Two Ways to Strengthen Your Core
What is core stability? Many people would guess that the core consists of your abs and that stability means strength. Those are true in part, but it is a much bigger picture than that. The term “core” has been thrown around very loosely in the fitness industry and has, therefore, lost its true meaning.
The term “core” should be thought of as an all-encompassing word to describe all of the musculature and soft-tissue that helps protect and stabilize the spine and pelvis. Essentially, it is not just the anterior abdominal muscles, but rather a whole network of muscles that go from the hips to the torso and all the way up to the neck. The term “stability” means to be able to resist against opposing forces. When put together, core stability is the body’s ability to resist opposing forces and be able to control the spine and hips while those forces are applied.
The benefits of an adequately stable core and knowing how and when to activate your core are immense. Many injuries result due to people either not stabilizing their core during activity or not knowing how to. Much power is lost between the lower body and torso during movements if the core is not able to stabilize and transfer power between body segments. Balance can be very difficult without proper core stabilization. Compensations occur and limitations develop or worsen due to lack of core stability. Proper core stability should be a cornerstone of everyone’s health and fitness regimen.
So what are some effective and easy ways to improve core stability? Let’s start with two very basic components that most everyone could improve upon, including myself, without doing a single exercise: breathing and posture.
Knowing when to breathe in and out is very critical during performance. Remember to breathe out during the concentric (hardest) part of the exercise and breathe in during the eccentric (easier) phase of the exercise. Also, work to breathe fully into the diaphragm and stomach, not just the chest. Many people are chest breathers and do not fully breathe into the stomach and diaphragm. Like any other muscle, the respiratory muscles, such as the diaphragm, can actually atrophy over time. Though it may look more flattering to keep your stomach sucked in, it isn’t doing your body or performance any favors. Learning to utilize the diaphragm while breathing will enhance core stability, sport performance and workouts, but also improve energy and stress-reduction.
Lie with your back on the floor and knees bent. Place a hand on your chest with your other hand on your stomach. Take a breath in and notice which hand rises higher. Was it the hand on the chest or the hand on the stomach? It should be the hand on the stomach, but both should inflate.
Practice this breathing exercise. Inhale fully into the stomach and diaphragm via your nose for 4 counts, hold the breath for 7 counts and then exhale out of your mouth for 8 counts. Try for at least 4 consecutive cycles. You might start the breathing exercise by lying on your back, in a static position, and then progress to seated and standing positions. The great thing is that you can work on improving breathing performance in almost anything you do or at any time of the day.
Bad posture throughout the day is most likely going to lead to bad posture in your workout. Be mindful and proactive to practice good posture throughout the day. Sit or stand tall with your shoulders back, and head and chest up. If doing properly, you will be able to breathe easier and you will keep your core musculature “activated.” Ideally, you want your spine in a neutral position. Many people, due to poor sitting habits and constant looking down at devices, round their upper back and neck, jut their head forward, and slouch, which resembles the shape of a ‘c’. Slouching hinders your posture, which hinders breathing and core activation. This, in turn, hinders your ability to handle daily activities and stressors.
Set an alarm to go off every 5-10 minutes. This will remind you to correct your posture. Once your posture becomes more ingrained and subconscious, set the alarm for further apart as you progress until you are weaned off of needing a reminder. Better posture will have a carry-over affect into your exercise as well as many other aspects of your health. A helpful phrase to remember is to “sit tall” or “stand tall.”
Remember to carry your improved breathing and posture into your workouts. The thing that most people take for granted is that bad posture and poor breathing patterns can actually cause some of the best core exercises to lose their effectiveness. So remember to stand tall, keep a neutral spine and breathe.