Get ready for this monster of a topic – there is a lot to say about core strength.
Sit ups are commonly considered the gold standard for measuring core strength. The reality, however, is that pumping out hundreds of sit ups at the gym might actually be hurting your back. Performing a full sit up places high levels of shear flexion force on the lumbar vertebrae and over time this can end up being a source of low back pain. Furthermore, you really aren’t getting a whole lot of band for your buck with this exercise because it only works the rectus abdominus – only one of many core stabilizing muscles. While the rectus muscle is what turns into that six-pack abs, it isn’t doing any favors to overall core strength and stability. To get a better understanding of everything that encompasses the “core”, imagine that your torso is a wooden barrel. The top of the barrel is the respiratory diaphragm and the bottom is the pelvic floor. The walls are comprised of several muscles, including transversus abdominus, rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, and multifidus. In order for the barrel to maintain its structure, the top, bottom, and walls have to be perfectly balanced so that there isn’t excessive pressure on a particular part. This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but you get the idea – if there is an imbalance between the muscles of the core, the stress is going to be taken up somewhere.
The walls of the barrel are generally where core exercises target the most. The deepest muscle, transversus abdominus, has fibers that run horizontally across the torso and acts to compress the abdominal organs. The internal and external oblique fibers are oriented diagonally perpendicular to each other to rotate and side bend the trunk, as well as oppose the diaphragm during breathing. The multifidi are actually part of the spinal muscles, but contribute to core stabilization by controlling small amounts of rotation in the lumbar and thoracic spine. Working together, these muscles have a corseting effect on the torso. Exercise programs like pilates are excellent at engaging this group, so try these two exercises to strengthen your “walls”.
Your diaphragm is a big muscle that functions during normal breathing. It forms the top of the barrel by separating the abdominal cavity from the pleural cavity, which contains your heart and lungs. The diaphragm expands and contracts with normal breathing to allow movement of the rib cage. During contraction on inhalation, it must be opposed by tension in the abdominal walls to avoid protrusion of the abdomen and consequent stress on the spine. You can exercise your diaphragm with balloon-blowing activities like the one below. If the balloon is too challenging, try using a straw instead to build endurance.
The bottom of the barrel consists of several small muscles that make up the pelvic floor, which might also be referred to as the pelvic diaphragm. It acts similarly to the respiratory diaphragm in that it supports the lower abdominal viscera and helps to moderate intra-abdominal pressure. When the muscles in the pelvic floor are out of synch, pressure in the abdomen can cause bowel and bladder or even gastrointestinal dysfunction due to the inability to regulate pressure. The infamous kegel exercise is the cornerstone of pelvic floor strengthening and yes, men can do it, too. What the traditional kegel misses is that you actually have two sides to the pelvis and you should exercise them separately like in the following exercise:
- Shift the left side of your pelvis back so that the left knee is behind the right, feeling the back of the left hip engage.
- Press the inside of the left knee in toward the right inner thigh to feel the left inner thigh engage.
- Feeling the back of the left hip and the left inner thigh engaged, pull the pelvic floor up and in.
- Continue to breathe while maintaining pelvic floor contraction for 5 seconds. Relax the pelvic floor only, maintaining the hip shift, then repeat 4 more times.
- Repeat on the other side
- This exercise can be performed in supine, sidelying, sitting, or standing.