.
The body is inherently strong. And when we focus on the deeper core muscles you will be amazed at how more coordinated you will feel. You will also improve your posture and get a more “toned” looking body because you are working with nature instead of against it.
And this is why I love movement training. It’s really another chance to learn about life. When we let go of surface worries and get to the deeper matters and live by core values we find that this life doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems.