Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Core

By Physiotherapist & Clinical Pilates Instructor Jessica Deglau
 

What is the Core & Why is it Important?

The core is your “inner unit” made up of four muscles which work together to provide stability to the lumbar spine and pelvis:

Transverse Abdominis: Your “corset” muscle that runs horizontally around you abdomen, beneath the more superficial muscles used to produce movement (e.g. rectus abdominis and obliques).

Pelvic Floor: A sheet of muscles located between your pubic bone, tail bone, and sit bones.

Multifidus: Small segmental muscles that run deep along either side of your spine.

Diaphragm: Your “breathing” muscle - acts as the roof of the core

These muscles fire at a low intensity and should activate in an anticipatory manner (e.g. before you take a step).  They are important muscles because they provide a solid foundation for the larger muscles to work off.  Unfortunately, low back pain and injury may prevent the core muscles from working the way they are supposed to. The muscles may become delayed in their activation pattern or may fail to activate prior to movement.  They may also experience a loss in strength and endurance.  This dysfunction in activation may further lead to other injuries, muscle soreness, and a general instability through the spine and lower extremity.

How Can I Strengthen my Core?

Here are a few physio and pilates inspired exercises to get you going:

Core activation:

Lie on your back with your knees bent and with a gentle curve in your low back.  This gentle curve is called your “neutral spine”. 
Allow your breath to relax - feel the sides of your ribs expand as you inhale.
As you exhale, gently use your inner abdominal muscles to flatten your lower abdomen and draw it inwards towards your belly button.  You can further assist this activation by lifting through your pelvic floor (performed by using the muscles for stopping the flow of urine).   Do not allow your spine to flatten or your abdominal muscles to bulge outwards.

Hold this contraction for 10 seconds and then repeat.  Remember to keep breathing.

You can also try activating these muscles in sitting or standing (e.g. while you riding the bus).

Imprint & Release:

Start this exercise in the same position and activate your core.
As you exhale, gently roll through your pelvis to flatten your spine.  Then, as you inhale, gently roll your pelvis in the opposite direction to bring yourself back to neutral spine.
Do this 10 times.

Bent knee fall outs:

Start this exercise in the same position (neutral spine).
Once you have activated your core, try lowering one knee at a time to the side.  Alternate legs for 10 repetitions.
Do not allow your spine to flatten or your pelvis to tip from side to side. 

        

Marching:

Start this exercise in the same position. 
While maintaining your core activation and spinal position, try lifting one knee until it is perpendicular to the floor.  Lower the leg and then lift the opposite one.  Alternate legs for 10 repetitions
Do not allow your pelvis to hike towards your rib cage as you lift your knee.

Leg Pull Front Prep:

Roll over into a four-point position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Tuck your toes so that your weight is on the balls of your feet.
From this position, find your neutral spine and activate your core muscles (you will feel your stomach gently lift against gravity).
As you exhale, slowly lift your knees so that they raise a few inches off the mat while maintaining your neutral spine.  Hold this position for 2-3 breaths and then lower yourself back down.  Aim for 5 repetitions.

Remember to continue with your relaxed breathing during these exercises.  Also, since the core muscles function best at a low intensity, you should not feel as if you are bracing to perform these movements.  Once you have a good handle on controlling this “inner unit” you should be ready to start challenging some of your larger muscle groups, such as your rectus abdominis, obliques, and glutes.