Think of a strong core. What comes to mind? Rippling washboard abs? A “six pack?”
While “six pack abs” (sculpted and defined rectus abdominis muscles) are lovely, they are not the foundation of a strong core. Rather, your rectus abdominis muscles are like the roof of a house: They top things off, and they need a supportive foundation to sit upon.
Of course, I am not writing about architecture… I am talking about your body.
The foundation of your core consists of the deep inner core muscles that support the external core muscles. These inner core muscles – from the bottom up – include the pelvic floor, the deep abdominal muscles, the deep back extensors, and the breathing diaphragm. Your hip and thigh muscles contribute to total core strength as well. Neglecting any of these muscle groups will ultimately cause your “foundation” to lack integrity, and at some point, the (allegorical) house will fall.
Strengthening ALL of your core muscles is essential if you want to eliminate back pain, increase balance and control, and improve your posture.
The take-home message: When focusing on core strength, be sure to make TOTAL core strength your goal. Whether you are a new mom looking to tone up your midsection or a seasoned fitness pro looking to shake up your core strengthening routine, you will benefit from thinking “beyond abs” with the exercises below.
Pelvic Floor: Contract and relax your pelvic floor muscles. (Yep, kegels!)
The pelvic floor is “the floor of your core,” and I cannot overstate the importance of learning how to properly contract and relax your pelvic floor muscles. The best way to isolate the pelvic floor is by doing kegels.
Kegels may seem dull and even passé, but regularly completing kegels will help you gain strength, endurance, and coordination of the pelvic floor muscles. This will keep you in control of your bodily functions as you age. Control = Confidence, and confidence is hugely connected to quality of life: if you don’t pee when you laugh, you will feel more comfortable socially. If you don’t leak when you exercise, you will be more likely to head outside for a walk or a run. If you can hold your bladder long enough to make it to the store and back, any anxiety you might have about knowing every rest stop en route and in the shopping center should greatly decrease.
Take a moment to do some kegels right now. Lie on your back or on your side and visualize your pelvic floor muscles. They sit at the base of your pelvis and surround your vagina and your anus. Try to squeeze and lift these muscles toward your head. Imagine that you’re using these muscles to pull a marble into your vagina. It may sound strange, but this visualization works! Now relax the muscles and imagine that you’re letting the marble roll out.
Do another kegel, but this time hold the contraction for 5-8 seconds, and then relax completely. Complete 5 to 10 repetitions, relaxing fully between each rep. These “slow hold” kegels are great for increasing strength and endurance of the pelvic floor muscles. This is important for preventing incontinence and prolapse, and – bonus – can amp up your sex life as well.
Note: It is important to balance your pelvic floor training with exercises that strengthen the hip and gluteal muscles as well. Squats are a great example!
Deep Abdominal and Back Muscles: Think beyond sit-ups! Move your body every which way, and make like a plank.
It is easy to activate the deep abdominal and back muscles at the same time: Move in circles, swirls, and rolls. Dance! Stretch your limits! Try booty circles, body rolls, and moves that require you to challenge your balance. When you move your body in all directions your spine will thank you, your hips will thank you, and you will feel great moving in a sinuous, sexy, delightfully feminine way.
Another way to work the deep abdominal and back muscles simultaneously is via plank exercises, which I know willPower Method® followers know and love.
Once you have mastered the plank, consider trying one of the plank variations in my “Triple Plank Challenge” video on YouTube.
Breathing Diaphragm: Strengthen the top of the inner core with “core breathing.”
The diaphragm is the “ceiling” of the inner core. Although the diaphragm is active all day long, it is important to mindfully practice diaphragmatic breathing (or core breathing, as I like to call it) in order to maximize the contraction and relaxation phases of this essential muscle. Click here for a post that describes “core breathing.”
Remember: A strong core is more than a “six pack!” Think BEYOND ABS the next time you work your core muscles.