Fitness

Why Strong Core Muscles Matter

Last updated: Aug 01, 2013

 

What are core muscles?

Core muscles in the torso of the body, including the abdomen, middle back, lower back, hips, and sides, work together to help stabilize the body, transfer energy from the legs to the upper body, and transfer energy from the upper body to the legs. Core muscles help support the organs as well as align and support the spine, ribs, and pelvis. They also support and align the skull, spine, and tailbone, which comprise the axial skeleton. Core muscles are the foundation of healthy posture.

Major core muscles are located in the abdomen, middle back, and lower back. They include the pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominal muscles, internal side (or oblique) muscles, external side (or oblique) muscles, and diaphragm muscles, among others. Peripheral core muscles are located in the hips, shoulders, and neck.
 

Why are core muscles important?

Most full-body movements depend on core muscles. For example, core muscles stabilize the body between the head and abdomen (the thorax) as well as the pelvis for many movements. They also support and align the axial skeleton together with the pelvis and rib cage to keep the body motionless when necessary. 

Core muscles help you resist gravity while moving and balancing on an uneven surface. If you’re walking down a hill, your core muscles support the axial skeleton, rib cage, and pelvis so that you can remain balanced upright while moving forward. Your ability to prevent yourself from falling when you trip depends on the strength of your core muscles as well as your ability to recruit them quickly.

Core muscles also contract to expel waste such as urine, feces, vomit, and deoxygenated air. They help with lifting, pushing, and giving birth.

When you exercise core muscles, you also strengthen the muscles in your arms and legs and improve your overall strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and coordination. In addition, experts in physical medicine suggest that having strong core muscles can help reduce back pain,1 incontinence, and gastrointestinal problems as well as improve bowel function.2 By strengthening muscles, ligaments, and tendons and promoting flexibility, core exercises help support joints and prevent joint and muscle injuries.3

Regularly exercising your core also tightens muscles around the waist, making it smaller. When you combine abdominal exercises with a healthy diet and regular cardiovascular exercise,  you can help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, improve the look of your physique, and enjoy the way your clothes fit!

If you are slim, core exercises can help improve your physique by giving your waist and muscles definition as well as keeping you strong overall.

Exercising Your Core 

You can exercise your core muscles at home, outside, or in a gym. The exercises require little space and many effective core exercises need no equipment.

You can exercise your core muscles on a mat on the floor for comfort. You also can use equipment, including medicine balls, exercise balls, and exercise bands to vary your workout. If you enjoy exercising on your own at home, DVDs are excellent sources for learning a wide variety of core exercises and helping stay motivated to continue exercising.

People of almost all ages and fitness levels can benefit from exercising their core muscles. If you have back problems, are pregnant, or have other health problems, talk with your doctor before beginning a core exercise program.
 

Some basic abdominal floor exercises include:*

  • Elevated leg curl
    • Lie flat on your back
    • Keep your legs together
    • Lift your legs off the floor at a 45° angle
    • Bend your knees with your shins parallel to the floor
    • Stretch your arms toward the ceiling, keeping them shoulder-width apart and at a 45° angle
    • Keep your eyes focused on the ceiling
    • Lift your shoulders and legs toward each other at the same time, touching your wrists to your knees and exhaling
    • Inhale as you slowly return to the starting position
    • Repeat the exercise until your abdominal muscles begin feeling tired (when you can barely stand doing another elevated leg curl!)
    • Repeat the exercise for 3 to 4 sets, resting 1 minute between sets

      Whether you begin with a set of 5, 10, 20, or more elevated leg curls, it's important to increase the number of curls over time as you become stronger and the exercise becomes easier for you.
  • Scissor crosses
    • Lie flat on the floor on your back
    • Place your hands palm down beneath your buttocks
    • Spread your legs apart several inches more than the width of your shoulders
    • Raise your legs 1 foot above the floor
    • Raise your head several inches off the ground with your chin touching your chest
    • Keep your legs elevated
    • Alternate crossing your legs back and forth over each other
    • Exhale each time your cross your legs
    • Repeat the exercise until your abdominal muscles begin feeling tired (when you can barely stand doing another scissor cross!)
    • Repeat the exercise for 3 to 4 sets, resting 1 minute between sets 

      Whether you begin with a set of 5, 10, 20, or more scissor crosses, it is important to increase the number
      of scissor crosses over time as you become stronger and the exercise becomes easier for you.
       
