If you have been hanging around fitness information for a while, you will know that your CORE is super important. After some dithering about what is included in “the core”, now it is generally recognized to include all of your torso, butt, shoulders, and hips.
Given that definition, it should come as no surprise that your core helps you get up and down from a chair, and is integral for doing squats with good form. On top of that, and this is no trivial thing, your core is key for enabling you to stand upright. What is striking is that when you are standing up, the compressive forces on your back are between 40% and 90% less than when you are sitting (this came from Cornell University). This of course depends on how you sit, and how you stand.
Sitting has gotten a lot of bad press lately. In short, if you do too much of it, it leads to joint and muscle issues, and many diseases. But, in terms of your core, sitting does not have to be all that bad. IF you sit with good posture (that’s a big IF), your core is engaged. That would be the deep abdominal muscles and some of the muscles in your back that stabilize your spine.
BUT (and that’s a big BUT), sitting also means the muscles in your legs don’t do much. AND, your hip flexors (front of your hip) can shorten from sitting a lot. Then you can get hip joint complications.
IF you slouch, your ab muscles, including your transverse abdominus (the one that pulls in your belly button) and your obliques (that help you bend sideways) are not very activated. If your back is rounded at the bottom, the muscles around your lumbar spine relax, and this can cause strain on your discs.
So, here it is again. Your core. Whether sitting or standing, it is super important to be using it.
Just to bring this home in a different way, there is a test often given to people, especially if they are getting on in years, called the Sit to Stand. It goes like this: you sit in a chair, not on the edge, but back towards the middle. Usually there are no arms on the chair for you to use to push yourself out of the chair. There is a timer. For one minute, you get up and down from the chair as often as you can.
This test is used to evaluate lots of things. One of them is CORE STRENGTH. Why would this be? If your posture is not being supported by your core muscles (as described above in the “good sitting posture” scenario), you are not going to be able to activate the rest of your body to get out of the chair very quickly. I have a feeling that many people have never really considered this. People may just think that if their legs are weak, it will be hard to get out of the chair, especially a bunch of times in a row. That may also be true, but the core is definitely a major player here.
A Comprehensive Tour
A comprehensive tour of the core can be summed up in three exercises, designed by spine guru, Dr Stuart McGill. They cover the front, back, and sides of your core.
1. The Curl-Up
This exercise reaches the front abdominal muscles. This is NOT a sit-up! According to McGill, sit-ups tend to activate your hip flexors, and put extra load on your lumbar spine and discs. To make sure that doesn’t happen, execute a curl-up as follows:
Lay on a mat, bend one leg, keeping that foot on the ground. Keep hands under your lumbar spine. Curl your mid back (thoracic) slightly up and forward. This is not a big motion. Do not tuck your chin or use your neck in any way to get the curl-up. You can kick this up a notch by placing your hands beside your head, cradling it but not using the hands to lift your head. All the curl comes from the mid back. Do 10, and then switch the leg that is bent and do 10 more.
2. The Side Plank
This exercise reaches the side core muscles. Specifically, the obliques, quadratus lumborum, and transverse abdominus. It goes like this:
Lay on your side, supported by your bottom arm, which is bent right beneath your shoulder. Legs are bent at the knee. Spine is neutral. You are not curled forward. Lift up from your hips to raise off the ground. To increase the intensity, you can straighten your legs completely. Do 10 each side.
3. The Bird Bog
This exercise targets the back extensors around the spine, and the abdominal stabilizers, including the glutes (butt muscle).
Get on all 4’s on the floor or mat. Extend one arm to the front while lifting the opposite leg straight to the back. Keep your spine neutral and engage your abs to keep the correct form. Come back to the original position and repeat, alternating sides, 20 times. To increase the intensity, do not touch the floor with the arm or leg in between repetitions and do 10 repetitions with the arm and opposite leg instead of alternating.
See graphics of all three of these exercises below.
By doing all three of these exercises, you can get a good feel for many of the core muscles and what they do. It is also good to have these in your routine in order to keep a balanced approach to working your core.
© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.