Sit-ups just don’t cut it anymore. Neither do crunches. The area those exercises target isn’t even called “abs” anymore. When it comes to building core strength, the techniques are as varied as the muscles that help your pelvis, lower back, glutes, upper thighs and abdomen work in harmony.
“Core strength keeps our spine in alignment, our hips stable and makes being in our body more comfortable,” says Tony Riposo, director of Infinite Light Yoga of Syracuse, which offers classes at Medical Center West in Camillus and May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in DeWitt. “We can think of our core like a tightly wrapped ace bandage supporting a knee or wrist. When an area is held together or supported, it has greater stability, which makes it possible to safely move through its range of motion and applied forces of action. By strengthening your core muscles, you will be able to keep your skeletal stability during exertion.”
But why is core muscle strength so important? “Core strengthening exercises theoretically strengthen the surrounding muscular ‘strut’ of the spine, thus enhancing the ability of the patient to support the injured backbone,” says Robert Tiso, M.D., director of the New York Spine and Wellness Center, 5496 E. Taft Road, North Syracuse.
When the core is strong, you’ll automatically feel better balance and stability, whether on the playing field or in daily activities. In fact, most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles. When the muscles are weak or underused, the skeletal system can be strained.
“If the applied force on the hinging joint is greater than the strength that holds that joint together,” says Riposo, “it will be pulled or pushed out of its original placement and can lead to injury. This happens more frequently the farther away from the hinging joint the forces are applied. If you strengthen core muscles the skeletal system can be more effectively utilized with less risk of injury. Things are held in place and applied forces are less strenuous on our body.”
The East Area Family YMCA holds a weekly core training class for ages 8 and older. “Core muscles generate all of our power/strength during exercise, as well as being a big player with form and posture,” says Jason Patti, senior program director of Health & Wellness at the facility, with locations in Fayetteville and Manlius. “Most people think of just the abdominal muscles, when they think of core muscles, but actually our core muscles encompass all of our muscles from below the chest to above the knee. The trunk is the center of power for skilled performance in both a literal and physical sense.”
Strong core muscles make it easier to do everything from swinging a golf club to getting a glass from the top shelf or bending down to tie your shoes. Weak core muscles leave you susceptible to poor posture, lower back pain and muscle injuries.
Patti suggests that we view the body as a chain; it is only as strong as its weakest link. Force cannot be transferred efficiently between the upper and lower body if the midsection lacks strength to stabilize the lower torso during movement. The body needs a strong foundation (core muscles) from which to direct effort so that energy that is created for movement ends up being part of the movement and not wasted.
What’s more, core exercises don’t require specialized equipment. Any exercise that involves the use of your abdominal and back muscles in coordinated fashion counts as a core exercise. A bridge is a classic core exercise. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Keep your back in a neutral position, not arched and not pressed into the floor. Avoid tilting your hips. Tighten your abdominal muscles. Raise your hips off the floor until they are aligned with your knees and shoulders. Hold the position for as long as you can without breaking your form.
If you enjoy yoga, you’ll be glad to know your practice incorporates plenty of core work. “Yoga is a great way to develop core strength,” explains Riposo. “A well-rounded yoga posture sequence works the entire body but the best part is how it strengthens the core muscles. While practicing yoga you are encouraged to move slowly and mindfully while coordinating the movement with your breath. As a result you become more aware of how your body works and how the muscles create the action which translates into posture. If yoga is practiced mindfully, and you pay attention to what the body is doing, you will develop the strength needed to hold everything in place during physical activity.”
What if you work at a desk all day? Make sure your chair, desk and keyboard are at the optimal height. The top of your computer screen should be at or slightly below eye level, and the desk height should allow your forearms to rest comfortably at a 90-degree angle. Work with your feet flat on the floor and your back against the chair.
Whether you work in an office or at home, get up and stretch every 30 to 60 minutes. Stretching helps break bad patterns and resets your muscles back to neutral. Stand up and place your hands on your lower back, as if you were sliding them into your back pockets. Gently push your hips forward and slightly arch your back. Sit back down and circle your shoulders backward, with your chin tucked, about 10 times.
If you’ve suffered an injury, working on your core could hasten your recovery. According to Tiso, the general principles of back rehabilitation include a period of relative calmness and exercise avoidance during the acute phase of injury (one to three days) followed by a gradual movement toward a structured exercise regimen of cardio, which may include swimming, recumbent biking, walking or elliptical training depending on the diagnosis; stretching to correct muscular shortening/spasm contributing to asymmetric stresses on the spine; and eventually core strengthening to maintain the muscular support strut.
“All of these exercises are important,” he says, “in addition to an
overall emphasis on wellness including a healthy weight, smoking
cessation and workplace ergonomic evaluation.”
Marnie Blount-Gowan is a member of the Crouse Hospital Integrative Health Alliance, Mind Body Health instructor and editor of Realewell.com.