Today we’re talking about six-packs! Or more accurately, the importance of a strong, flexible core (which includes back, side, pelvic and buttock muscles) which is essential for good posture. Core strength affects balance and stability, brings more power to your walks and hikes, and wards off or eases lower back pain. Walking with good posture will help you breathe more deeply, relax your shoulders and neck, and avoid hip pain too.
Just like an apple core, your ‘core’ forms a sturdy central link between your upper and lower body. A weak or inflexible core impairs how well your arms and legs function, draining power from many of the moves you make. I always think of it as an internal corset, pulling everything in and up!
Core fitness refers to exercises which aim to strengthen and mobilise the core and should be part of everyday life, not just a formal exercise programme. Think less crunches and more ‘dead bugs’; less sit-ups and more ‘table-tops!’
What I love about core exercises is that they can be made really easy or really hard, depending on your current level of core fitness. So tightening your abdominals (pulling your belly button towards your spine) while balancing on one leg may be challenging for some, while others may be comfortable holding a full plank for a couple of minutes!
Which muscles are we talking about?
So the key muscles are around the abdomen: Transversus Abdominis, Internal and External Oblique muscles, the muscles of the Pelvic Floor and the lower back.
Being able to maintain stability through these muscles has a massive impact on your ability to control the position and movement of the core. Stability is needed to allow movement, carry loads and protect the spinal cord and nerves. There is no single exercise that can resolve low back problems and develop core stability but there is strong evidence to suggest that carrying out a range of exercises can certainly help. These involve activating specific muscles in isolation initially and then progressing to exercises which recruit more muscles and are more relevant to the functions we carry out in everyday life, such as walking.
What is Pilates?
You may have heard of Pilates in relation to core fitness/ stability. Pilates aims to strengthen the body, with particular emphasis on core strength to improve general fitness and wellbeing.
There are some similarities between Yoga and Pilates but pilates exercises are performed in a flow of movement without the static poses associated with yoga. Both systems embrace the connection between physical and mental health, although yoga places more emphasis on relaxation and uses meditation. The results of pilates can be great though, benefitting the appearance of the abs, improving posture, alignment and reducing lower back pain.
It took months of me attending pilates classes years ago to finally click as to what I was supposed to be doing and feeling. That’s why a few sessions with an instructor might be a good idea to start. But once you’ve established that feeling of activating the right muscles and connecting between the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals, it is locked in, and can be drawn upon whether standing, walking or carrying out more formal training activities. I was able to still activate and feel the transverse abdominal muscles gently pull inwards during and straight after pregnancy, so they can be found at any stage of life!
Strengthening the core muscles for walking and hiking
Training to become a better hiker means focusing on the key postural muscles described above, as well as the legs and butt. There’ll be more emphasis on the lower body in a later post but for now, here are some core exercises to try. Start off with 2x10 repetitions per day and you're well on your way to a strong, stable centre. Oh, and don't forget to breathe!:
1. Superman (source: Very Well Fit)
2. Bridge (source: WikiHow)
3. Metronome (source: My Rehab Connection)
4. Side plank (source: Women's Health Magazine)
5. Regular plank (see image below)
Start slowly with this one, on the knees and build up to the toes. The important thing is to keep a flat back and pull the abs in (belly button to spine). Keep the shoulders relaxed, not hunched, and directly over the elbows. I like to use a cushion or folded towel under my elbows so they don't feel sore on the ground. Ask a friend to check your posture or use a mirror if you can. Hold the position for 15-30 seconds initially but aim for a minute if you can. Daily is ideal!
Here @OnClearDays we are working on core stability as a 2020 resolution and would thoroughly recommend the benefits. Watch out for more postural exercises coming soon!
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