So what's the scoop about abs? The benefits of a strong core go far beyond the aesthetic—in fact, they extend to all areas of your workouts and your daily life. First, let's chat about what makes up your core: The major players of your core are the transverse abdominal muscles in the front, the multifidi in the back, the pelvic floor muscles below, and the diaphragm above. When one of these pieces is not working correctly, this creates a bit of a hiccup. You are missing a piece of the puzzle - all four must work together to get the most benefit of your core. Body to breath just took on a whole other meaning, right??
Due to their location in the center of your body, strong core muscles improves movement efficiency, which makes exercise feel easier, supports proper form, and allows for a mega metabolic boost. Take running or HIIT training for example - a strong core helps you sustain solid form upon impact. Core strength allows the pelvis, hips, and lower back to work together more smoothly with less rocking and less excess energy expended. Not only does that bode well for your next run or HIIT training session, but regularly practicing good form can help you avoid strain or injury as you log those minutes or miles.
The added stability that comes with a strong core also plays a huge role in preventing injury and easing pain, especially in your back. Your core is not just the front of your body, but it also includes your lower back. When you strengthen your whole core it helps with injury prevention. Your core supports your spine, so having strong abdominal muscles takes the pressure off of your back. And the benefits are in the research: A study in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation found that chronic back pain sufferers who completed core exercises three times per week saw a 92% decrease in pain after six weeks.
Having a strong core may also improve your ability to do day-to-day movements. Just as strong abs can help you row, deadlift, sprint or overhead march, they will also support you as you lift and put away groceries, carry children and take out the garbage, making these activities easier and reducing end-of-day aches. In a study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, subjects who did core-strengthening exercise three times per week for four weeks saw a 35% improvement in all-around function.
Before I became pregnant with my first daughter Madison, I focused on having a strong core because I knew how important it was for my future pregnancy. Your center of gravity will be thrown off, as most your midsection is growing as your baby does. This growth puts great strain on your low back and as a result causes pain. Strengthening your core will give you a strong foundation as you start your pregnancy. It decreases the tension in your back which allows you to move with less discomfort as you continue through your pregnancy.
After you deliver your baby, you will now be lifting them from various surfaces. To name a few: a car seat, out of the crib, off the changing table, or off the floor. If you can effectively use your core AND proper body mechanics, your chances of having low back pain or other pains decrease. With nursing or bottle feeding, you are prone to neck strain or wrist pain with improper positioning. But this can be often overlooked - who's thinking about that during a 3am feed?! Being mindful of this prior to having your baby can provide tremendous relief to your body, all while still enjoying the newborn phase. It also helps prevent a separation in the rectus abdominal muscle, called diastasis recti. If you do happen to have diastases recti, postpartum is the time to close the separation, which is possible with proper exercises and precautions once cleared by your doctor. By strengthening your core, you it helps you avoid most pregnancy related “orthopedic” aches and pains.
Ok so we talked about the benefits and the muscle groups - now let's talk about what coaches mean when we say "engage your core" or "core tight". I try to avoid saying "belly button to spine" because this phrase results in people trying to suck in their stomach, which doesn’t do much good for training your muscles - in fact, it could deactivate your core. The intention is good here, but it doesn’t give the best understanding of how the core muscles work. The idea is to engage the transverse abdominis, a deep core muscle that acts like a armor to protect the lower back and helps create core stability. Instead of sucking in, try to think of activating this in the way you do when you're in the ocean at the beach, engaging all of the core muscles for impact. For "body to breath" - think of your rib cage expanding on your inhale, and as you contract - wrapping tightly and engaging all 4 areas of your core on your exhale. Sometimes it’s helpful to pause for a breath and visualize this. The stronger the TVA activation, the more engagement through all of the core muscles in our classes together.
Another cue instructors give is "spine down to the mat". The lower back needs to be anchored on the ground for the majority of abs work - when it pops off the floor, you put your back in a vulnerable, hyperextended position. So how do you fix this? Before you begin a rep, try to tilt the hips towards the front of your body and flatten out the natural arch in your spine just a bit. By pulling up with our abs, and squeezing down with our glutes, we can perform a hip tuck and close that gap. You can practice this in Core Warm-Up 02! Tucking the tailbone and tilting the hips is the first step but as we progress to more challenging exercises, you might need another adjustment. That’s when our upper back and shoulders come into play to recruit more strength from more of our abs. Before tucking your hands behind your head/neck, try to extend your arms straight and lifting them up to around a 45 degree angle, reaching as far forward as possible. This helps to pull the shoulders off the ground. Remember to keep the lower back pressed on the ground, rather than bringing up the entire back up and into a seated balance. Holding the flat back position with the shoulders up recruits even more of the abdominals into the move, which will deliver a proper burn!
Now that you're ready to go, try one of my top 3 exercises: bird-dogs, quarter get-ups and bicycle crunches. Bird-dogs are great because they are safe for almost anyone, and they really focus on your stability in your deep core muscles, as well as your hips, pelvis, spine and shoulders,. The quarter getup is essentially a rotational situp. It is a piece of the Turkish getup, a functional exercise to get up off the floor. Before you fully get up off the floor, you have to have the ability and strength get up under load. Enter the quarter get up! It's an incredible standalone movement. Bicycle crunches are great because you get the spinal rotation bringing your opposite elbow to knee, it’s always good to move your body in all planes, and you can really feel the burn! Craving more? Check out my Own Your Core 21-day Program available on KE On Demand.