How do I get core strength? is one of the most common questions I get asked. We all know we need it but there is a lot of confusion about what it is and how to get it. If you suffer from low back pain, mid-back pain and tightness, hip or pelvic pain, shoulder pain or neck pain then it is likely you need to work on your core strength. So let’s clear up what it is (and what it isn’t) and look at moves to get you feeling it!
What is core strength?
Core strength is your bodies ability to stabilise your spine whilst you’re moving. Core strength requires several layers of muscles in your torso, coordinating to create just the right amount of pressure for your bones. This pressure and the stability that comes from it keeps your spine, safe, whilst moving.
If one muscle in your core is very much stronger than the others, this can create imbalance. For example, you may be able to do 50 sit ups but struggle with back pain at the end of each day. This is because your rectus abdominis muscle is much stronger than the other layers of abdominal muscles in your torso, and so it takes over and the others don’t get strengthened.
Core strength is as much about coordination as it is about strong muscles. The key to learning to coordinate your core muscles is your breath. Your breath naturally engages all the layers of muscles in your torso. Once you learn to gain awareness of this coordination, you can do this independently of the breath.
Core strength and healthy breathing are intimately connected. To dive deep into the anatomy check out this previous post.
What is not core strength?
Core strength is not the ability to do hundreds of chest lifts or a sit ups. It is not having a six pack of abs. It is not being skinny, and having visible abdominals or ribs.
Core strength is not putting pressure down on your pelvic floor to gain stability. Core strength is not having a belly that is thinner than your hips. It’s not about how much you can lift, although core strength does help you lift. It’s not about how big are well defined your muscles are. Put simply it’s not about how you look.
How to feel your core strength:
So if it’s not about how you look, no wonder it’s a little tricky for people to figure out how to get it. And there are lots of people willing to give you results. You can see, but not necessarily result you can feel in terms of stability.
My favourite way to connect people to their existing core strength is to get them breathing. Taking a good breath in, and then a good long exhale through your mouth, as though you’re blowing out through a straw is a lovely way to feel the natural contraction of your core muscles Towards your centre.
I call this exercise ‘hug the belly.’You are hugging your belly with your breath, and your belly is hugging your bones as you breathe. You can do this exercise lying down, sitting up, kneeling, in four point kneeling or standing up. In fact, it is good to try out this exercise in lots of different positions to feel your core engagement.
Once you’re really comfortable with this hug the belly exercise, then you can try out some of the exercises below to begin to develop more strength and coordination in your core.
Exercises to develop your core strength:
Another gentle exercise that helps with getting all the layers of your core muscles working is called 90:90 breathing. Still essentially a breath exercise, 90:90 breathing gets you to focus on relaxing your deep butt muscles. These deep muscles often grip and get very tight when your core strength is not great. We need to release these muscles to get your core muscles well coordinated.
Once you can feel the ‘hug the belly’ breath and you can do it without gripping your glutes or the front of your legs, then you are ready to practice dead bugs. The dead bug exercise is often where people start however investing time in the last two coordination exercise will make sure your core muscles are working together well and will reduce your likelihood of back tightness or injury.
When you are comfortable with single leg dead bugs you can progress to both legs lifted. Keep the same focus on your breathing to ensure deep core connections.
Feeling the right load:
Getting the load just right, is really important to build core strength. If you are loading your core by doing dead bugs, making sure your mid to lower back is connected to the Matt or the floor is very important. If your mid to lower back is lifting off the floor when you are lifting your legs, then the load for your abdominals is too much and your back has taken over. When this happens you strengthen your back in a dysfunctional way, instead of strengthening your core muscles.
This is why getting the load, just right matters. Experiment with the dead bug exercise and feel the position of your mid and lower back as you raise one leg and then perhaps another leg as you lower 1 foot to the floor whilst the other leg is supported by the floor or lifted.
Check out the video below that shows this from two angles!
Notice what changes happens in your hips and in your lower back as you change the load of your legs. Keeping your spine aligned is the training that the many layers of muscles in your torso need to get stronger. The bonus of this dead bug approach is that you don’t need to exert your neck to build your torso muscles.
Considerations for larger bodies:
For people with larger bodies, it can feel more difficult to work course strength for a few reasons. One If you carry more body weight, you work harder than someone who is lighter. So this can be a barrier to starting because of the difficulty. 2 the difficulty can be discouraging, especially in the early stages and it can be frustrating to have to go slowly. Really this applies to everyone but especially if you’re in a larger body and not feeling good about that. If this is you well done for knowing you deserve core strength. Take your time go as slowly as you need to. You will work harder than a smaller body will work especially in the beginning. So be kind. You deserve strength and stability.
I am Brigid Pearse a Diploma certified Pilates instructor, Pregnancy and Post-natal Exercise Specialist, an ex-dancer and a mum. I run a fully equipped Pilates studio from my home in Lennox Head and I run community Pilates mat classes in Byron Bay, Ballina and online. For more way to move to nurture your body sign up for my weekly newsletter below.