In everything we do, from standing to walking, sitting to reaching, we count on our muscles to move us or keep us steady. Most of us probably don’t even give those important muscles a second thought. But when it comes to our hard-working core muscles, keeping them fit and flexible can be critical to optimizing a healthy life.
What Are Core Muscles?
Are you able to swing a golf club, kayak down a river, or trim the hedge? If so, then thank your core. Core muscles are in your body’s trunk. Your core extends from the diaphragm to the pelvis, forming a muscular 360-degree band around the body. These 29 pairs of muscles in the lower back, abdomen, hips and pelvis stabilize the spine, keep us upright, power our arms and legs, and can even help regulate breathing and bladder function. If you bend to tie your shoe, or stretch to get a glass off the shelf, you’re using core muscles. Even standing in place or getting up and down from a chair relies on these important muscles.
“Nearly every movement we do requires core stability. Optimal movement begins and ends with good core control and strength,” said Travis Obermire, a physical therapist with Samaritan Athletic Medicine. “If you have decreased control of these core muscles your ability to function in daily life can be inhibited.”
Signs of Weak Core Muscles
Muscle weakness or decreased control of these muscles can be a result of surgery, injury or inactivity. Common signs of weakness or decreased control of your core muscles can lead to dysfunction in your movement and, ultimately, affect your quality of life. Here are a few common symptoms of poor core stability.
Lower Back Pain
Low back pain has many causes. “One of these causes can be decreased core stability. Your trunk is stabilized by core muscles. These muscles work together to stabilize our spine. If weakness is present in your core, it can lead to overworking other muscles in your core and lead to back pain,” explained Obermire. “This can make us more prone to injury with even the simplest of movements.”
Having good balance protects us from falls. Core muscles assist in stabilizing the body while balancing. This stability allows us to move in any direction including on uneven terrain. Core muscles even work when we stand in one spot and prevent us from toppling over. “This is why it is important to do some core exercises in an upright position,” said Obermire.
Good posture is important for the health of the spine, bowel and bladder, and it allows for appropriate breathing. A weak core can make you slouch or slump more. Check your profile in a mirror to see how you stand. Or even better, have a friend take a picture of you from the front and side. “With good posture, the head should be directly above your shoulders and the top of your shoulders over the hips. With everything in alignment, there will be less stress on the tissues in your body, and you will be less likely to have pain,” Obermire explained. “Good posture takes conscious effort and work over our entire life. This includes working on core stability.”
Hard to Get Up or Down
Do you feel like that chair seat is further down than it used to be? If you need to use the arms of a chair to steady yourself to sit, or to push off when standing, your core and legs probably need strengthening. When muscles are fit, easing in and out of a chair can be done without using arms at all.
Difficulty Standing for Long Periods
Everyone wants to avoid waiting in long lines, but if you avoid it because you can’t tolerate standing for an extended period, then you may need some strength or endurance exercises to work on. “We often think our muscles are only working when we’re active, but core muscles never really stop working in our life, and are critical in upright positions,” noted Obermire.
Strengthen Your Core with Exercise
Keeping core muscles strong and in good control can make simple tasks a bit easier and can help prevent injuries over the long-term.
“The best way to increase core muscle strength and control is with regular exercise that includes some targeted core exercises,” said Obermire. “In working with our patients and athletes, we find that starting slow with exercises such as the Plank, Squat and Wall-Press Dead Bug, and gradually working up to more difficult variations, help to develop core muscle strength and control.”
This exercise holds your body in position while engaging multiple muscles at once. On the floor, begin in a push-up position, but come onto your forearms instead of your hands. Ensure that your elbows are on the ground, directly beneath your shoulders with feet hip-width apart. Keep your back flat and head and neck in a neutral position. As you press your elbows into the floor, imagine an invisible string pulling your elbows toward your toes – this tiny movement will engage your quads, glutes and abdominal muscles. Hold for as long as you can – start with 20 seconds and work up. Relax and repeat. For an easier option, use cushions or blocks to raise your torso at an incline. Watch a short demonstration of both versions.
The squat uses the sit-and-stand motion without the chair. For safety, though, you can do this over a chair. Stand with feet about hip-width apart, hips directly over your feet, and move to a sitting position with your bottom moving backwards as if the chair seat is right below you. Hold for a second, then stand and repeat. For a different challenge, place a narrow book under your heels and repeat the motion. For an easier option, sit into a straight-back chair on your downward movement, then stand again drawing power from your legs and hips more than your arms. Repeat about ten times and work up as you’re able. Watch a quick demonstration of the squat technique.
Wall-Press Dead Bug
You’ll understand the name of this exercise if you picture a beetle on its back. Lie on your back on a thick blanket or yoga mat with the top of your head close to a wall. Press the palms of your hands on the wall over your head, keeping your elbows at a 90-degree angle, and bend your knees. Now, as you push your hands into the wall, pedal your legs toward your chest, first one and then the other. You will feel this in your abdominal muscles. Pedal each leg toward your chest and back for a count of ten. Relax and repeat as many times as you are able. Check your technique with this brief demonstration
Incorporate these exercises into your usual workout, or if you’re looking for a good overall workout based on core-strengthening principles, visit with a professional at one of our SamFit or SAM Elite locations. Other options for working your core are Pilates, yoga or Tai Chi.
“The important thing is to find an activity you are passionate about and enjoy. This will make you more likely to succeed in a consistent long-term health plan,” said Obermire. “Working your core muscles is an important part of a well-rounded fitness program, and is important to a lifetime of optimal health.
If you have pain or questions about strengthening your core muscles, ask your doctor for a referral to a Samaritan physical therapist, or talk with your local exercise professional at any SamFit or SAM Elite facility.
Samaritan Athletic Medicine specializes in sports and orthopedic treatment, injury prevention and rehabilitation, surgical and non-surgical management of sports-related injuries, sports performance optimization, and much more. Contact The SAM at 541-768-7700. State-of-the-art SamFit gym facilities are located in Albany, Corvallis and Newport. Learn more at samfit.org