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 muscle. Sit 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!