‘Strengthen your core’ is a message we hear a lot in the gym these days. Trainers will tell you to ‘squeeze your core’ or ‘build up your core muscles.’ But why is this important for you and how should you go about doing it?
Firstly, we need to address what your core actually is. Your core muscles refer to not just your abdominal region muscles like your ‘six pack abs’, but to all the muscles that lie underneath your abdominal layer, including your intercostal muscles and your pelvic floor.
All of these muscles work together to provide you with good posture and support for your upper body. If you have a weak core, you could incur problems such as back pain, incorrect posture and injury whilst training or even from sitting for long periods. If you think about it, you have a lot of weight bearing down on your lower vertebrae. This can cause your lower back a lot of stress, and without strong core muscles to help out, your back is going to suffer in the long term.
So, what exercises can you do to help with your core strength? The answer to this question depends on which regions you want to strengthen. Functionally speaking, your abdominals are important for movement like sitting up off the ground. However, it's the internal corset muscles which provide the support of your mid section which need attention as well.
Below are some exercises you can try to get you on your way to developing a strong core. (Note: Please seek the advice of a medical professional before starting any new exercise program.)
The hollow position
One of the most beneficial positions you can practice to strengthen your abdominals is called the hollow position, which works your internal and external muscles all at once when done correctly. It can be practised on your back, in a plank position or even in a handstand.
To achieve the basic level of this position, start on your back and lift your arms and legs up to create a ‘U’ shape. Focus on pushing your belly button into the ground, making sure your back remains in contact with the ground the entire time. Now squeeze your chest and hips together bringing your shoulders off the ground. If this is easy, keeping your middle in this exact position, slowly lower your arms and legs down to the ground. If you lose the ‘hollow’ position at any time, bring your arms and legs back closer together.
The plank position
When holding a plank position, your entire core should be actively engaged. Avoid falling into lazy mode and allowing your arms and feet do all the work. Instead, focus on squeezing the belly button to your back and tucking in your pelvis forward underneath whilst squeezing your glutes to activate your core. To strengthen your oblique muscles, side planks are a great exercise option.
Pelvic floor exercises
Locating and utilizing the pelvic floor is not a common practice but an integral part of your core strength. Some people have a hard time switching on their pelvic floor, as it is a very internal muscle and can be hard to locate and exercise However,strengthening the pelvic floor is extremely important for avoiding incontinence and to support your body. For women, exercising their pelvic floor can be crucial as it can become very stretched due to pregnancy and childbirth.
Activating your pelvic floor has often been described as having a similar sensation to holding in your bladder. Try to replicate this feeling on an empty bladder, squeezing your pelvic floor muscles for 10 seconds then resting for 10 seconds, completing 10 sets.
Exercising your other abdominal muscles
Your other abdominal muscles can be easily worked through crunches, v-snaps, sit-ups, toe touches and more! If sit ups are too challenging, start with crunches. If you find sit ups too easy, try V-snaps, where you lie on your back, touch your hands and feet together over the middle of your body and then bring them back down to the ground.
Take note: if you feel any back pain whilst performing these exercises, stop immediately and seek the help of an exercise professional to learn how to properly strengthen your core.
Remember, your core plays a key part in so many areas of health: good posture and support, reducing injury, back pain and incontinence, as well as helping you in all sporting and exercise endeavours so it pays to keep it healthy and strong!