What Is Core Strength And How Do I Maintain It?

healthy young woman stretching before Fitness and Exercise

After a long winter, a lockdown, and extended periods working from home, you may find you have been leading a pretty sedentary life. However, sitting a lot more than usual can mean the core muscles aren’t being challenged as much, so it might be time to pay them some attention!

What Are The Core Muscles?

The core muscles are those located throughout your midsection that surrounds the stomach, spine, and pelvis. This includes the abdominal muscles in the front, the muscles within the lower back, and those around your sides.

More technically speaking, the core muscle group includes the long rectus abdominal muscles in the front of the stomach, the external and internal oblique’s on the sides of the stomach, the transversus abdominis, a group of muscles, called the erector spinae, the multifidus muscles deep in the back, the gluteal muscles in the buttocks, the pelvic floor muscles, the iliacus and the psoas muscles and the quadratus lumborum in your lower back on either side of the lumbar spine.

What Do Core Muscles Do?

Core muscles play a fundamental role in stabilising the spine and pelvis, providing strength and support when the body moves through its full range of motion. For this reason, core muscles are essential for injury prevention, particularly around the lower back, and for maintaining good posture.

We use our core muscles every day. Getting up out of a chair, standing, walking, running, bending, and performing pretty much any of our daily tasks requires the core muscles to support the lower back and maintain balance. Core muscles are also important for all sporting activities, exercising and lifting.

How To Strengthen Your Core – Some Exercises To Do At Home

Strengthening your core muscles is often a significant part of rehabilitation from back injuries because those with weak core muscles are more prone to back injury. So regular maintenance of the core muscles is an important part of any exercise routine. Any exercise that activates the core muscles is useful to help improve core strength; however, exercises that directly target the specific muscles are the best.

Getting Started

If you haven’t worked on your core in a long time, always start slowly, focus quality over quantity, gradually increasing the number of repetitions as you feel able. And remember to do a quick warm-up before you begin. Afterward, it is beneficial to stretch your muscles, especially the hip flexors and hamstrings; this increases flexibility in the muscles around the core.

The 5 Best Core Exercises

The best approach to strengthening your core is working several core muscle groups at the same time. The following exercises are perfect for beginners through to more advanced levels; adapt the length and level of stretch to suit.

1. Bridges

Lying on your back with legs bent to 90 degrees, lift hips and back off the floor to form a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold this position for five to ten seconds, then lower to the floor and repeat ten to twelve times.

The Bridge is effective because it creates contraction of all of the muscles from the rib cage down to the pelvis and around into the back.

2. Plank Lifts

Lying face down on the floor, prop yourself up using your forearms (keep knees and feet together), lift your entire body off the floor and keep it in a straight line from head to toe (resting only on your forearms and toes). Hold for 10 seconds. For a more advanced level, raise each leg one at a time a few inches from the ground. For a more beginner level, modify your plank to use the knees instead of your feet to hold your weight. Lower and repeat.

Planks are one of the best core-strengthening exercises because they create full contraction of the core and the upper arm and shoulder muscles, almost like holding a push-up position. The idea is you hold strong like a ‘wooden plank.’

3. Opposite Arm And Leg Raise (Superman)

Lying face down with your arms and legs extended out straight,  raise your right arm and left leg off the floor (approximately 10 cm). Hold for 5 seconds, and then lower to the floor. Repeat the same action with the left arm and right leg. For a more beginner level, begin on your hands and knees, extend your left leg and right arm so they are level with your torso, repeat for the other side. Ten reps on each side is a good starting point.

Leg and arm raises contract the core muscles on the opposite side to the extended limbs as they must engage to maintain the movement. Ensure movements are slow and purposeful; it’s not about speed.

4. Metronomes

Laying on your back, bend the knees and raise the feet slightly off the floor; extend the arms out to your sides but keep them on the floor. Rotate your knees to the left, bringing the knees as close to the floor as possible but not touching them. Return to the center, then move your knees to the right side, try ten to twelve reps per side.

Metronomes are great for the obliques and for building key rotational core strength.

5. Side Planks

Lying on your right-hand side, lift and support your body using your right forearm and right foot, keep the left arm resting lightly on your left side for a moment, then extend it at right angles to your body towards the ceiling. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds, bring the arm in, and lower the body to the floor. Switch sides and repeat.

The side plank challenges stability control and works the muscles along the side of your body.

Here is a link to some beginners pilates for core strengthening. The teacher provides excellent instruction!  

4 Benefits Of Good Core Strength

Improving your core strength has numerous benefits for the body and overall health; here are the top 4!

  1. Injury Prevention. Strong core muscles mean the back is well supported, and postural imbalances are corrected, making you less likely to succumb to injury. This is one of the biggest benefits of core strengthening.
  2. Improved Athletic Performance. Strength in your core equals strength in all other areas of the body. All powerful movements originate in the core; the core strength allows the transfer of power to the arms and legs, shoulders, and thighs.
  3. Better Posture. Weak core muscles often result in loss of the lumbar curve resulting in a swayback posture. Strong core muscles help maintain the natural curvature of the spine, reducing unnecessary strain and improving posture.
  4. Reduction In Back Pain. Core strength is vital for protecting and stabilising the back; strengthening the core can reduce back pain.

If you are suffering from injury or back pain, always consult your osteopath or another medical practitioner before beginning any stretching/strengthening/ mobilisation programme.  These exercises may not be suitable for some people. Enjoy!

Better Health Osteopathy
Better Health Osteopathy
Lorraine Herity is the Clinic Director of Better Health Osteopathy in Christchurch, New Zealand. She previously worked in Osteopathic clinics in London and Ireland, before moving to New Zealand. Lorraine trained at the British School of Osteopathy in London, where she gained her Master of Osteopathy (M.Ost). Lorraine is a dedicated and passionate Osteopath. Her main aim is to help her patients regain their health, and to return her patients back to their everyday activities, in as quick a time as possible.

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