When it comes to boosting your core muscles don’t underestimate the power of functional exercise. PT Nerissa Peach has these words for you:
What’s the difference between your abs and your core?
The words abs and core are often misguidedly interchanged, implying that they are the same thing. In fact, the abs makes up only a component of your core. The body’s core muscles (also known as the trunk) are made up of the transverse abdominis (TA), lumbar multifidus, diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles. The TA is the deepest of all four muscles. By learning how to activate your TA correctly, you will feel a greater sense of stability and control with all movements. The other muscles that round out the core include the lower-back, glutes and deep spinal stabilisers. Every step you take, every weight you lift and every movement you make must be stabilised by the muscles of the abdominals and the back to protect the spinal cord against injuries. It does not matter how strong your arms are, unless your torso can protect you by stabilising internally, your strength will be limited. The regular practice of core strength exercises will strengthen and stretch all the core postural muscles, making correct posture far less of a muscular effort and more of an unconscious act.
The centre of your body
Now, you may have heard of the terms The Centre, The Core or The Powerhouse. The CORE, is our centre! When doing a movement, if we lead with our arms or legs, we disconnect them from our centre. Always start a movement from your centre, connecting your limbs to your core, moving fluidly from the inside out. For example; when we perform a bicep curl, we activate our core first to prevent the body from swinging. In a push-up, we activate the core so that we prevent our torso from sinking. In a squat, we activate the core to maintain a straight back throughout the movement, and the list goes on. Correct exercise technique and posture all initiate from the centre or your ‘core’ and flow outward to the extremities. If you look at a ferris wheel, there is movement around the wheel, but the powerhouse is the centre because everything is controlled from there. This is how you should view your body. Your centre or core should be your first priority, because without sufficient strength in this area you are vulnerable to injury.
Boosting your core through functional exercise
Even though you may go and workout in the gym, most often than not, you are only exercising the major muscles. The smaller deeper muscles then switch off. In time, these smaller muscles become weaker and less able to support us, which then starts to create an imbalance within our body. How often do you hear of someone ‘doing their back in’ when they are performing some relatively minor task? One probable reason is that their deeper trunk muscles (mutifidus and transverse abdominis) are not in good working order and are not able to support the spine. These muscles work on reflex and because reflex is not stimulated when sitting on a normal chair, the reflex action becomes “out of action”. Another important note; the body doesn’t use the muscles the way we develop them on weight machines. Most health club machines isolate specific muscles, such as the biceps, triceps or deltoids. In the real world, muscles seldom work in isolation. Instead of isolated muscle contractions, common movements use many muscle groups activated in strict sequences. Simple actions like walking, playing tennis or golf, even just hanging a picture on the wall, all require coordinated actions of whole of muscles. Strong, fit, core muscles stabilise the midsection when you sit, stand, reach, walk, jump, twist, squat, throw or bend. Isolated muscle development leads to imbalances and doesn’t prepare the body for ‘real life’ movements.
Muscle imbalances can also cause the misalignment of muscles and bones. Chronic misalignment can lead to poor posture and dysfunctional movement patterns. This is why postural alignment is one of the utmost importances during any workout. When exercise is being performed correctly, stabilisers (specifically the TA) are activated during the entire exercise. If your posture is not good, your muscles will have to work in an incorrect manner. So take up your stance in front of the mirror and adopt what you consider to be good posture, and note the following:
Are your shoulders level?
•Hip bones are equal and on the same plane.
•The knee joints are symmetrical and face
•The ankle joints are symmetrical.
•The weight of the body is equally distributed between all three tri points (heel of big toe, heel of little toe and centre of heel).
•The natural curves of your spine are maintained.
•Head is held straight and eyes are level.
During most exercises (unless otherwise directed) you should ensure that your back is not flat or pushed into the floor, although this is tempting in order to achieve a flatter tummy. A healthy spine has natural curves that should be preserved and respected but not exaggerated. The term ‘neutral spine’ refers to the natural alignment of the spine. To check if your spine is in the correct position, flatten your back to the floor then arch it. Neutral spine is the comfortable position between the two. This position protects your spine. Another way is by finding neutral pelvis. Neutral spine is set by your neutral pelvis. Neutral pelvis means that the lines from your belly button to your pubic bone and from hip to hip are level – imagine balancing a glass of water on your pubic bone, and avoid over tucking the hips so that the butt lifts off the mat.
The pelvic floor muscles are often ignored but are important to exercise too. They are the band of three muscles and connective tissue around the vagina and anus. They support all the organs between the pubic bone and tailbone. Core exercises will help strengthen these muscles that have to bear the additional weight of pregnancy, and will relieve back and foot pain stemming from already weak and imbalanced muscles that are further strained by pregnancy. Strong pelvic floor muscles are so important in childbirth, making labour and delivery easier! Even if you have had your children, it is never too late to improve this area. An added bonus is that well trained pelvic floor muscles may also improve orgasmic potential in women and erectile function in men. Pelvic floor muscle activity is a ‘lift and squeeze’ movement – it is the action used to stop midstream urine flow and to stop the passage of wind.
At first, you may be able to perform only short holds, but the aim is eventually to hold each contraction for 10 seconds, aiming to repeat the hold 10 times. Pelvic tilts will also help you isolate the abdominal muscles.
In addition to normal breathing you should ensure to do some lateral breathing during core exercises as well. When starting out, strive to master the general movement first, and then focus on the breathing patterns. It is often the case that correct breathing patterns start to come naturally as the body tries to help itself. At times of tension and stress, breathing is usually irregular and shallow, and does not completely fulfil your need for oxygen. If you learn to control your breathing during your core exercises, it will help you to maintain your energy and stay relaxed. Breathing deeply will allow you greater range of motion. Never hold your breath when exercising! So, breathe wide and full into the ribs, taking them out to the sides as you inhale and bringing them back together as you exhale; breathing in through the nose and breathing out through the mouth. Avoid breathing into the stomach or high into the chest as this can also involve lifting the shoulders and chest.