At some point on our fitness journey we’ve read or heard, “suck in your gut!” or “brace or engage your core”, but were unclear on what muscles to engage, the purpose of core engagement or perhaps the impact it has on daily activities and exercise.
The core is the group of muscles surrounding the abdomen area of the physique to help stabilize the spine and support the spinal movement. Collectively, primary muscles as the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transverse, erector spinae, and multifidi are identified as the abs or core. Although aerobic activity and nutrition help burn fat and make the abs more visible, it is core training that helps sculpt and strengthen the core as well as reduce chances of injury.
Using body-weight or little equipment, core exercises can be performed to support the spine, pelvis, lower back, hips, and abdomen. The level of difficulty may vary according to conditioning. The abdominal brace or core engagement is a technique that should be considered when performing any movement. At the point of progression, multiplanar movements can be incorporated. The more advanced a core exercise becomes, the more the body is fully integrated. External weight can also be added to progress the movement. As fatigue sets in, sometimes it is necessary to regress to progress to fully benefit.
Here are a few movements that can be used to strengthen the core and progress.
Classic Core Strengthening Techniques
Abdominal brace (Standing or supine):
From the standing position, depress the shoulders down and back without arching the back. Inhale and draw the navel towards the spine. As this movement is performed, the chest should raise. Exhale the chest lowers, keep the navel drawn in as tight as possible. Repeat 10 times. The movement should be modified if the lower back is engaged. Once the abdominal brace has been accomplished, multi-planar movements can be incorporated. * When performing this movement depress the shoulders downward in the back and contract the abdomen to avoid flexing or extending the back. This movement can also be performed in the supine position.
Difficulty with floor movements
Standing knee/leg raise to leg raise w/ twist:
A core strengthening exercise that can put less stress on the back and neck and help improve posture, balance, and reduce back pain. From the standing position with braced abs, rotate the torso towards the right side of the body and lift the left knee towards the right elbow without rounding the back. If the leg is raised, lift the leg up. Return to the standing position, then repeat with the same or other knee. Do not be concerned with the height of the knee/leg. The more the posterior muscles are stretched and the abs and hip flexors are strengthened, the greater height will be achieved. Form is more important than height and speed.
From the split-stance position, raise arms with a slight bend in the elbow to the upper left side of the body. Lift the chest and depress the shoulders downward towards the back without arching the back. Contract the abdomen, slowly move both arms diagonally downward across the body until the hands are at the hip of the right side. The back foot can also be pivoted to increase range of motion. Return the arms to the top of the movement to repeat. Pause at the bottom of the movement. A progression of this exercise can also be performed without a bend in the elbow or with a medicine ball.
Supine floor movements
Deadbugs: In the supine position with the arms and legs raised, lower one leg until a few inches off the floor.
Return the leg to the upright position, and repeat the move with the opposite leg. 2nd progression: As one leg is lowered, simultaneously lower the opposing arm behind the head.
3rd progression: An external weight (weighted ball, dumbbell) can be held. Simultaneously lower the legs and arms to a few inches from the ground. Then return to the start position.
* Throughout the movement, press the shoulders into the floor and engage the abs so the lower back does not raise from the floor. This will avoid straining the lower back and neck.
Begin in the quadruped position with the hands directly beneath the shoulders and the knees beneath the hips.
Contract the core muscles and lift the left arm straight out until shoulder height, and drive the right leg straight back. The raised arm and leg should be to the point where the shoulders and hips are parallel to the floor.
Plank: The plank requires no equipment and helps improve core stabilization. The low plank is where the Elbow or low plank is performed from the prone position with the elbow beneath the shoulders and the toes beneath the heels. Contract the core and align the spine with the neck and tailbone. Hold the position as long as possible. The movement can be progressed to the high plank aligning the hands to the shoulder, reaching the hand straight out, and/or lifting the leg up from the floor.
Glute Bridge: The plank requires no equipment and helps improve core stabilization. The low plank is where the Elbow or low plank is performed from the prone position with the elbow beneath the shoulders and the toes beneath the heels. Contract the core and align the spine with the neck and tailbone. Hold the position as long possible. The movement can be progressed to the high plank aligning the hands to the shoulder, reaching hand straight out, and/or lifting the leg up from the floor.
The cat cow movement is performed from the prone position that can also be used as a stretch. Stiffen the core while in the neutral prone position. Ensure the arms are aligned to the shoulder and the knees to the hips. Raise the back and allow the head to round forward stretching the posterior muscles of the neck. Hold this position for a few seconds. Release the back until the glutes are raised and lift the head upward.