When most people think about their core muscles, they picture the superficial larger muscles they can see, or their "six-pack." But having a strong core is much more than having great-looking abs. The core muscles lie below the superficial abdominal muscles, deep within the torso. They attach to the spine, pelvis and shoulder blades. They are often forgotten because we can't see them, but these muscles create a solid foundation of support for the body.
Ordinary abdominal exercises such as crunches and leg lifts focus on the superficial abdominal muscles and do not teach the body to coordinate different muscle groups during activity. Core exercises enable many muscles to work together, building functional strength. This type of strength is used during daily activity, whether you are digging a hole or just lifting the laundry basket.
Core strength is also essential for maximum results during sports. A strong core not only creates a strong centre around which the extremities can move, but also optimizes the transfer of energy to your arm and leg muscles. Athletes know that this type of inner strength is the key ingredient to running faster, hitting a golf ball harder or throwing a baseball farther.
Discover your real core muscles
One of the most important core muscles is the transversus abdominis muscle, which lies deep in the abdomen, approximately two inches below your navel. This muscle is also known as the "corset muscle," because when it is toned it provides stability for the lower spine and pelvis. Not only does training this muscle properly decrease the likelihood of a lower back injury, it is also the key to creating a narrowed waist, and a more toned lower abdomen. How's that for motivation?
Other important core muscles enable you to slide your shoulder blades down your back, toward your waist. This motion moves your shoulders away from your ears, improving posture in the upper back and neck area. Exercises to improve the strength of these muscles are especially important for people who carry stress in their neck and upper back or are starting to develop rounded shoulders.
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How do I strengthen my core?
1. Begin by teaching your brain to find and engage the core muscles. Most people do not actively engage these muscles in daily life and need to practice contracting them properly.
In order to locate your transversus abdominis muscle, lie on your back with your legs slightly bent. Picture pulling the area two inches below your navel in toward your lower spine. Imagine that you are trying to push your lower spine onto the floor while picturing your waist narrowing. Hold for a count of three and repeat three to five times. Be sure that your buttock and neck muscles are relaxed and do not hold your breath.
Practice sliding your shoulder blades down toward your lower back. While you are sitting or standing, picture the muscles that attach onto the lower part of your shoulder blades (your latissimus dorsi) contracting in order to pull your shoulders away from your ears and lengthen your neck. Hold for three seconds and repeat three to five times.
2. Repetition is the key. The more often you tell your brain to engage these muscles, the easier it will be to access them when you need them. Repeat the above exercises at least twice per day.
3.Once you have mastered contracting these muscles properly, begin to engage them during exercise and everyday activity. Whether you are doing standing biceps curls at the gym or pulling weeds in your garden, utilizing your core muscles will improve your technique by keeping your body stable and ensuring your shoulders don't ride up.
4. You can further develop your core strength through targeted exercises such as Pilates, yoga or stability ball exercises.
It is more important to do core exercises well than it is to do many of them. If you are unsure whether you are doing these exercises properly, schedule a session with a qualified Pilates instructor or a therapist. Don't worry – you don't have to give up on your washboard abs; you will develop added core strength to go along with them.
Page 2 of 2 – Discover your real core muscles (and why they're important) on page 1.