The good news is that making an effort to strengthen your core, using a hard “core” workout, is as simple as adding a few or a handful of important steps into your regular workout routine.
What’s Your Core Really Good For?
First, let’s identify what we’re really talking about when we say the core.
If you removed your head, arms and legs, you’d have a good idea of what comprises the core. The buttocks muscles are an extension of the core, and they work to provide stability – but it’s best to leave them (mostly) out of your core workout routine so the other core muscles have a chance to engage. These trunk-oriented muscles are involved in almost every single movement your body makes.
But, there’s more to the core than meets the eye…
Core muscles are dynamic, three-dimensional muscle groups that run just about every direction: up-and-down, side-to-side and diagonally. If you aren’t focusing aspects of your workout on the entire core, some of these muscles become stronger and bulkier (typically the external layers), while the inner, more complex, layers languish and weaken over time.
A weak core contributes to:
- Rigidity. If the core is weak, you can have trouble tying your shoes, twisting your body to look behind you or even standing still for any length of time.
- Poor posture. Core muscles hold your body erect – providing unwavering support for the spine. If they are weak, your shoulders will slump, your body will begin to collapse inward around the belly area, eventually affecting healthy breathing and circulation patterns.
- Balance. Increasingly important as we age, a weak core will contribute to loss of balance. All of a sudden, bumpy surfaces, a sudden change in ground elevation or slight inclines can throw a weak core out of whack, leading to falls and potential injury.
- Pelvic weakness. Both men and women are prone to pelvic issues, but women are the most susceptible. Women (especially those who have given birth) are prone to things like urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, and other issues that result from a weak pelvic floor – which is part of the core. Women who make a dedicated effort to strengthen all areas of the core fare the best when it comes to age- and hormone-related pelvic issues.
- Back, neck and shoulder pain. If you are meticulous about observing proper form and ergonomics while weightlifting, but you still have back/neck/shoulder pain – odds are you aren’t doing enough for your deeper core muscles. In almost all cases, the first “treatment” for these types of issues is a specific core workout.
Workouts to Build a Stronger and More Flexible Core
On that note, let’s talk about the types of core workouts that develop your core so all muscle groups and layers are equally strong and balanced. A truly balanced or stable core exhibits five components:
- Motor control
Remove any of these components and core muscles will suffer.
Working with a professional trainer is the best way to identify where your weakest areas are, and which exercises are best for targeting those spots. It’s also a smart way to ensure your technique and form support core development, rather than wasting energy for nothing, or putting you at risk for musculoskeletal injuries.
Here is a list of workouts that target each of these facets of total core health.
Exercises for increasing core strength
Some of the exercises that increase core strength are the ones we’ve seen around the gym for a while. These include situps, crunches and reverse crunches. That said, those exercises only work out the outer-abdominals (predominantly the rectus abdominus and external obliques) but not the whole core.
Thus it’s wise to add other, more comprehensive core exercises into your routine:
The following exercises are ideal for those who like to work with weights:
Those exercises should also be augmented by exercises that are more body based, such as:
- The Stomach Vacuum. This is an essential core workout because it targets the inner-abdominal layers – the transversus abdominus and the lumbar multifidus, both of which are essential for spine and back support.
- Air Biking
- Frog Sit Ups
- Dead Bugs (these also build strength and stability in the hips and whole trunk)
Exercises for improving core flexibility
In addition to improving core flexibility, the following exercises are also gentle, relaxing and will help to release tension built up from a workday at the computer or a weekend with the in-laws.
Many of them are as simple as your first PE class instructor made them.
- Neck and Shoulder Rolls
- Frontal Core Stretch – Stand with legs hips-width apart and maintain firm abs. Then shift weight to the right foot/hip and extend the left arm up, gently reaching over your head, keeping your trunk parallel to the ground. Repeat on the other side.
- Gentle Standing Backbends. Again, standing with feet hips-width apart, stand straight with your back in alignment. Place hands behind your lower back, on the upper-buttocks, just above the hips. Slightly bend your head back and, while anchoring your center of gravity by pushing your hips slightly forward, begin rolling gently backwards until your body is at a comfortable, gentle backwards angle. Return to standing and repeat a handful of times.
Whole body exercises that work on the core
What about endurance, motor control and function? If you work all of the above exercises into your routine, you will go a long way towards improving all five of the components that comprise a healthy core.
However, there’s a better way to do it…
Both Yoga and Pilates are wonderful whole-body exercise programs that incorporate all five of the important core components into each class. If you can, add a yoga class or two to your weekly cardio and strength training regimen. The benefits will definitely be noticed.
Both Yoga and Pilates work all of your muscle groups in different ways, and in different combinations, than the average weight-training routine. Most weight training plans focus more on isolated muscle groups. Yoga and Pilates also work on stretching and lengthening muscles and connective tissue, increasing flexibility – decreasing your risk of injury.
Finally, a whole body approach to the core – using Yoga or Pilates also increases stamina, balance and motor coordination. All of which will benefit you in both your regular workout plan as well as in your everyday life.