Our core is the foundation of all movements. Your abdominal muscles play an essential role in everyday movement, controlling rotation, forward bending, extension, side flexion, and many additional motions. Multiple injuries can occur when your core is weak, playing a role in pain in your back, neck, hip, and knees. How can you tell if your core is weak? Have you been pregnant? Gained weight? Back problems? Abdominal surgeries? If you answered yes to any of these questions and/or you are not actively exercising your core, chances are your core is weak. Did you know that having a strong core has NOTHING to do with crunches? You can do crunches all day! All you will accomplish is building muscle under your tummy fat and encouraging muscle imbalances that may eventually lead to low back pain or postural issues. Core strength is one of the most essential types of strengthening exercise you can do as you age. Core strength can improve your posture, decrease back pain, improve your balance, improve your daily activities, and so much more. Let's debunk a few myths you may have on developing core strength.
1# Common myth:
Crunches do NOT lead to 6-pack abs. While you may be developing the muscle of a small portion of your core (rectus abdominis), you are not losing abdominal fat by doing crunches. Having definition in your stomach is accomplished by a strict diet, cardio, strengthening, and genetics. Crunches can actually lead to muscle imbalances and create low back pain or postural problems. If you have an osteoporosis diagnosis, crunches can potentially lead to back fracture. So if you are doing crunches....STOP! There are many other exercises that can improve your core strength.
#2 Common myth
Planks are the best way to train my abs. While this statement does hold a lot of truth, planking can cause low back pain without the appropriate form. Correct form is crucial to planking. Planking is all about quality, not quantity! We will be discussing good form on planking later in the article. We will get into proper form later in this article, so hold tight!
#3 Common myth
Your core is just your 6 pack abs. Your core involves muscles in your pelvic floor, abdomen, back, and even your glutes! These muscles include your Transverse abdominis (the muscle that is your natural girdle), Multifidus (tiny muscles along your spine), Internal and external obliques (muscles along your sides), Pelvic Floor (Ladies, strengthening these muscles are essential for so many reasons), Rectus Abdominis (your 6 pack muscle), and finally your glutes. Every muscle in your mid-section has a vital role in your day-to-day function. Therefore, it is important to make sure you have a balanced strengthening plan.
#4 Common myth
You can "target" your low abs. Guess what? There are no "low abs." You have multiple layers of abdominal muscles. If you have had abdominal surgery, it can weaken your abdomen. It is essential to work your core as a whole. Most of the low abs you are targeting are your hip flexors. Tight hip flexors can cause pulling on your pelvis, which eventually leads to low back pain. So there is no great reason to "target" your ab work.
#5 Common Myth
Sucking in your gut is bracing your abs. Your workout instructor will cue you to "brace your core," and the person will end up holding their breath. Bracing your core is learning to activate your transverse abdominis (TA). This is the deepest muscle in your abdomen that acts as your natural girdle. Holding a TA hold is about bracing that deep muscle, not pulling in your belly button. You can work on bracing this muscle by exhaling like you are blowing up a balloon, holding the end contraction while returning to normal breathing, and pull in your pelvic floor. It takes practice to find this muscle. Engaging this muscle is a great way to protect your spine, improve your posture, and decrease low back pain.
Now, that we have debunked some false beliefs, let's learn how to strengthen your core. When teaching a class or during physical therapy treatments, we always encourage neutral spine and functional core training. This means no extreme flexion, extension, or rotation. Any of these extreme motions can encourage slipped/herniated disc, spinal stenosis, and increase your risk of a spinal fracture. These neutral postures are safe for any age or diagnosis. Planking can be a very beneficial exercise when completed with good form. You can also advance a plank making it more challenging as you progress. Here are some instructions for perfecting your planks.
Start at the top of a push-up position. You will want to be sure your head and neck are in line with your spine. You can do this by looking 6-12 inches past your hands. Next, engage your deep abdominal muscles, pull in your pelvic floor, and tuck your tail bone. Keep your torso straight and rigid and your body in a straight line from the tip of your head to your toes with no sagging or bending. You can start by holding this position for 10 seconds and work your way up to a full minute. This can be modified by placing your hands on a higher surface like a countertop or chair. The progression of the plank from easiest to hardest would be
1. Hands on the wall
2. Hands on countertop or table
3. Hands on the chair
4. Hands on floor and on your knees
5. Hands on floor on toes
6. Forearms on floor
There is no need to push through pain or discomfort. Listen to your body. As you start to progress your plank, you can increase the duration of the hold, place your hands or feet on uneven surfaces, or move your plank around. There are multiple ways to make your plank fun! Maybe, I will write a blog soon with different ways to plank! But let's start with the basics.
Wellness 360 is a physical therapy clinic that focuses on the wellness portion of acute and lifelong disease management. We can support your journey to improved balance, decreased back pain, or improved posture, amongst other things. Check us out at www.wellness360fitness.com.