Your core muscles (Multifidius, pelvic floor, diaphragm, longissimus, transverse abdominus, quadratus lumborum to name a few) play a vital role in how we move our body, essentially affecting posture, correct exercise form, and movement and mobility. Your core is constantly working every time you stand up, walk, lift an object, or even breathe. Imagine the spine and pelvic girdle as the centre of the core operation, and the muscles contracting, providing stabilization around it.
Why is a strong core important?
Having a weak core will firstly affect your posture, making you hunch over. Which will close off your thoracic cavity, making your breathing less efficient. Which will then affect every other system in your body that requires oxygen to function…. See how it’s all linked?
You can also develop bad form with exercises, back pain, all sorts of niggling pains associated with this.
Having a strong core will ensure good posture, correct form during your exercises, better breathing technique and less chance of developing lower back pain.
So how do we train the core?
First we need to ‘switch it on’ or activate it. This can be done at any time of the day, not just before a workout. I tend to do it first thing in the morning, and after any period of time I’ve been sitting down for too long and I feel I’ve become ‘lazy’.
Stand with your feet under your shoulders, not too wide. Imagine your pelvis is a bucket of water; tip it forward and backwards a few times as if your ‘emptying the bucket’ then stop when you feel it is central. Next we’re going to activate the pelvic floor. This is easy; it’s the muscle we used to control our bladder. So just imagine you need to go to the toilet and are holding it in.
This seems quite uncomfortable at first. Do this a few times and relax. Next step, imagine there is a rope attached to the top of your head, with someone pulling it, making you stand nice and tall.
That’s it. Your core is activated and good to go. This is good practice every time to get up from sitting down and is the first and biggest step to better posture.
Let’s train the core.
As we have already established, there are more muscles involved in the core operation than just your ‘abs’. So good old sit-ups aren’t going to sufficiently train the core. These in fact put a massive strain on the hip-flexors and if these are tight you will become more hunched forward. As a demonstration, stand up and place your hand on your stomach. Now bend at the hip. You will feel that during this movement, similar to a sit-up, the abdominal muscles hardly contract. Now with you hand still on your stomach, lean back to the point of being unbalanced. Your core muscles have all just contracted to stop you falling over haven’t they? They are far more effective doing this sort of movement than flexing at the hip.
The core is also working to stabilise our body every time we do weight lifting exercises, so standing tall and engaging the pelvic floor will mean you may be able to squeeze those extra reps out!
So we want to do isometric exercises; where the muscles contract and stay the same length. Remember, this is how the core muscles operate, isometrically contracting, providing stability around the spine and pelvis.
Here are the most effective core exercises to improve posture and strength
Perform each exercise for 30 seconds to 1 minute, straight after the other with no rest, take 1.5 minutes between sets and repeat 2 or 3 times.
Plank; adopt the press-up position, with your elbows on the floor. Keep your feet together and maintain a straight line through the spine from the head. To make it harder, try adding weight, just below your shoulders.
Russian Twists; adopt the sit-up position, knees together and you upper body about 45 degrees off the floor. With a medicine ball or other weight in both hands, transfer the weight from side to side, keeping you head and lower body as still as possible. Make this harder by taking your feet off the ground.
Perturbed plank; Get a training partner to try and move your pelvis from side to side, up and down, offering resistance and unbalancing you as you try to keep as still as possible.
Swiss ball ‘stir the pot’; adopt the plank position with your elbows up on a Swiss ball and your hands together. Imagine you have a wooden spoon in your hands and rotate at the elbows, drawing an imaginary circle. Start with 5 circles in each direction then 4, 3, 2, 1. If you want to make this harder go back up to 5!
Round the world; another plank exercise, this time you will lift each limb off the floor one at a time, starting with your left hand, then right hand, right leg, left leg.
These are 4 of the most effective core exercises that you need only do once or twice a week to better your posture and gain more strength. I do these as part of my GB kayak-training program where core strength gives you the edge over other competitors and bad strength means you take a swim!