Week seven: The core issue

apple core

We all know about our core muscles and that we need to exercise and strengthen them.  But, do you know why it’s so important to focus on your core?  You guessed it, that’s this week’s fitness topic!

Your core muscles are the muscles in your abdomen, back, hips and pelvis.  A good way to think of those muscles is to picture them as the middle link in a chain connecting your upper and lower body.  I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and the saying cannot be more appropriate as it applies to your core muscles.  Think about any movement that you make, whether it’s hitting a golf ball, vacuuming, rising from a seated position, bending to put on your shoes or simply turning to the side to look at something, the motions originate in your core.  No matter where the motion begins, it moves through the links of the “chain.”  Weak core muscles negatively affect how well your arms and legs move, which drains your movements of power.  Strengthening your core directly relates to the power of your movements and endurance as well as aids in walking and rising from seated positions.  It also enhances balance, preventing falls and other potential injuries during daily activities and sports.

In other words, your core strength affects every movement you make.  Let’s break it down a little further to specific benefits to exercising your core muscles.

  • Improves balance and stability. Regardless of whether it’s daily activities, sports or walking, your core muscles work together, thus the stronger they are the better your balance and stability.  They allow you to move in any direction or to stand still without losing balance, lessening injuries.  It’s especially important as we grow older to have a strong core to prevent falls and aid in ease of rising from seated positions.
  • Helps with healthy backs. Lower back pain is not uncommon for most adults, which can usually be prevented if back muscles are strong and exercised regularly.
  • Promotes good posture. When you have weak core muscles, you tend to slouch and slump your shoulders, in turn leading to back pain.  If you have strong back muscles and good posture, it lessens wear and tear on the spine and prevents pain.
  • Helps you enjoy sports, housework, gardening and other fun activities. Whether you’re twisting to hit a tennis ball, balancing to ride a bike, lifting your arms to swim, reaching to dust the top of a shelf (if you’re one of those that actually dust the top shelves that no one ever sees!), lifting your child out of the tub or bending to lift a bag of soil, these movements and the power of these activities come from your core.
  • Protects your inner organs and central nervous system. Let’s not forget about the vital insides!  Your core is not only where your organs and central nervous system are located, it’s also where your body’s largest (and most important) veins and arteries are based. Strong core muscles will help keep the vitals protected as you go about your daily activities.

I think now you understand how weak core muscles can undermine your every movement, and how strong core muscles can improve your quality of life!

Now that you have that down, let’s discuss how to incorporate core exercises into your fitness routine.  And, surprise!  It’s more than just sit ups and pushups; it is any exercise that involves the use of your abdominal and back muscles.  You can use free weights or exercise them standing or seated.  Here are four very simple exercises that can be done at home without equipment.  Remember to keep all movements slow and controlled.  Also, there’s no excuse for those who cannot stand or sit on the floor to exercise.  Each of these includes instructions on how to perform them seated, excellent options for the elderly or those who have physical limitations.  Regardless of your current physical ability, set a goal to do these exercises three to five times per week.  Get those “I can’ts” out of your vocabulary and exercise and strengthen your core!

Standing bicycle crunches (repeat at least five times per side, works upper abs and obliques).  Remember the bicycle crunches you did on the floor in gym class?  For beginners or for those that the floor exercise is uncomfortable, try this variation instead.  Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place your hands behind your head. Keep your core tight, your back straight back and relax your shoulders.  Lift your right knee and lower your left elbow towards your knee. Return to the starting position and repeat with left knee and right elbow.

An even easier version is to keep your upper body still and lift each knee up to your chest.  For those who cannot stand for this exercise, you can also perform them seated.  In a sturdy chair, perform the same motion, lifting each knee to opposite elbow.

bicycle crunch

 

Seated leg lifts (repeat at least five times per side, works lower abs).  Sit on the floor, legs extended straight out in front of you. Keeping your core tight, lean back slightly, so you’re able to place your hands on either side of your hips. Lift one leg six inches off the ground and hold for five seconds, and then lower.  Repeat with the other leg.  Hint:  For a more intense workout, lean further back or hold your hands out with palms facing upward.

For those who cannot sit on the floor for this exercise, you can perform them seated.  In a sturdy chair, perform the same motion, lifting each leg as horizontally as possible and holding for five seconds.  Hint:  If you have a desk job, you can do these from your office chair!

seated leg lift

 

One-arm dumbbell raise (dumbbell optional, repeat at least 10 – 15 times per side, works upper back).  Place your right knee on a flat bench, bend at the waist, and rest on your right hand. Keep your back flat. Place a dumbbell in your left hand.  Slowly pull the dumbbell up until its level with your side.  Pause here for one second and then slowly lower the dumbbell to the starting position.

For those who cannot bend or raise one knee to a bench, you can perform the exercise standing.  With the dumbbell in one hand, lean slightly forward and grasp a sturdy surface (such as a kitchen countertop) with the opposite hand.  Raise and lower the dumbbell as instructed above.

dumbbell raise

 

Hyperextensions (repeat at least 10 times, works lower back and glutes).  Lie on your stomach with your hands behind your backIn one motion, raise your head and shoulders and lift your legs until they’re extended at the hips and roughly parallel to the floor. Hold for five seconds and lower them back down.

Again, no can’ts for those who are unable to get down on the floor!  Using a flat wall surface, lean slightly forward with both hands flat on the wall (a sturdy countertop will also work).  Alternating legs lift each one backward and hold for five seconds.

hyperextensions

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