Most people don’t understand the importance of core strength exercises and how vital they are to your overall health. For example, take back pain. If you are over the age of 30 then you have most likely experienced some level of back pain. In fact, nearly everyone at some point in their life has experienced back pain that interferes with their work, daily activities, or recreational habits. It is estimated that Americans spend a minimum of $50 billion each year on low back pain. Back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and is the leading contributor to missed work. Other than headaches, it is the most common neurological ailment in the United States.
Core strength exercises can play a major role in the prevention of back pain and will help to limit the severity of a back injury.
What is Your Body’s Core?
Very simply it is the section of your body from your hips to your arm pits. Your legs, arms and neck are extensions from this core. While they can provide you with mobility, strength, reach and some degree of flexibility, it is your body’s core muscles that provide the stability and internal strength for each movement. Core strength exercises address the muscle groups in this area.
More specifically your core is made up of a group of muscles that are designed to provide your body with stability, balance, strength, and flexibility. Almost every movement you make will either originate or be anchored by your core muscles. Experts will differ on all of the muscles that make up your core but the following muscles are important to your core strength and fitness:
As you can see there are many muscles that anchor and stabilize your core. It is these muscles that your core strength exercises need to address to build a solid foundation that will allow you to transfer the energy created from the center of your body out to your limbs.
There are two major problems that affect your body’s core. First is a sedentary lifestyle. As people age they spend more and more of their time sitting and being inactive. The more you sit the less your core has to do which weakens your core muscles. The sad part of this sedentary lifestyle is that it is also beginning to affect younger people. With the explosion of the electronic media, children and young adults spend less time in physical play and more time in computer generated games that require little to no physical involvement of their core muscles.
The second problem is the alarming rate of overweight/obesity in America. Americans are the fattest that they have ever been. Of this increase in fat stores the main area to be concerned with is belly or abdominal fat. Not only does this affect your cardiovascular health but it also places a huge strain on your core muscles. This strain causes them to become fatigued and inflexible so that when they are placed in an awkward position they can no longer properly handle the stress. This typically leads to an injury.
While a good weight management program will help to reduce your fat stores it will not address the needs of your core muscles. Only an exercise program designed to address these muscle groups will help strengthen your core.
There are many core strength exercises available to you to address this issue. The common method they all use to strengthen your body’s core is to create resistance or instability so that the core muscles have to engage and respond to maintain balance. Core strength exercises often imitate the moves we employ in our daily activities or sporting events. This helps to train the body to rely on the core while helping to reduce the strain we place on our limbs.
Since we used the example of low back pain to introduce the concept of core strength exercises let’s first see how this plays out. Most people give all the credit for protecting the back area to the abdominal muscles. While they are critically important to creating the foundational strength your back needs, they are only a part of what makes up your core. Having weak and unbalanced core muscles have also been linked to low back pain. These weak core muscles often result in a loss of the appropriate lumbar curve. Having a balanced program of core strength exercises will help to engage all the muscles needed to help maintain appropriate posture and reduce the strain on your spine.
For the athlete, the muscles of the trunk and torso become critical for their performance because they stabilize the spine from their hips to their neck. These core muscles allow the athlete to transfer power to their arms and legs. All powerful movements originate from the body’s center out. Additionally, the use of proper core strength exercises can help to correct postural imbalances to protect you from injury. This functional fitness is important to both daily living and athletic performance.
There are many core strength exercises but some of the best are:
Physioball or Stability Ball – This is an inexpensive way to strengthen your core muscle groups. It can be as simple as sitting on the ball while you’re watching TV. The instability of the ball forces you to engage the core muscles to maintain your balance. I also liked the Core Strength Training Manual put together by Sarah Hoffman. Just click on the link above and it will take you to her graduate project which is a pictorial of the many exercises you can do with this type of equipment.
Pilates – This exercise program uses your own body as its form of resistance. Learning how to breathe properly while performing the slow, controlled movements allows you to isolate and strengthen your core muscles. Check with your local health club or recreational center for a class near you. Or, go online to look over many of the fine programs offered through the internet.
Kettelbells – This is an interesting piece of exercise equipment. Designed and used in Russia, this “hand-held gym” is becoming very popular in the United States. The best person I could recommend to help you develop your core strength exercises around this simple tool is Israel A. Sanchez (AKA Coach Izzy) who is a professional Strength & Conditioning Coach and one of the first Russian Kettlebell instructors coached by Kettlebell Concepts.
Y-Dan – This is an ancient Chinese low-stress exercise, which serves as a good alternative to the more complex and strenuous systems of Tai Chi or yoga. Click on Y-Dan for a link that gives a detailed explanation of this program.
Although this list is not complete it is a great start to finding the type of core strength exercises and program that best fits your schedule, finances and time commitment.
I didn’t mention this form of exercise above because it really needs to be by itself. An isometric exercise is a static contraction meaning no movement is involved. It is designed to help you strengthen weak muscles or weak muscle groups. Since we have been talking about low back pain and how core strength exercises can help to eliminate this problem, let’s look at the transverse abdominis.
If you remember from above the transverse abdominis is the deepest of the abdominal muscles. It is the only one that runs horizontal and is a very important stabilizer of the low-back. This muscle is required for all integrated movements within your core. Researchers using EMG activity to identify the active engagement of this muscle group discovered a very important sequence associated with back problems. They looked at two muscle groups involved in upper arm movements: the transverse abdominis and the multifidus muscles.
These researchers found that when the upper limbs moved in people without lower back pain, the transverse abdominis muscle was activated first to stabilize the torso. For those with low back pain the transverse abdominis muscle didn’t activate or was dysfunctional in its ability to stabilize the torso.
A weak muscle or muscle group must first be strengthen by using isometric exercises before it can be strengthen through regular exercise. If a weak muscle is not attended to first, then the body will be forced to compensate and use other muscles to perform the desired movement. Isometric exercises help to solve muscular weaknesses that Rehab and strength training programs fail to do. It is very important to understand that a weak muscle will not properly contract during most strength training exercises because the dominant muscles will compensate.
Isometric exercises require absolutely no equipment and can be done anywhere (home, office, and car). When performing an isometric contraction think in terms of 6 on 6; hold the contraction for 6 seconds and repeat the contraction 6 times. To start, place the muscle in its shorthand or shortest position since this is usually its weakest point. Contract the muscle and hold for a count of six. After each contraction, slightly lengthen the muscle group and repeat this static contraction for another 6 seconds. Gradually increase the range of motion until the 6th and final contraction has the muscle group in its longest position.
Developing a strong and stable core goes well beyond your looks. Having a “six pack” for your abdominal muscles does not necessarily mean that your core is in good shape. Learn to use core strength exercises to develop all of your core muscle groups. This will have a major benefit to your lower back and will make your everyday physical activities a whole lot easier. Although I didn’t list it above, yoga is also an excellent way for individuals to build their core strength.
Until next time may we both age youthfully!
P.S. As a convenience, I’ve also included links to the following Exercise articles:
Can Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercises Damage Your Body?
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