Oh, “the core”. You’ve probably heard your favorite fitness and yoga instructors reminding you to “activate your core” during class, and it’s certainly become a buzzword amongst health and wellness professionals over the past several years. But what exactly is the core? And why is it so important, anyway?
Most people assume “the core” is just another word for the abdominals, and that the entire point of “activating it” is to get you those toned and defined abs you’ve always dreamed about. But in reality, the anatomy and function of the core is much more complex. The core, as most fitness professionals understand it, is comprised of a series of interdependent muscle groups that span the lower back, abdominals, and hips. These muscle groups are integral to overall health and play a crucial role in supporting your body in performing even the simplest day-to-day movements.
Here are some of the muscles that comprise the core:
- Erector spinae
- Quadratus lumborum
- Transversospinalis group
- Latissimus dorsi
- Rectus abdominus
- External oblique
- Internal oblique
- Transverse abdominus
- Gluteus maximus
- Gluteus medius
But why focus so much on the core? Well, to start, the core is the central point from where most movement in the body begins. A weak core results in inefficient movement — leading to wear, tear, and even injury over time. If your legs are strong but your core is weak, the rest of your body is forced to compensate, often leading to injury or tightness in the muscles. Weak core muscles are often associated with low back pain, bad posture, and and repeated injuries.
“The ‘core’ is incredibly important for almost every activity that the human body can engage in,” says Rob Kram, National Director of Fitness Education and Development at Sports Club/LA. “Think of the core as the screws that fasten the diving board to the stairs. The rest of the body is the diving board. Imagine how bad the diving board works if the screws are loose. The tighter the screws are, the better the diving board will function and the higher the diver can propel themselves! That power of propulsion is analogous to the power of your limbs to move from its core.”
Strengthening the core muscles reduces strain and more evenly distributes weight in the body. It also makes activities like running, biking, and weight training more effective. Actions like bending, lifting, twisting, and carrying things all utilize the core, and when the core muscles are weak simple everyday tasks become more difficult. Especially as you get older, mundane actions like bathing, dressing, and even sitting in a chair can become difficult or painful. We often take advantage of these muscles until a problem occurs.
Fortunately, there are plenty of simple exercises that can be done at home to strengthen the core, and most of them don’t require any special equipment or devices.
Here are three simple core exercises you can do at home:
The plank is one of the most common and basic exercises for the abdominals, and it’s a great place to start for people who are new to core training.
Basic variation: To perform the plank, place your hands on the floor shoulder-width distance apart, stretch the rest of your body out, and distribute the weight evenly between your hands and toes. Basically, you should be in a push-up position.
Keeping your belly button huggin in towards your spine, hold this position for as long as possible.
Advanced variation: To make it more difficult, you can drop down to your forearms and then back up to your hands. Alternatively, you can also raise one leg a few inches, then the other, then repeat.
2. Side Plank
The side plank is a variation of the plank that works the obliques and side body. It’s almost exactly the same as the normal plank, except your body will be in a side position so you can isolate and work the obliques and side abdominals.
Basic variation: To perform the side plank, place one hand on the floor directly below your shoulder. Stretch out your legs, and this time place the side of your foot on the ground with the other foot resting on top of it. Once again, hug your belly button to your spine and hold this position as long as possible. Your hips will probably want to sink down, keep your abdominals engaged to keep this from happening.
Advanced variation: To make this exercise more difficult, you can raise your upper leg a few inches, slowly lower it back down, then repeat.
3. Opposite Arm Leg Lifts
This exercise works the muscles that reside in the back of the body and improves balance.
Basic variation: To perform opposite arm leg lifts, get on your hands and knees with your neck relaxed and your back in a flat position. Maintaining this position, extend your right arm in front of your body, until it is parallel with the floor. Simultaneously, extend your left leg behind you. Your arm and leg should reach this extended position at the same time. Put your arm and leg back on the floor at the same time, and repeat the movement with the opposite arm and leg. It’s helpful to align each movement with your inhale or exhale.
Advanced variation: To make this exercise more strenuous, you can hold a light weight (use a full water bottle or can of food if you don’t have the equipment) in each hand.
You can perform these core exercises a few times a week or everyday. Over time, you will build strength and may need to do advanced variations or move on to different exercises to keep challenging your body.
If you have a favorite core exercise or recommendation for strengthening the core, share it in the comments below.
This summer, Intent and Sports Club/LA are teaming up to host a worldwide fitness challenge – The July Games. By participating in the July challenge, you’ll join thousands of people around the world in setting a collective intent to get stronger and healthier this summer. The July Games include seven fitness “events” you can do to build your strength, endurance, and stamina throughout the month of July.
Read about the challenge and each event here.
You don’t have to go to a gym or have prior fitness experience to participate. Simply set your intents for each event, get support from your community on Intent.com, and update your progress throughout the month.