By MYX Coach Dan Lawrence
When most people talk about the core, and improving core strength, they’re thinking about how to sculpt a nice set of washboard abs. But those abs — specifically, the rectus abdominis muscle that runs up the front of our body — are just the showy part of the core that we can put on display in a bathing suit. It’s only a part of our core musculature.
Technically, the anatomical core includes everything from your neck to your knees, but you can think of it as all the deep layers of muscles in your midsection that support the front, back, and sides of your body — your hips, your pelvis, your spine, your lower back. Unfortunately, these other muscles don't get the same attention as the abs, yet together they form the base of support for our entire body. Virtually every functional and fitness movement — sitting, walking, running, jumping, kicking, punching, bending, twisting — relies on core musculature for force transfer.
A strong core allows proper function of the body. When the core is strong and stable, we can be more confident in our movement, whether we’re walking to the grocery store or working out.
Here’s what a strong core does for you
Helps ward off back pain. Core strength keeps your body aligned and upright so you’re less prone to back pain. If your core is weak, then other structures of your back have to work harder to hold you up. That can lead to muscle strains. Research confirms that weak core muscles increase your risk of chronic back pain. And while back issues are more common, a weak core can also lead to injuries in other parts of your body as well — your shoulders, hips, and knees.
Improves posture, and breathing. A strong core promotes good posture, which lessens wear and tear on the spine and decreases your risk of disc herniation and vertebrae degeneration. Poor posture can contribute to shallow breathing and tension in the diaphragm, the primary breathing muscle that also plays a role in core stability. And it’s a two-way street: proper function of the diaphragm allows for greater lung capacity, so you’ll breathe more freely, and deeply; while diaphragmatic breathwork can support the functional strength of your core.
Allows you to go about your day easier, and safer. Whether you’re navigating an icy winter sidewalk, hoisting bags of groceries (or your kid), or climbing a steep flight of stairs, you’ll have better control of your muscles, and more easily regain your center if you lose your balance. With proper core strength, you’re less prone to injury because a strong core makes it less likely that you’ll overtax other muscles.
Best exercises to boost core strength
In your workouts, you’ll want to take a break from endless sets of crunches and instead do multi-joint exercises that incorporate free weights (i.e., dumbbells) to load the spine. Exercises like the shoulder racked squat, shoulder racked lunge, deadlift, shoulder press, and good mornings ultimately offer a better stimulus for training core musculature than bodyweight ab exercises like the crunch or sit-up because of the unique instability they provide.
Moving past the mirror
As health and wellness professionals, it’s our job to better educate our clients (and our MYX fam!) about the importance of core conditioning, not just for the toned six-pack but for healthy movement throughout our day. And this can start with the language we use.
How many times have you heard a trainer in a fitness class tell you to "Engage your core"? (I know I'm guilty of this!) But what does that even mean?
When I think “engage”, I think of flipping a giant switch on a spaceship ... and I have no idea how this relates to my core. That's why I try to use different phrases and terminology to get those I work with to think about how their abs, hips, and low back are working in a given exercise. Some examples:
"Brace your abs like you're getting ready for a punch!"
"Tighten the vest!"
"Breathe behind the shield."
"Pull your belly button into your spine."
"Close the bird-cage!" (This one usually gets a laugh, but some people really like it!)
The important thing is that our clients and community members start to understand that the core supports not only our movements during a workout, but also how we move throughout our day. Our core needs to be strong for us to live functional, healthy lives.