A woman approached me following my Piloxing class on Sunday morning with a good question: “What should I be doing to work my core?” The fact is, just about any kind of physical activity will work your core – how much depends on your form, any resistance added, and making a conscious effort to keep your core muscles engaged throughout said activity.
Now, exactly what do I mean when I say “core muscles”? For starters, they are a lot more than just your abs – they include most of the trunk of the body, including the hips and mid- and lower back. As these muscles make up the center of the body (hence “core”), greater strength allows you to become more stable and balanced throughout your entire body, which plays a huge part in maintaining proper form in your activity of choice.
One way to become more in tune with your core muscles is to focus on your breathing. Controlled breathing is the cornerstone of both Pilates and yoga practices – and it is directly related to strong, stable core muscles. Focus on the way your core feels as you inhale and exhale – you’ll feel your muscles engaging as you fill and empty your lungs (think of trying to take every ounce of oxygen out of your lungs on your exhale – this forces the body to engage the abs in order to release those last few sips of air).
But breathing and core awareness are important in a number of different activities, as well. For example, when we are riding through heavy climbs in my cycling classes, I encourage the class to tuck their belly buttons into their spine, and feel the difference in their low abdominal muscles as the knees drive up to the body and back toward the floor. The feeling should be similar to that of a bicycle crunch … because essentially, it is (which saves you a little time lying on the floor – and you’re probably getting more work out of it due to the weighted wheel). Another added bonus? Heavier resistance forces harder work from the hips and glutes, too.
When you are strength training, losing control of your core can present huge risks for injury – one of the first things to go when the weight gets a little too heavy is the lower back (which is bad for you, and good for the chiropractor). But by strengthening the lower back muscles, it is easier to keep the balance between the front and back of the body, meaning that you are more likely to maintain proper form throughout each movement. Breath plays a huge part in instance, too: if you exhale on the hardest part of the motion, you naturally engage the abdominal muscles, making it easier to avoid arching the back (which is not just dangerous from a potential for injury standpoint either … it’s cheating, too!)
That said … another thing to keep in mind is that most people do not do the correct proportion of back exercises to abdominal exercises. We are usually more focused on the abs, because, after all, they are the “vanity” muscles. But from a strength standpoint, the back muscles tend to need to endure more than the abs – meaning that they need at least at much work as the abs, if not more.
Remember, too, that just like any other exercise, you want to balance the time spent working on all of your core muscles – not just your abs. The more balanced your core becomes, the stronger you will be, the easier your exercise or sport of your choice will become … and you will reduce your risk of injury, too.