As summer sports and workout routines come to an end, it’s a good time to start putting together a routine for the colder months. Many people find themselves sitting more once temperatures drop. This can weaken core muscles and tighten hamstrings causing pain and stiffness. Core strengthening exercises are a great way to keep your core muscles strong and avoid back pain. Here’s what you need to know about strengthening your core:
What Are Core Muscles
The term “core muscles” encompasses several muscle groups that help to stabilize your spine, hold your internal organs in place and assist with balance and movement. They include muscles that you can see, like your abs, and internal muscles that you won’t see in the mirror. Core muscles wrap around your torso and groin and include your external and internal abdominal muscles, your pelvic floor, diaphragm, and erector spinae.
Keeping these muscles strong is important for overall health. Strong core muscles are necessary for many exercises and everyday movements. A strong core is especially essential as we age because older people with weak core muscles are more likely to fall. Weak core muscles often cause back pain in people of all ages. Risks of a weak core go beyond back pain and balance –a weak pelvic floor can cause problems with the urinary and reproductive organs. There is also evidence that a strong core is correlated with better mental health.
Sitting is the primary cause of weak core muscles, but other things like surgeries, pregnancy, and certain health conditions can also weaken this area. No matter how weak your core is, you can start taking steps to strengthen it.
Before You Start Your Core Workout
The key to a successful core exercise is to engage your core while you work out. Many core exercises require you to lie on your back and press your lower back into the floor. That action of pressing the back into the floor is what engages the core muscles. This can be difficult to do if your core is weak. One of the best ways to engage your core is through a method of breathing that is sometimes used in yoga. You can practice core breathing while you lie on your back.
- First, take a deep breath in, breathing through your stomach, not your chest. Your stomach should expand, and your shoulders shouldn’t move. Breathe out and notice how your belly falls towards the floor.
- Use your abdominal muscles to keep your belly sucked in while you take another breath. This time breathe higher up in your chest, without extending your belly.
- Now breathe out again, and suck your belly in a bit more. Continue doing this for two or three more breaths.
Your core muscles will feel engaged, and you may even feel a sensation of warmth in your abdomen. While you were doing this exercise, your lower back should have flattened itself to the floor. You can use core breathing as a core exercise if your core is very weak. You can also use it during other core exercises to help you engage your core muscles.
3 Core Exercises to Try
- Lay on the floor on your back with your legs straight.
- Raise your legs off the ground and hold them at a 45-degree angle.
- Lift your head off the ground, but keep your shoulders flat.
- Push your low back into the ground.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
This exercise stretches your hip flexors, quadriceps, rectus, and transverse abdominals, and internal and external obliques. (If you suffer from neck pain, you can leave your head on the floor or support it on a rolled towel or cushion.)
- Start on your hands and knees, then straighten your legs, so you are balancing on your toes, then straighten your arms. Your shoulders should be higher than your glutes.
- Engage your abdominals so that your back doesn’t sag (you can use core breathing for this too.)
- Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds.
High planks work your core muscles in addition to your arm and leg muscles. Working your way up to a thirty-second or even one-minute plank is a great way to build strength throughout your body.
The Superman: This exercise targets your back and shoulder muscles as well as your abs. It’s an excellent exercise for preventing back pain and may be suitable for people who struggle with minor back pain. If you have a back injury or had back surgery, you should ask your provider before trying this move.
- Lie on your belly with your legs straight, and your arms stretched straight in front of you.
- Keep your head in a neutral position (don’t look up) while you slowly lift your arms and legs off the ground until you feel your low back muscles contracting. Aim to get them about 6 inches off the ground, but start lower if you need to.
- Contract your abs so that your belly button raises slightly off the floor. Hold this position for 2-3 seconds, then gently release.
How to Structure Your Core Workout
The three exercises listed above make for a well-rounded core workout routine. If you are very out of shape, you can try doing a few reps of each of these exercises each day and work your way up to a complete workout. A good beginning goal would be five reps of each exercise (other than the plank) done twice (2 sets). That would be a total of ten reps for each exercise. For the high plank, you could do one 15 second rep at the beginning of your workout and end with another 15 or 30-second plank. Try to work your way up over time to a one-minute plank.
People who are just starting to work out can benefit from trying a core workout first. Many other exercises require a strong core for proper form, so strengthening your core first can prevent injury and make your other exercises more effective. You could add these core exercises into your routine if you are in generally good shape and work out regularly.
At Burkhart Chiropractic, we offer state-of-the-art treatments for back and joint pain. We also prescribe at-home exercises to assist with healing and strengthening. If your pain is keeping you from being active, we can help. Schedule a consultation today.