In one of my favorite episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dennis tells Mac, “You only work your glamour muscles. Look at you, you’re arm-heavy...all bi’s and tri’s...the rest is just fat and ribs.”
Dennis is right - it’s incredibly important to work all the muscles in your body, from the tiny stabilizers to their larger counterparts that act as “movers” of the body, like your pectoralis major, hamstrings and quadriceps - not just your glamour muscles.
Perhaps the most important group of muscles to strengthen are those that make up your core - providing you with a strong foundation for the rest of your body to function at an optimal level.
So what makes up our core? Well, technically there isn’t a general consensus on what muscles constitute core musculature. Some say the core is only the deep muscles of the lower trunk, while others believe it is made up of all the muscles from just below the pectoralis major/minor down to and including the pelvic floor.
For today's post, we’ll adhere to the later, keeping in mind that our core is so much more than just our abdominal muscles. The core also includes the pelvic floor muscles, the paraspinal muscles like the multifidus, erector spinae (iliocostalis, longisimus, and spinalis), the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and those less commonly thought of core muscles like the diaphragm and gluteus maximus.
Benefits of a Strong Core:
1- Good Posture & Injury Avoidance
A strong core should be at the top of the exercise food chain for a number of reasons. It is responsible for maintaining a healthy posture - helping us to avoid extremes of anterior or posterior pelvic tilt.
With extremes of pelvic tilt, abnormal pressure is placed on your vertebrae, facet joints (the small joints along the back portion of your spine), and intervertebral discs (the jelly donut-like structures that act as shock-absorbers between your vertebrae) - predisposing you to spine-related injuries. Maintaining a strong core can also prevent the most common form of low back injury, an acute muscle strain.
2- Energy-Efficient Breathing
Another added benefit of good posture is that your respirations aren’t compromised which can occur with extremes of postural abnormalities. Furthermore, focusing on training yourself to breathe using your diaphragm, one of the core muscles, allows for energy-efficient respirations in addition to having a relaxing and cortisol-reducing effect as compared to chest breathing. (Learn more about effective breathing techniques for stress reduction from this post about Breath of Fire.)
When a person breaths from their diaphragm, also known as belly-breathing, the belly expands as the diaphragm contracts resulting in negative pressure drawing air into the lungs. Comparatively, chest breathing involves the use of our accessory muscles of respiration creating greater chest and shoulder rise with inspiration which has increased energy demands.
3- Increased Power and Stability
A strong core also allows for increased power and stability in all other areas of the body. Many fitness gurus believe that a strong core provides a stable foundation allowing for increased strength in our upper and lower extremities. This allows for the transfer of an incredible amount of force to the periphery, which is why boxers learn to punch from their legs and core, not just their arms.
4- Combating Incontinence
The area of the core that we often neglect is our pelvic floor. Considering a weak pelvic floor leads to unpleasantries like urinary incontinence, I’d say it’s important to avoid neglecting this group of muscles which can be targeted through kegel exercises. This is especially true for females who are planning on becoming pregnant as vaginal childbirth often leads to stress incontinence.
Unfortunately, around 6% of women suffer from permanent stress incontinence after delivery.  However, strengthening pelvic floor muscles during pregnancy can prevent urinary incontinence in roughly 1 out of 6 women during pregnancy and 1 in 8 women after delivery.  Prehabilitating your pelvic musculature prior to pregnancy may also have preventative effects.
How can we habitually strengthen our core?
Developing a strong core can only happen when you establish a regular fitness routine. I’ve been working out since my teenage years, but over the last 5 years, I’ve noticed my enthusiasm for working hard at the gym has dwindled.
Joining a gym that offers group classes has been a nice solution to this problem. Group classes work for me because they are regularly scheduled and can easily be incorporated into my weekly schedule, they offer a sense of community/camaraderie, and cause me to push myself harder due to a healthy dose of competition.
Others find it helpful to establish some type of accountability through the use of a gym buddy or personal trainer. None of these options may work for you. If that’s the case, get creative and keep changing your approach until you find a routine that allows you to habituate exercise and core work. The key here is to take action!
I’ve found that yoga has worked best for me in terms of maintaining a strong, balanced core. Yoga, however, might not be your gig. No worries as other classes like pilates, TRX and those that focus on functional, whole-body workouts will work well for core strengthening.
If group classes aren’t available at your gym, consider incorporating core work as “active rest” in between sets at the gym. For instance:
Set 1: Chest press
Active rest: Plank
Set 2: Chest press
Active rest: Side plank
Set 3: Chest press
Active rest: Mountain climbers
Rest: Breath and hydrate
Set 4: Decline chest press
Active rest: Russian twists
Set 5: Decline chest press
Active rest: V-ups
Whatever method you choose, know that creating this habit in your life will result in you strutting your stuff with a healthy, confident posture throughout life. It will improve your balance and power at the gym, reduce your risk of injury, or developing urinary incontinence, and as an added bonus, may possibly earn you washboard abs in the process!
How about you? What steps do you take for keeping your core strong?
Dimpfl, T. H., Hesse, U., & Schüssler, B. (1992). Incidence and cause of postpartum urinary stress incontinence. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, 43(1), 29-33.
Mørkved, S., Bø, K., Schei, B., & Salvesen, K. Å. (2003). Pelvic floor muscle training during pregnancy to prevent urinary incontinence: a single-blind randomized controlled trial. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 101(2), 313-319.