One often overlooked element to a successful exercise program is focusing time on strengthening your abdominal and core muscles around the pelvis and back. Major muscle groups include: Upper and Lower abdominals (stomach), Oblique’s (lower sides of torso), Latissimus Dorsi (mid back), Quadratus Lumborum (lower back) and Erector Spinae (a band of muscles that run vertical to the spine). Six pack abs are great to look at and we all want them, however all core muscles are critical to improved health and provide stability for the movement of the body.
By strengthening your core, you will:
· Avoid more injuries
· Increase your endurance and stamina
· Enhance protection of your spine
· Improve your stability and balance
· Relax tense muscles, especially your lumbar muscles in your lower back
· Aid in building and maintaining cardiovascular health
When I started running, I wasn’t aware of core training and I would tire out quickly even on short runs. I noticed my abs, back and next would get sore and impede my running. Once I began working on my core not only did my endurance and speed increase, my arms, neck and shoulders were less fatigued. I began to enjoy my runs and became a much stronger swimmer.
Core strengthening exercises have come a long way from the old school days when crunches and sit-ups ruled the day. Core exercises can be done at home on carpet or padded yoga mat. Focus on tightening your transversus and rectus abdominis, the deepest and largest abdominal muscles you feel when you cough. It is important to always keep your head and neck in line with you spine to prevent injury and to maximize each exercise. Finally, breathe deeply and freely during each exercise to avoid becoming light headed and to maximize oxygen in your blood and muscles.
Planks work upper and lower abs and are an excellent all around core exercise for strength and stability. Stretch out face down on the floor and support your weight on your forearms and toes with legs straight. Hold this position for a count of 15 seconds while keeping your body straight and as still as possible and your head in line with your spine. Repeat 5 sets. As you get stronger, you can hold the position longer.
To work the obliques, do the same exercise positioned on your side. In a stretched out position, support your weight on your forearm and toes, keeping your legs straight and your head in line with your neck. Hold for 15 seconds for five sets.
Supermans server as a nice stretch and strengthen the lower back muscles that are often the source of back pain. Lie with your stomach on the ground, arms extended overhead and legs straight. It’s OK to think you are Superman saving the world! Raise both arms and legs as high as possible and hold for 15 seconds, keeping arms and legs straight and holding core tight. Be sure to keep your head and neck in line with your spine. Slowly lower arms and legs and repeat for five sets.
Bird Dog strengthens your entire core including your abs, lower back, hip muscles and glutes in you bottom. Get on your hands and knees with palms flat on the floor and shoulders hip width apart. Your knees should be bent at 90 degrees. Relax your lower back and tighten your abs. Raise your right arm and left leg until they are fully extended and in line with your body and hold for 15 seconds. Return to starting position and repeat raising your left arm and right leg. You can also alternate right arm/left leg and left arm/right leg to a count of 15. Repeat either variation for five sets.
Leg Lifts work the lower abs. Lie on your back with your bottom about 12 inches from a wall. Keep your legs straight and heels against the wall. Using your lower abs, pull your thighs toward your head while lifting your bottom until your legs are perpendicular to the floor. You want to focus on moving your thighs and not your feet as this will best you’re your abs. Hold this position for 15 seconds then lower your heels back to the wall. Repeat for five sets.
What would core work be without at least one crunch? This exercise works the upper and lower abs together. Lie on your back with your legs bent 90 degrees and your heels resting on a bench or kitchen chair. Together lift your shoulders and bottom. Curl up by bringing your shoulders and hips towards your stomach. Stop when your shoulders and lumbar (lower back) spine have left the floor. Pause in this position and squeeze your abs. Return to the starting position and repeat, exhaling during the contraction and inhaling as your lower your shoulders to the floor. Do for a count of fifteen and repeat for five sets.
I aggressively work my core every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I also do simple crunches every day more so to help me develop a routine while adding to my core strength. When starting core work you will experience some soreness which is a good sign your muscles are working. Over time the soreness will dissipate and you will be able to increase the time and or reps of each exercise. Some good websites include http://www.workoutbox.com/exercises/core-exercises/, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PI9Kvk_HMO8, and http://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/core-exercises. Good luck in building your core and the next time someone tells you they need a “six pack” you can help the out without making a trip to the market and may even be able to show them what a real “six pack” looks like!
Here is to being fit for a lifetime!