You have probably heard of ‘strengthening your core’ but today I’m going to take a more in depth look at what this means and why your core muscles are so important when it comes to activities such as running, cycling, or even yoga!
If you’ve ever exercised at a gym, then you’re probably familiar with the idea of ‘strengthening your core’ but what does this mean and why is it so important? Why do so many people spend so much time working on their core?
Well, the answer is that when it comes to exercise of any kind – running, cycling, dancing, or yoga – having strong core muscles is essential. This group of muscles helps to power your body and can make a real difference when it comes to your athletic performance, helping to protect your internal organs, correct your posture, prevent injury, and even improve your overall fitness!
Whether you’re new to exercise or not, the chances are you will need to work on your core fitness. Before you can strengthen these muscles, you first have to train them, especially if you have not used these muscles in a while!
What are your core muscles?
The idea of your ‘core’ refers to a group of deep muscles located around the centre of your body. These muscles are crucial for stabilising your body and providing power, particularly when exercising. Here, I’ve listed some of the main core muscles that you should be focusing on if you plan on training or strengthening your core to improve your sporting performance.
Pelvic floor muscles: Very important for supporting your bladder and intestines (as well as your uterus if you’re a woman!), these muscles are located at the bottom of your pelvis. Often during pregnancy, women are encouraged to exercise these muscles in preparation for labour
Transversus abdominis: Consists of four abdominal muscles located at the back of your ribcage, wrapping horizontally around your body. These muscles are often utilised in exercise regimes like pilates or pi-yo and have been associated with lower back pain and stabilising your pelvis
Multifidus: A small but powerful muscle, the multifidus is located at the base of the spine and works to support your spinal column. A strong multifidus can help to provide stability and even prevent joint deterioration
Internal and external obliques: Your external oblique muscle starts from the lower part of your ribs and extends down to your pelvis, making it one of the largest muscles in your body. Your internal oblique muscle is positioned deeper in the body compared to your external obliques and help with respiration
Rectus abdominis: You’ll probably be more familiar with these muscles as they are usually referred to as ‘abs.’ These muscles extend along the length of your abdomen and are normally used to move your torso and spine when you perform movements such as bending or stretching
Erector spinae: Vital for your back, this group of muscles lie close to your spine and help you to perform basic movements that involve extending, rotating or straightening your spine. You normally feel when these muscles are unhappy as your back with erupt in spasms and painful cramps
Diaphragm: Your diaphragm is arguably one of the most important muscles in your body, helping you to exhale and inhale on a daily basis. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and is drawn into the abdominal cavity. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes in the thorax in a resting position.1
Below, I’m going to talk about some of my favourite exercises that can help to engage your core muscles, and recommend both basic and complex variations of each.
Depending on your levels of fitness, I would generally recommend sticking to the simple forms rather than risking the variations, unless you feel more confident in your abilities.
If you do start to experience any pain, please stop immediately and try applying our Atrogel Arnica Gel, a lovely soothing formula prepared using extracts of freshly harvested arnica flowers!
If the word fills you with dread and makes your tummy muscles clench, the chances are you’ve heard of it. Planks are very popular with fitness fanatics and for good reason – this form of exercise is famous for tightening your stomach muscles and improving your flexibility. It’s also a great if you’re trying to engage your core muscles, especially your abs!
Basic plank: The above video perfectly demonstrates a simple or basic plank exercise. Begin by assuming a position very similar to that of a press-up. Keep your elbows and forearms on the ground, making sure your elbows are directly underneath your shoulders. Now support your weight on your toes and elbows, keeping your back straight. Hold this position for 30-45 seconds and repeat 3 times.
Side plank: Good for working your transversus abdominis, abs and obliques, this is a slightly more advanced plank. You should start by lying on your side, with your legs extended and stacked on top of each other. Your feet and hips should be resting on the floor and your right elbow should be placed under your shoulder. Make sure your head is aligned with your spine and your torso is propped slightly off the ground. Gently begin the exercise by lifting your hips and knees off the floor. Try to hold this position for between 10-20 seconds. If you are feeling more confident, you can hold it for longer. Once you are finished, resume your start position and repeat with your other side.
Once again, the abdominal crunch is focused on your abdominals (obviously!) and your oblique muscles. It’s a very popular exercise and you’ve probably seen people gathered at the blue mats in the gym, sweating as they go. Sometimes an abdominal crunch can be mistaken for a sit-up but the two are very different exercises!
Basic abdominal crunch: Start by lying on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Make sure your neck is in a neutral position and bend your elbows, positioning your hands just behind your ears. Keeping your lower back on the floor, raise your shoulders and the upper part of your body. You should be able to feel your muscles contracting so try and hold this position for a couple of seconds before slowly lowering yourself into your starting position.
Bicycle crunch: According to ACE, the bicycle crunch is the best core exercise of them all! Not for beginners, start by assuming the basic abdominal crunch position. Lift one leg off the ground and extend. Next lift your other leg and bend it towards your knee. Twist your core so your opposite arm comes towards your raised knee. Lower both limbs and then repeat with your opposite arm and leg. Aim to complete between 5-10 reps.
Famous for toning your glutes, performing the bridge can also benefit your core muscles, such as your transverse abdominals and your obliques. It’s also been associated with relieving hip pain and other forms of muscle pain, so I would definitely recommend trying it for yourself!
Basic bridge: Start by lying on an exercise mat or the floor, keeping both of your hands in a neutral position by your side, palms down against the ground. Bend both of your knees, keeping your feet flat, and gently lift your hips off the ground. Your knees, shoulders and hips should form a straight line and you should be able to feel a slight stretch. Hold this position for a few seconds before lowering your hips back down to the floor.
One leg bridge: Similar to the one leg plank, assume a basic bridge position. Raise one leg and try to hold the position for a couple of seconds. Switch legs and then repeat. By providing an element of instability, it will force your core to fight to stay balanced, giving your muscles a real workout.
So far we’ve mainly focused on your abs and obliques – well now it’s time to give your spinal erectors some attention too! Not only is this exercise incredible for your core, it also works your glutes, hips and hamstrings so it’s a nice all-rounder to incorporate into your routine.
Basic quadruped: Start by getting down on your hands and knees. Make sure your hands are shoulder width apart and keep your palms flat on the floor. Your knees should be bent at a 90 degree angle and about a hip width apart. Tighten your core muscles without moving your back or any other limbs. Try to hold this position for as long as possible.
Bird-dog pose: Start in the basic quadruped position. When you are ready, extend your left leg behind your whilst reaching forward with your right arm. Make sure you keep your back and hips perfectly still and try to hold the pose for 3-6 seconds. Slowly assume the basic quadruped pose and then repeat with your opposite side.
Good for your lower back and abdominals, the Russian twist also helps to strengthen your obliques and can work to burn fat. How you wish to perform this exercise is up to you – many opt to invest in resistance bands so they can perform the motion whilst seated. I shall be going through both options to give you a fair idea about what would work best for you.
Russian twist: Start by sitting on an exercise mat. Once you have assumed a seated position lean back at about a 45 degree angle. Reach out and place your arms at your left side and then rotate your body from side to side as you reach for the floor. Your feet should be ever so slightly off the floor whilst you are doing this, giving your abs a real workout!
Seated Russian twist: Begin by sitting upright on an exercise mat with your legs stretched out in front of you. Place the resistance band around your feet, cross them over and make sure you are holding on to each end. Rotate your upper body, stretching the band and then twist in the opposite directions.