When you think about your core, you’re likely thinking about those all-important ab muscles that peak out of crop tops. But there’s way more to them. According to Catherine Viljoen, a biokineticist at Virgin Active,
“The core includes a number of muscles that run the length of the spine and help stabilise the shoulders, spine and pelvis. These muscles create a strong base of support from which powerful movements can be generated and transferred to the working arms and legs.”
When these core muscles are in great shape they’ll go a long way to help prevent injury, which is why it’s so important to create good core strength.
How do you know you’re activating your core?
In order to make sure you’re training the right muscles, you first need to identify which muscles you’re actually trying to use. The best way to identify the muscle used for core strength is to:
- Lie on the floor face-up with both knees bent at 90° and feet flat on the floor;
- Place your hands (2 fingers) at the top of your hip bones. Now move your fingers slightly to the front of the hip bones and push firmly into the skin;
- Now cough or laugh. The muscle you feel bulging at your fingertips is the transverse abdominus muscle contracting – this is one of the key muscles making up the core.*
- The challenge is to try to maintain core activation throughout your regular gym exercises and throughout the day, even while standing in a queue or sitting at your desk.
How Will It Help?
- They can take years off your appearance. Don’t think that because many of your core muscles are ‘invisible’ (buried underneath other muscles), you don’t need to pay attention to them. What better way to show off than a good posture?
- They protect your insides, keep your spine and back healthy and they improve balance.
- They protect you from injury. If the core muscles are weak, other muscles have to pick up the slack and eventually, this may result in pain or injury, particularly to the lower back.
- Once you’ve mastered the basics of core activation, you may be ready for some challenging exercises to really sculpt killer core strength.
Core Strength Exercises
Support yourself on your elbows in a low position, with your knees on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles, lifting your knees off the floor and making sure that you’re in a stable position. Your back should be straight throughout this movement (ankles, hips and shoulders in line). Hold for 30 seconds and return to starting position and repeat.
Tip: To make this exercise easier, keep your knees on the floor.
2. Reverse Crunch Knee Raises
Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and off the floor. Your back should be flat against the floor and your hands can be positioned at the sides of your head. Contract your lower abdominal muscles, bringing your knees towards your chest. Return slowly to starting position. Repeat.
Tip: This is not a big movement. You should just be lifting your glutes off the floor in a controlled way.
3. Segmental Bridge
Lie flat on your back with your knees bent. Your arms should be straight with your hands lying at your sides. Lift your hips off the floor by rolling through the pelvis and continuing the motion by rolling segmentally through each vertebra from the pelvis to the rib cage. At the end of the movement, your knees, hips and chest are in a straight line. Hold for three seconds and then return slowly to the starting position by rolling your spine, vertebra by vertebra. Repeat.
Tip: Roll up for a count of 6, then down for a count of 6. The most benefit comes from performing this exercise slowly and controlled.
4. Four Opposite Arm and Leg Raise
Position yourself on all fours. Your knees should be aligned under your hips and your wrists under your shoulders. Keep a neutral spine position. Lift your left arm to shoulder height and your right leg to hip height. Hold for a few seconds (think of reaching forward with your left hand and stretching back with your right foot). Return to starting position and repeat on the other side.
Tips: Be careful not to tilt your hips or arch your back. If you’re new to this exercise, perform the exercise lying on your tummy, lifting the opposite arm and leg. Once mastered, progress to this exercise. Be careful not to lift your head during the movement – look down and not ahead of you.
5. Stability Ball Knee Tuck (advanced)
Position yourself in a press-up position with your hands on the floor, about shoulder-width apart, and your ankles and feet resting on top of the stability ball. Bend your knees, so that they come towards your chest. Keep your elbows straight (not locked). Stop the movement once your feet are on the ball and your knees are tucked in. Hold for 3 seconds. Then straighten your knees and roll back to the starting position. Repeat.
If you have a medical condition or injury, please chat with your doctor or biokineticist before attempting these exercises.