Whether you compete in endurance or strength competitions, recreational or professional sports, or consider yourself an athlete or not, you have a body. And your body has a torso of awesomeness. This torso of awesomeness, more officially referred to as your core or powerhouse, needs to be agile, strong, supple, fluid, and sturdy. Wow, apparently we’re quite demanding of this pillar of stability and mobility!
What you need to know about your core
What Is Your Core?
As the core is not a specific muscle, there is some discrepancy on what is included. I like to think of the core as all the muscles and connective tissues that support your spine. Yep, your entire torso area, sans limbs. Together, these muscles allow you to stabilize your spine while moving your furniture around, transfer energy while swinging a golf club, and provide the necessary range of motion to extend yourself when surfing.
The Importance of the Core
Your entire body is connected through meticulously woven tissues (fascia), creating a web of influence from your toes to fingers. What you do with the rest of your body while working your core is just as important as the movement itself. Important: During these exercises, you can discover your very own compensation patterns and where you hold unnecessary tension. The better you understand your own habits, the easier it will be to improve muscular balance and prevent injury.
Are Crunches Bad?
Culturally, we have placed an exaggerated emphasis on the 6-pack (rectus abdominus) as representing strong abdominal muscles. Striving for this image of a fit stomach has fueled the obsession of doing abdominal crunches (also known as abdominal curls, as we curl or crunch our spine into flexion, bringing the upper body towards the lower body). Yet let’s be honest, focusing on strengthening only one area is like building a house with a thick oak door and weak walls made of hay. It just doesn’t make sense. When done correctly, crunches can be beneficial. Improper form and overexertion can put stress on your lower back and spine, so make sure you include variations in your ab workout that do not just include endless crunches.
Go Slow When Doing Core Strengthening
To best address and recognize your own alignment during movement (which will determine how safely and efficiently you’re moving), these exercises emphasize slow, controlled, and small movements. Notice if anything changes between movements (e.g. breathing pattern, clenching of the toes, tucking of the pelvis, flaring of the ribcage, tensing of the jaw, etc.). Faster does not always mean better or more effective. Often going slow can mean deeper movements with muscles being recruited and engaged.
Our body is designed to move dynamically, hence why we need to train dynamically. Exploring new movements in the body can improve your blood circulation, muscular balance, body awareness, strength, and range of motion. Get ready to roll!
Essential Core Strengthening Exercises
Set Up: Lay on back with legs parallel to each other, pelvic-width apart.
- Pelvis: We’re going to use 3 bony points as markers to help position your pelvis, your ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine—we have one on each side) and your pubic bone. To find your ASIS, place your hands on each side on the top crest of your pelvis, follow the curve of the bone towards the front and downward and you will hit a ridge/slightly bony protrusion. These are your ASIS.
- Self-Check: Place your palms on your ASIS and fingers reaching towards your pubic bone. You want these 3 bony markers to be level. (If your pelvis is tucked, these points will not be level, as the pubic bone will be lifted higher than your two ASIS.)
- Your Spine: Envision the natural curves of your spine and try to simulate this while on your back. There will probably be a small gap between your lower back (lumbar spine) and the mat. The back ribs (thoracic spine) will lay on the mat (if you’re a notorious “rib thruster” like myself, the ribs may pop up instead. Yet you can still envision reaching the back ribs towards the ground – without tucking the pelvis).
- Upper body stays relaxed. Inhale to prepare.
- On an exhale:
- Solidify your core by creating a tense tube-like sensation around your spine. Do a self-check on any compensation patterns–did you tuck your pelvis, curl your shoulders inward, or tense your jaw?
- Hover feet 1mm off the ground. Seriously. 1mm. You should be able to feel the texture of your mat–that’s how close you are.
- Hold for 1 to 3 breaths. Slowly lower. Repeat until fatigued and your compensation patterns arise. Remember, quality over quantity.
- Follow Set Up and Movement steps in Exercise #1.
- Once legs are hovering (on an exhale), inhale and glide your arms slowly to the sky.
- If your spine has maintained its shape (make sure your ribs aren’t flaring outward, thus arching your back), lengthen your arms as far back as comfortable.
- Exhale lower the arms slowly, followed by lowering your feet. Repeat until fatigued and your compensation patterns arise. Remember, quality over quantity.
- Follow Set Up and Movement steps in Exercise #1
- Option for arms to remain at sides or create “goal posts.” Be mindful of what happens to your rib cage if you lift your arms into goal posts.
- Initiating movement from the torso (instead of legs), exhale and hinge lower body to the right. Repeat on left. Make sure that your bottom and ribs do not lift away from the ground as you hinge from side to side.
- Here’s the doozy: keep your feet hovering 1mm above the ground at all times while keeping the legs apart and parallel.
- Repeat until fatigued and your compensation patterns arise. Remember, quality over quantity (yep, I’m going to keep saying it over and over. Come on, you know you love being a quality kid).
What are your favorite core strengthening exercises?