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Make it a New Year’s Resolution to Improve your Core Strength

Full plank

It’s that time of year again, New Year’s Resolution time, and likely a fitness goal is being considered. And if it is, you’d do well to focus on strengthening your core. Personally, I‘m passionate about “core training” and have been for a while, but there are still many people who aren’t sure what their core muscles are, how they should work them, or even why they should work them.

I taught a fitness class recently and towards the end, a lady asked me if she could opt out of the Planking exercises I do, and do sit ups and crunches instead; the reason being that Planks made her ‘lower back hurt’. This lady has done a few of my classes and seems super fit – at least when it comes to cardio movements. Her muscular strength is admirable too, as she can lift heavy weights with relative ease during training – but her core muscles are weak. There is no way that the lower back should hurt while Planking and one reason is incorrect technique. Whilst Planking, your back should be as straight as when you’re standing: you should not drop your hips and ‘droop’, arch your back or stick your bottom in the air. If you can only maintain the ‘hold’ for 10 seconds so be it. Have a rest and try again. You should NEVER be in pain.

More and more fitness instructors like me are realising that to get a strong ‘core’ you need to stop the endless sit ups and crunches. They can encourage bad posture which in turn can lead to a bad back. Furthermore, these exercises create movement in the spine, when the abdominals are designed to prevent spine flexion. Planking involves bracing the core, which is much better for you. The “core” actually consists of many different muscles that stabilise the spine and pelvis and run the entire length of the torso.

There are five basic muscles of our core. The abdominals run from the sternum down to the pelvis. Underneath the abdominals are the transverse abdominus muscles. The oblique muscles make up what we call the waistline. The muscles that run along the spine are part of the core and they are called the spinal erectors.

The core muscles are where all of our body movements begin and are the centre of our body’s strength and power. They also work to stabilise the body during all movements. The stronger the core muscles are, the more support they can provide for the spine and for the body during all of the movements we make, from picking something up to reaching up high.

It’s really important to exercise the entire core and not just the abs. If you don’t, these muscles will become weaker and stiffer over time. This causes the body to be at greater risk of injury, especially back injuries, which are often caused by muscle weakness and stiffness. If you’ve ever had back pain, you’ll know full well that it is hell-on-earth. The pain can be excruciating. A weak core can also lead to poor posture which brings a whole host of potential health problems with it – and it is ageing too!

I’ve made it one of my goals to have a strong core. I know it will make me perform better in my fitness activities, and make many daily activities much easier. I’m focusing on ‘holding’ exercises like Planking, which look easy but definitely aren’t. Recent research suggests that you should be able to hold each Plank exercise for at least 2 minutes. Can you?

Exercising your core muscles a few times a week is fine. There are many core exercises for all fitness levels, and I incorporate many of them in my fitness classes – as opposed to just sticking in a few isolated abdominal exercises at the end of a class. TRX Suspension Training is also fantastic for the core muscles. However, it’s vital to grasp the proper technique and form before you increase the difficulty. This is very important because if the proper form and technique aren’t mastered, progressing the exercise will do more harm than good. I’m always patrolling the room during floor exercises and correcting technique where appropriate. I urge people to do ‘lower’ versions of an exercise before attempting to grapple with more advanced versions. Once exercises become easy though, it is best to find more challenging versions of them. I’m so looking forward to the day when the majority of my class members will join me doing ‘Suicide’ and ‘Round the World’ Planking!

In a nutshell, having strong core muscles is a win win situation. If your fitness trainer is still focusing on isolated abdominal exercises s/he is not up on the latest fitness research. Sit-ups left the scene in a bygone era. Crunches are bad for backs, bad for pelvic floors, wreck your posture and don’t flatten your abs. Time to say adios to those exercises and hola to planking!

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