How many times have you had an instructor, article or workout video tell you to “engage your core”? Most of us know we need to strengthen it, can feel it burning when it’s tired and know we should be engaging it throughout the day and during exercise. But what IS the core. What is it made of? And what specifically does it need to be strengthened?
What is the core made of?
To put it very, very simply: Your core is made up of the adominals (Rectus Abdominis & Transverse Abdominis), the obliques (Internal Oblique & External Oblique), the muscles of the back (Erector Spinae Group), and the muscles of the pelvic floor.
Movements of The Core
Diving a little deeper you should also know the functions/movements of the core so you can strengthen them properly. (Trunk and Core can be used interchangibly)
- Trunk Flexion: Bending forward or “curl up” movement
- Trunk Extension: Standing straight up from bent over position, bending backwards
- Trunk Rotation: Twisting from left to right
- Lateral Trunk Flexion: Bending from side to side
- Compression of the Abdomen: Drawing your belly button in towards the spine
- Spinal Stability: The ability to hold your spine stable during movement
What Does The Core Need to be Strengthened?
To functionally train and strengthen the core you should choose exercises that challenge all ranges of motion the core can move through. Trunk rotation, or twisting left and right, is often the most underused form of core strengthening though we perform this action countless times during the day. (Side note: Functional training is simply training movements in the gym that you commonly use in your daily activities and/or fixing the improper movements you perform or reinforce in your daily activities (desk posture for example)
Spinal stability, or the ability to hold your spine stable during movement, is a key component of having a healthy and functional core. Think of when you pick up something heavy from the floor or move something from one place to another. This is one of the most important times to “engage your core” to prevent improper lifting or injury to the back. A basic exercise to learn to engage the core and hold the spine stable during movement is a pelvic tilt.
In the starting position of a pelvic tilt your back should be separated from the floor (there is a gap between your low back and the floor). Rotate your hips by drawing your belly button in towards your spine, tucking your tailbone or “tucking your tail between your legs” and flatten your low back so you are pressing against the floor. You should be pressing hard enough that someone could not slide their hand between your low back and the floor. Perform this movement 10 times, holding your low back against the floor for 10 seconds. Make sure to breathe.
Once you have mastered the pelvic tilt laying down, you are one step closer to being able to “engage your core”! The next task is to master this movement in standing. Standing with a neutral spine is a safe and effective start position for exercise. The anterior tilt photo is the same as the start position of the pelvic tilt on the ground. The posterior tilt photo is the same as the finishing position of the pelvic tilt on the ground. The “happy medium” between the two where you are standing tall with you core slightly engaged/supportive/drawn in is called neutral spine.
Neutral spine can also be referred to as “flat back position”. Prior to picking up a heavy object you should find your pelvic-tilt-happy-medium or neutral spine position to ensure your core is supporting your spine. This will greatly decrease your risk of injury during heavy lifting, or any lifting really.
Ready, Set, Strengthen!
Now that you have practiced and are familiar with what it REALLY means to “engage the core” you are ready to start strengthening. Try these 6 core strengthening exercises in your next workout or at home! You will notice there are 6 different movements performed in these exercises. You are now functionally training your core by strengthening it in the ranges of motion it is able to move through.
Toe Touches: 2-3 sets of 20 reps
Reverse Lunge with Weight Transfer/Rotation: 2-3 sets of 20 reps each side
Trunk Extension/Superman: 2-3 sets of 20 reps
Side Plank Oblique Crunch: 2-3 sets of 15 reps on each side
Dead Bug: 2-3 sets of 20 reps keeping back flat on floor (pelvic tilt)
Deadlift/Spinal Stability: 2-3 sets of 20 reps (IMPORTANT: Begin with body weight. Keep core engaged during movement with a neutral spine/flat back position. Body weight should be in your heels, squeeze you butt and hips forward to stand, keeping neutral spine position.)