Core Strength and The Magical Muscle

Core strength.. We have all heard the term. After all, it has become quite the buzz word in the fitness world, especially in the Pilates and yoga communities, just to name a few. But what exactly is core strength, and how do we get it?

In traditional exercise and fitness routines, crunches and sit-ups have been the gold standard for core strength. So has the image of the “six-pack” or washboard abs. However, I am here to tell you that the gold standard is tarnished. So please allow me to shed some light (and hope) on the subject of core strength.

Core strength refers to developing the abdominal muscles that stabilize our pelvis and support our low back. The benefits of core strength include a healthy spine, decreased incidence of low back pain, and protects us from back injuries. But even better, a strong core gives us a flatter tummy and a trimmer waistline. Hmmmm, then why haven’t you been able to accomplish all of this with those crunches and sit-ups you’ve been grinding out over the years? Because you haven’t been targeting the right muscle.

The muscle that gets activated during a crunch is called the rectus abdominis. The fibers of this muscle go up and down the length of your torso from the bottom of your rib cage to your pubic bone. It’s a great muscle for bending your spine forward, but does not help give you the core strength that protects your back. In reality, doing crunches can actually injure your back and your neck if you’re not careful. Even worse, you can develop a strong muscle that protrudes out instead of in. Yikes!

The muscle you want to focus on is called the transverse abdominis. Like the rectus abdominis, this muscle runs along the entire length of your torso. However, the fibers of this muscle go from side to side instead of up and down along the length of your torso. When this muscle contracts, it flattens your tummy, lengthens your spine, stabilizes your pelvis, and strengthens your back. The muscle also wraps around your torso to connect to the muscles of your low back to give you a trimmer waistline. You got to love this muscle!

Here’s a simple (but not necessarily easy) exercise to find this magical muscleSit on the edge of a firm chair with your feet on the floor. Bring your attention to your lower belly. Notice how the belly pouches out a bit as you inhale, and comes in slightly as you exhale. Breathe in and out a few times until you feel the movement. Then, the next time you breathe out, gently but firmly pull your belly up and in toward the front of your spine.

You should feel a flattening and tightening of your lower abdominals as well as a lengthening of your spine. Feel yourself getting taller as you do a few repetitions. The contraction is not a shortening or “bearing down” movement; it is up and in, without rounding or arching your back. The rest of you should stay relatively relaxed, so you truly are isolating your transverse abdominis.

You can practice this exercise several times a day, just a few repetitions at a time, anytime you find yourself sitting at work, at home, in traffic, etc. In a short amount of time you will discover that your tummy is flatter and your abdominal muscles are stronger. Your posture will be better. It’s not magic, but it certainly feels like it. Because when you have core strength, you will be able to do things you never believed possible. Because when you have core strength, the sky’s the limit!

Dance….For Joy

Everyone knows that I’m crazy about dance. Any kind of dance, regardless of the style you practice or may be interested in is the motherlode for health and fitness. It doesn’t matter if you are a classical dancer or a closet dancer, nothing beats the benefits of dance.

I absolutely love the grueling regimen and relentless discipline of a professional level ballet class. However, it always raises eyebrows when I tell people that I take ballet class at least four or five times a week. I get the slow up and down appraisal and the unspoken question hangs in the air–“Really….at your age??”

Yep, really. At my age. And why not? I started my ballet “career” at the ripe old age of twenty, when most dancers are packing up their pointe shoes and retiring their tutus. I loved the physical aspect of ballet, as well as the artistic expression. Several of my friends and my family laughed at me for taking up ballet so “late in life,” but they stopped laughing when they saw the results.

Of course the health benefits of any type of dance is obvious–improved strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance, just to name a few. But even more compelling is the recent studies which have revealed that dance improves brain function. The combined effort of learning and remembering new dance steps while you challenge your balance and coordination as you listen to music stimulates your brain and awakens your nervous system. Who knew?

Well, I kind of knew, because sometimes I have to concentrate so hard to get complex ballet combinations that I can actually feel new synaptic connections being made in my brain. But it sure is nice to have my suspicions confirmed. The result is an increase in memory and mental function, spatial orientation, and peripheral vision. That certainly be enough to put on your dancing shoes!

Finally, there is nothing that can quite compare to the social aspect of dance and the exhilaration of getting together with a group of people who share a passion with you. One of the many reasons why I still go to ballet class is because it’s fantastic girlfriend time, and a lot of us have supported each other through a variety of life’s traumas and triumphs over the past thirty years. But the number one reason why I dance is simply because it fills my heart with joy. I couldn’t imagine saying that about a trip to the gym. Could you?

Just in case you’re still not convinced, check out the story about the Silver Swans. It’s a fabulous story and video about ladies who are starting their ballet training later in life. And they dance, for joy. See you at the barre!