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core exercises

A Focus on Your Core

A Focus on Your Core, Core Exercises – By Brett Qualls, PT, DPT, OCS

Most of us have an idea of muscles that we would like to tone up or to get stronger.  Among that laundry list of key muscles, many would include the “core” as an area of focus.  This muscle group is given credit for trimming down our waistline and also for helping to control conditions like low back pain.  From the body-function stand point, the abdominal or “core” muscles truly are the key to many of life’s movements.  They serve as the connection between your upper and lower body.  The core muscles help to control virtually all movements that we make during the day.  Are you doing enough core exercises?

Core Anatomy Review:

The abdominal muscles are comprised of four different layers of muscles.  The rectus abdominis really gets the most credit for the “six pack” look over the front of the tummy.  As a result, they are also the ones that people really try to target in the gym with doing crunches and sit ups.  Sadly, this layer of muscle does not offer as many benefits in conditions like low back pain as the other layers of abdominals.  The other three layers (transverse abdominis and the internal & external obliques) are really the powerhouse of the functional core muscle group.   These muscles attach to your low back and wrap around your mid-section like a corset.

When you fully engage your abdominal muscles you are able to utilize the corset effect that the abdominal muscles create.  Your abdominal muscles help to increase pressure in your abdomen, which helps to stabilize your low back. This means that engaging your abdominals when you do something like bend over to put on your shoes, you can help to stabilize your low back with your abdominal muscles to avoid pain with tasks like repeated bending.  Those black elastic belts that people wear are essentially just a cheat for weak abdominals.  Your abdominal muscles should be doing that exact some thing for you…even better!

So, hopefully by now you are convinced that you need to work on your core muscles.  The next logical question: What do you do about it?  The answer is not necessarily doing sit ups. As I previously explained, the traditional sit up primarily targets rectus abdominis.  While this is great for working on your six pack, it will not get you that far at the functional corset that we want for core stability.  

Applying Core Exercises:

There are a variety of methods to work on your functional core strength and stability.  The exercise pathway that you choose will be partially dependent on your current physical condition and working around other injuries.  It can be tricky to work on getting your core stronger to help ease back pain, without aggravating your back.  (Hint: Physical therapy can help with that!).  One of the more widely used methods of core stability training is using the Pilates framework. This model of core training is nice because it uses controlled movements and does not take much equipment to get started.  There are a variety of online programming and in-person classes available to help to get you start your journey. Clinical studies have shown reduction in low back pain intensity and improved core strength/stability with as little as 4-6 weeks of Pilates training.

The take home message for today is that we really should be using our core for everything, and for that it deserves some focused attention.  If you are not already doing it, you should seriously considering starting some focused work on core exercises.  Many of us can use some help getting started, and that is ok.  Find an expert, ask some questions, and create a plan.  Then, it is up to you do to the good work!  Let’s start the new year with a bang and a killer core!

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