What you need to know about your core muscles and why they should matter to you
Engage your core! How many times have you heard that statement? But what does it really mean to engage your core? During my study as a physiotherapist assistant in Human Anatomy & Physiology, there was no mention of such body part as “the core”, so what part of your body do you engage? Whether you are aware of it or not, you engage your core in just about every movement in your daily life. It’s a common misconception for people to refer to their chiseled six-pack as their core. The core is much more than your desired six-pack.
What is the Core?
Simply put, the core is the torso minus the arms and the legs. The muscles of the core wrap around the entire torso. The core acts as a stabilizer for the centre force of the body. All functional movements rely on the core.
A great analogy is that of a tree. The amount of stress that any single branch can withstand is entirely dependent on the amount of stability and strength that the trunk can provide. Even the strongest and thickest tree branch cannot handle a heavy load placed on it if the trunk of the tree is weak, the trunk will simply break and the branch will drop. Likewise, the amount of load or stress that your arms or legs can withstand is entirely dependent on the strength and stability of your core. And as in the tree analogy, if you place a great demand on your arms or legs without engaging your core, it may result in serious debilitating injuries. Hence the prevalence of chronic lower back paint, particularly in those who experience a decrease in strength associated with aging and sedentary lifestyle.
What Muscles Make Up the Core?
Obliques (internal and external): primarily involved when you twist your torso
Transverse Abdominis (the deepest abdominal muscle); the muscle used to suck in your belly, it compresses your abdomen
Rectus Abdominis (six-pack): primarily involved when you sit up, or bend down by curling up
Erector Spinae: the muscles that extend your back to straighten it after curling up
Together they support and stabilize your spine and torso.
Why Train the Core?
Most people will be disappointed to hear that core training does not in fact burn belly fat. That popular myth of the 1990s has long been debunked and it’s well known now that reducing belly fat requires a combination of reducing the amount of calories you eat and increasing the amount of calories you burn (cardio!).
Despite that, there are several reasons why everyone should train their core. Firstly, training your core at the gym and engaging it during your activities of daily living is essential towards performing those activities with greater ease and with minimal risk of injury. So even the simplest tasks such as walking, running, and lifting or moving objects becomes easier and less likely to result in injury. For example, strong core muscles can prevent back pain in pregnant women during late pregnancy and can also facilitate pushing during labor. Secondly, from an aesthetic standpoint, training your core will usually result in a smaller waistline, even at rest. So you become stronger in everything you do, and you look slimmer doing it!
What Are Some Core Exercises?
Simple and easy core exercises include the plank, the bridge, and the lateral bridge / side plank. The best part is that all three exercises can be done at home and don’t require any exercise equipment. So training your core is convenient and won’t cost you anything.
On a side note: for those of you who perform Kegels, they are also considered to be a type of core exercise that is beneficial to urinary health, bladder control, reducing lower back pain, and of course increasing sexual health by increasing vaginal sensation as well as the frequency and intensity of orgasms.
You can choose to do these exercises as a part of your daily routine, or only a few times a week when you are at the gym. The most important thing is that you use that newly formed strength by focusing on engaging your core in your daily activities.
How Do You Engage Your Core?
Engage your core by tightening the muscles around you abdominals. A common misnomer and potentially dangerous mistake is sucking in your stomach as many people do. This is both counter-productive and dangerous, as it will weaken your movements and put you at risk of getting injured. The key is to engage your core when lifting, pushing, or pulling objects, as well as when walking on uneven surfaces.
Here are 3 helpful tips to activate your core:
Pull up from the pelvis area of your abdominal (six pack), and bend ever so slightly. You should feel outward push on the abdomen.
Breathe forcefully as if you were blowing a flute or about to cough, you should feel your abdomen lose its softness and become stiff.
Place you hands on either side of your abdomen, then push your hands away using you abdominals.
With enough practice you will learn to engage your core instinctually, and you won’t have to consciously prepare for it. While it might seem like a huge burden at first, the long-term payoffs are more strength in your movements, a slimmer waistline, decreased risk of injury, and most importantly, an increased quality of life!
Source credit: MTFIT.CA by Mahdi Altalibi and Tyler Rabey. Certified personal trainers and head trainers at Klub Athletik Griffintown