The Core of the Matter
by Cheryl Alker
We’ve all heard about it, we’ve all read about it and we know we should be working it! But what is it, where is it, how should we work it and what benefit will it be to us if we do?
To answer these questions you should ask a dancer or should I say a ballet dancer. Dancers have understood the role and benefit of core strength for centuries and it shows – professional dancers generally stay fit well into their old age. They stand taller and have more energy at a time when many of their peers can just hobble along. To think that Margot Fonteyn was forty years of age when she first danced with Nureyev in Giselle is remarkable, especially when you consider he was 20 years her junior!
The core muscles include not only those in your abdominals and back (erector spinae), but also muscles in your pelvic floor and hips. Who would have thought that those pelvic floor muscles we’re continually told to keep strong before and after birth aid in stabilizing your spine? All of these muscles work together to keep your trunk stable while your limbs are active. Strong core muscles keep your back healthy. They hold your body upright improving your posture; they improve your balance and enable you to add strength to your arm and leg movements. If your core is weak, your body does not work as effectively and other muscles take up the slack – often resulting in injuries. A strong core will enable your body to function more effectively.
The four layers of our abdominals are rectus abdominus (the famous six pack), external obliques, internal obliques and transversus abdominis. Transversus is a major muscle of the functional core of the human body. The muscle fibers run horizontally from the lowest ribs in our back and encase, or hug the whole area below the navel.
Training and Benefits of Core Strength
The most well known and effective method of strengthening Transversus is the vacuum exercise that is when you literally suck the waistline in as if you were drawing the navel into the spine, or, to put it into everyday terms when you try and do up a pair of pants that may be a little snug around the waist! The Transversus abdominus also (involuntarily) contracts during lifts; it is the body’s natural weight-lifting belt, stabilizing the spine and pelvis during lifting movements. It has been estimated that the contraction of Transversus and other muscles reduces the vertical pressure on the intervertebral discs by as much as 40%. It literally acts as a girdle or corset by creating hoop tension around the midsection.
While it is true that Transversus is vital to back and core health, the muscle also has the effect of pulling in what would otherwise be a protruding abdomen (hence its nickname, the “corset muscle”). Training rectus abdominus alone will not and cannot give one a “flat” belly; this effect is achieved only through training Transversus.
Exercises for Core Strength
The exercises that really target the core are the ones where you are moving your limbs and keeping your abdomen stable – spinal stabilization not spinal flexion. Pilates and Yoga have many moves that do just that. Any exercise that requires balance also brings the core muscles into play. The stability or balance ball is an excellent tool. In fact there are dozens and dozens of exercises with literally hundreds of videos and books that offer advice and routines on how to work the core. If at home routines are not for you then the majority of gyms will offer classes in core strength.
When developing your core, please remember that your core is a group of muscles so you should always have a balanced approach to them all. You need to work your back, abs and pelvic floor – having one area weak will result in muscle imbalance causing poor posture, a risk of injury, pain and discomfort. Don’t just limit your work to your exercise routine either, when sitting make sure you engage your core. Try this simple test; sit on the edge of a chair with both feet placed on the floor, exhale and let you belly go, notice what happens to your posture; your chest collapses, your shoulders roll forward and your chin raises slightly. Now repeat, as you exhale pull your waistline in, drawing your navel into your spine, notice how all of the above reverses? Every time you sit or stand take a moment to think about this vital group of muscles and you will stand/sit straighter, look leaner and feel stronger. Strength training is not just about the muscles you can see, its more than just appearances – it’s about gaining and maintaining health.
Train your belt on the inside, and you’ll be tightening up the one on the outside as well!
Cheryl Alker specializes in flexibility training, facial exercises and postural alignment. Her 25 year career started as a group fitness and personal trainer, she has lectured and directed fitness training programs in both Europe and the USA and was an advisor for a Governmental health promotion program. Alker and her company Stretch Education International continues to work with a select clientele from a base in Palm Beach County, Florida, certifying health professionals in her results based stretching program, educating consumers through public speaking and offering consultation to clients who wish to lose their muscular pain and gain flexibility to achieve full and active lifestyles. For more information about professional continuing education and consultation options, please call Cheryl on 561.889.3738 or visit www.stretcheducation.com.