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. 

Elements of a Great Workout: Lower Body Strength

Okay okay okay, it’s been a while since I touched base but I am alive and well and ready to talk about those legs!!!  Who’s a fan of the legs??? 

These powerhouse muscles that help us move every single day are amazing. And we know it especially after we did too many squats the day before.  We take them for granted because they are soooooo dependable. 

We know having strong legs will not only carry us today but for many years to come.   There are so many advantages to having a strong lower body.  Below are just some examples. 

Positives to Lower Body Strength Training:

  • Being able to hike up a hill/mountain
  • Walk or run for miles
  • Pick something off the floor by squatting (not bending over)
  • Day to day activities
  • Go from point A to point B
  • Walk to a gas station when you run out of gas (Oops)
  • Chasing a toddler around a table for hours (or so it seems) 😉
  • Stand for long periods of time
  • Burn more fuel/calories while resting because of the extra muscle**

**Side Note: I know I mentioned the point of “burning more fuel while resting” last time for positives of upper body strength training, but this is true for all types of strength training and all muscles.  Muscles take more fuel to stay alive, so by building them up with strength training you are also increasing your metabolism and fat burning power.  This isn’t to say that this is the only reason to workout because working out is so much more than that.  It is a way to relieve stress, gain confidence and take ownership of your “me” time.   So let’s not get caught up in the ‘losing weight game” because it is a fickle game.  Just keep in the back of your mind that building muscle ignites an internal fire that can help you on your journey. 

Alright moving on from my little rant…

What muscles do the lower body consist of and what exercises strengthen them?

Here are the different leg areas:

  • Upper legs and bum
  • Inner and outer thighs
  • Calves and shins

We have the top part of the legs and bum consisting of the quadriceps or front part (quads), hamstrings or back part (hammies) and the gluteals or bum (gluteus maximus, medius and minimus or altogether the “glutes” ).  We also have the adductor (inner thighs) and the abductor muscles (outer thighs).  Then the bottom part of the legs are the gastrocnemius and soleus or back part (calf muscles), and anterior tibialis or front part (shin muscles).  Of course this is not an exhaustive list of all the leg muscles because one, we don’t have all day and two, we want to focus our efforts on the major ones for the time being.

Next let’s look at opposing muscle groups and exercises we can perform to keep balanced.  

Some cool things about the legs are that a single exercise can work both opposing muscle groups.  For example the squat and forward lunge work both the quads and the opposing groups of the hammies and glutes (particularly the maximus). I love how we can get muscle engagement from a single move!  But, let’s move on quickly so you don’t notice my nerdy side. Next we have the inner and outer thighs which oppose each other.  Sumo squats and side lunges work the inner thighs while fire hydrants and clam shells work the outer thighs and glutes (particularly the medius).  Then we have the calves and shin muscles to contend with.  Heel or calf raises work… wait for it… the calves and flexing the foot or pointing toes toward your body with resistance of some sort works the shins (try resistance bands here).  I know it might sound silly to work your shins and I thought the same thing too.  We’ve all heard about calf raises and working those calves, but I haven’t heard a ton about working the opposing muscle.  Doesn’t that seem odd to you?  It does to me now that I think about it.  I’ve also read and looked up how strengthening the shin can help with shin splints.  I don’t frequently run so I don’t experience this, but it makes since that having an imbalance in muscle strengths could cause injury or pain/discomfort in the area of imbalance.  So let’s work on balancing our body. 

Here’s a recap with bullet points for my analytic peeps:

  • Squat & Forward Lunge (Quads)
  • Squat & Forward Lunge (Hammies & Glute Max)
  • Sumo Squat & Side Lunge (Adductors/Inner Thighs)
  • Fire Hydrant & Clam Shell (Glute Med & Abductors/Outer Thighs)
  • Calf Raise of any form (Calves)
  • Foot Flexing of any form (Shins)

Now that’s the calm version of pairing muscles to their exercise, but see below for the more involved version where I dive deeper into exercises that work more than one major muscle group.  Did I mention the legs are complex???

  • Quads, Hammies & Glutes:
    • Squat & Front Lunge – Glute Max, Hammies, Quads & Calves
  • Adductors/Inner Thighs:
    • Sumo Squat & Side Lunge – Glute Max, Hammies, Quads, Calves & Adductors
  • Abductors/Outer Thighs:
    • Fire Hydrant & Clam Shell – Glute Med, Glute Min & Abductors
  • Calves:
    • Calf Raise – mainly Calves
  • Shins:
    • Foot Flex – mainly Shins

So basically what we’ve learned is work the whole leg and not just certain parts.  The legs are very complex in the way they move, but if we break it down and think about working opposing muscles, it’s more manageable. 

What are YOUR favorite reasons to work the lower body?  I’d love to hear them in the comments.  Come on, don’t be shy!  We would love to hear them.

Next time, we are going to discuss the core and why its important to incorporate moves to strengthen them in your next workout.  Spoiler, you might already be doing this!!!