Elements of a Great Workout: Core Strength

The Core.  We hear all about it and how everyone wants to work their core or more specifically their abs.  But is it really important? 

Yes and No.

Most of the time people want to work on their abs for the aesthetics.  And to be honest so do I.  I’m not immune to these desires.  Do I want to have flatter abs and a slimmer waist?  Of course.  But do I know that having 6 pack abs won’t make me any more happy?  Again yes, but it is hard to remind myself with all the subliminal messages from media and society. 

On the other hand, having a strong core can make all the difference in enjoying your life a little more each day.  We use our core doing all sorts of daily activities.  Do you need to pick up something heavy?  That’s using your core.  Do you need to roll out of bed?  That’s using your core.  Do you need to cough or sneeze?  That’s using your core.  Do you need to stand or sit up straight?  That’s using your core. 

Rabbit Trail:  I want to take a quick moment to talk about Low Back Pain.  If you are experiencing a lot of low back pain it could be from a weak core. Not saying that’s the only reason, but it is common if you experience it on a daily basis.  When I was well into my pregnancy and my abs were useless, I experienced a lot of low back pain.  The effects of my enormous belly caused my body’s center of gravity to shift forward and my abs were stretched out to accommodate my growing baby.  This made my core work harder and inefficiently to hold everything together.  Other parts of my core had to work overtime to provide the same support I had experienced in the past.  My obliques and lower back over compensated since my abs were unable to do their job of pulling my organs close to the center of my body.  Keeping good posture and having your body in alignment allows your body to work efficiently and not over work certain muscles, like your low back.   So having a strong core is important in everyday living – I know this first hand!

So what are the core muscles?

  • Abs & Low Back
  • Obliques
  • Pelvic Floor & Diaphragm

Each part of the core is made up of multiple muscles.  The Abs are made up of the rectus abdominus (RA or the 6 pack abs) and the transverse abdominus (TA or internal abs not externally visible).  The Low Back is made up of multiple muscles such as the erector spinae, multifidus and quadratus lumborum.  (One little nugget of info is if you experience low back pain, engaging your abs and glutes/bum can help take pressure off your back and redistribute the load more evenly.  I know this is a common complaint and by being mindful about muscle engagement, it’s possible to reduce low back pain.)  Then the Obliques are made up of the external and internal obliques which are the sides of our torso.  Next we have the Pelvic Floor muscles located under the pelvis which are responsible for lifting and supporting pelvic organs, but also allowing waste to pass through our bodies.  And finally we have the Diaphragm or the top of the core separating the lungs from the stomach and intestines while also helping with our breath.  In addition, the Diaphragm and the Pelvic Floor muscles work together to regulate intra-abdominal pressure.    

Now what are some exercises for each of these parts of our core so we can stay nice and balanced?  Imbalance is the enemy!

The abs and the low back work in opposition.  A couple of exercises for the abs are the pilates roll-up and plank mountain climbers while the superman/locust pose and reverse plank are for the low back.  Moving on to the obliques which oppose each other (and the low back as well), we have exercises such as the bicycle abs and the side plank.  Then for the pelvic floor and diaphragm we can do what’s commonly called the “connection breath”.  On the inhale of the connection breath, the pelvic floor relaxes and the diaphragm contracts.  On the exhale, the opposite happens with the pelvic floor contracting and the diaphragm relaxing.  With the connection breath, the transverse abdominus is working too.  It works like a corset, so when we inhale deeply it relaxes and when we exhale fully it tightens. 

Some stabilizing exercises that work many of these muscles all at once are dead bugs and bird dogs.  These exercises help with stabilizing the torso, so it works the abs, obliques and low back.  These exercises might not feel like you are “working hard”, but they are the foundation to a solid core.  And when doing these stabilizing exercises (along with any other exercises), be sure to continue to breathe.  It is easy to hold our breath when trying to hold a pose, but be sure to breathe through the exercise so oxygen continues to circulate and the internal pressure in the core doesn’t increase.

For my bullet point people out there, I feel you!  Here they are:

  • Pilates Roll-up & Plank Mountain Climbers (Abs)
  • Superman/Locust Pose & Reverse Plank (Low Back)
  • Bicycle Abs & Side Plank (Obliques)
  • Connection Breath (Pelvic Floor, Diaphragm & TA)
  • Dead Bug & Bird Dog (Abs, Obliques & Low Back)

For those that like more detail, here is a breakdown of additional muscles worked with the previously listed exercises (not exhaustive):

  • Abs (RA & TA):
    • Pilates Roll-up – RA, TA & Obliques
    • Plank Mountain Climbers – RA, TA, Obliques & Low Back
  • Low Back:
    • Superman/Locust Pose – Low Back & Glute Max
    • Reverse Plank – Low Back, Glute Max, RA, TA & Obliques
  • Obliques:
    • Bicycle Abs – RA, TA & Obliques
    • Side Plank – RA, TA, Obliques & Low Back
  • Pelvic Floor & Diaphragm:
    • Connection Breath – Pelvic Floor, Diaphragm & TA
  • Stabilizing Muscles:
    • Dead Bug & Bird Dog – RA, TA, Obliques & Low Back

Shew, that was a jam-packed post!  Let me know what you think.  Did anything surprise you?  I want to know!

Stay tuned for next time -> We will be discussing the element of cardio and it’s importance in your workout line up.