  • Squirm crunch
    • Sit on the floor
    • Lean back at a 45° angle
    • Straighten your arms at shoulder height at your sides and keep them parallel to the floor
    • Bend your knees and lift your legs so that your heels are several inches off the floor
    • Keep your legs shoulder-width apart
    • Using your right hand, twist and reach under your legs to touch your left heel, while exhaling and contracting your abdominal muscles (allowing your opposite arm to go slightly behind you)
    • Inhale and return to starting position
    • Using your left hand, twist and reach under your legs to touch your left heel, while exhaling and contracting your abdominal muscles (allowing your opposite arm to go slightly behind you)
    • Repeat the exercise until your abdominal muscles begin feeling tired (when you can barely stand doing another squirm crunch!)
    • Repeat the exercise for 3 to 4 sets, resting 1 minute between sets

      Whether you begin with a set of 5, 10, 20, or more squirm crunches, it is important to do more crunches
      as you become stronger and the exercise becomes easier for you.
  • Russian Twists
    • Sit on the floor
    • Place your legs slightly apart out in front of you
    • Bend your knees
    • Lean back slightly with your back at a 45° angle to the floor
    • Place your arms straight out in front of you
    • Lift your feet an inch off the floor
    • Twist your upper body side to side, touching the ground on each side with both of your hands, moving your head with your body and exhaling with each twist
    • Repeat the exercise until your abdominal muscles begin feeling tired (when you can barely stand doing another Russian twist!)
    • Repeat the exercise for 3 to 4 sets, resting 1 minute between sets

      Whether you begin with a set of 5, 10, 20, or more Russian twists, it is important to do more twists
      as you become stronger and the exercise becomes easier for you.
  • Side bridge crunch
    • Lie on the floor on your side
    • Keep your legs and back straight
    • Keep your feet evenly on top of each other
    • Lift yourself up off the floor so that your arm is fully extended above the elbow, taking care not to lock the elbow joint
    • Place your top hand behind your head, bending the elbow of that arm
    • Keep your body straight and tighten your abdominal muscles, exhaling and bringing your top elbow over to touch the floor in front of you
    • Inhale and return to the starting position
    • Repeat the exercise until your abdominal muscles begin feeling tired (when you can barely stand doing another side bridge crunch!)
    • Repeat the exercise for 3 to 4 sets, resting 1 minute between sets
    • Switch sides and follow instructions until you have completed the same number of side bridge crunches and sets for each side

      Whether you begin with a set of 5, 10, 20, or more side bridge crunches, it is important to do more crunches
      as you become stronger and the exercise becomes easier for you.
  • Starfish crunch
    • Lie flat on your back
    • Extend your arms over your head
    • Spread your legs out so that your body forms an X
    • Lift your right arm and left leg, reaching across and touching your fingers to your ankle
    • Tighten your abdominal muscles during the crunch and exhale
    • Keep the opposite arm and leg on the floor
    • Slowly return to starting position while inhaling
    • Repeat the exercise with the left arm and right leg
    • Repeat the exercise until your abdominal muscles begin feeling tired (when you can barely stand doing another starfish crunch!)
    • Repeat the exercise for 3 to 4 sets, resting 1 minute between sets

      Whether you begin with a set of 5, 10, 20, or more starfish crunches, it is important to do more crunches
      as you become stronger and the exercise becomes easier for you.

"The exercises listed here are best suited for people who have some experience with exercising the core muscles," says Summit Medical Group physical therapist David A. Forelander, MSPT, OCS, CEAS. "But exercise novices who are receiving guidance from a trainer also can try them. If you have never exercised your core muscles before," adds Mr. Forelander, "ask your trainer to go over the exercises with you to be sure you are doing them correctly and safely."
 

Getting the Most From Your Core Workouts

You may exercise your abdominal muscles as many as 6 days per week, but take at least 1 to 2 days off each week so that your muscles can rest and repair. Resting and repairing your muscles is an important part of helping them get stronger.

If you are new to exercise, having a few sessions with a personal trainer can help ensure that you are doing your core exercises correctly and safely; but a personal trainer can be helpful at any fitness level. For example, if you’re new to exercise, a personal trainer can help identify your needs, establish reasonable, safe goals with you, and give you a plan to reach them. He or she also can show you what equipment to use to strengthen your core and instruct you on how it works.

If you already exercise regularly and want to intensify your abdominal workout for better results, a personal trainer can examine your workout plan and identify ways optimize it.

Even experienced exercisers can benefit from having a trainer correct mistakes, offer new perspectives, and intensify abdominal workouts. Many elite athletes, for example, regularly use personal trainers to ensure their workouts are efficient and effective.

 

If you are a patient of Summit Medical Group
and your primary care practitioner recommends you,
you may call our Physical Therapy department
at 908-277-8936
to schedule an appointment with one of our trainers.

 

References

1. American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Debate. The role of core strengthening for chronic low back pain. Point/Counterpoint. 2011; 3:664-670.
2. Women to Women. Urinary and Pelvic Health. Pelvic floor health — strengthening your core. http://www.womentowomen.com/urinaryincontinence/pelvicfloorhealth.aspx. Accessed August 1, 2013.

 

 

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