Balance & Core Practice

Strengthen your core, reduce back pain & get strong abs...Screen shot 2011-06-03 at 6.26.20 PM

There is much more to your core than the abdominal muscles. Most people think of the core as a nice six-pack, or strong, toned abs, but the truth is that the abdominal muscles are a very small part of the core. The abs have very limited and specific action, and what experts refer to as the "core" actually consists of many different muscles that stabilize the spine and pelvis, and run the entire length of the torso. The core muscles make it possible to stand upright and move on two feet. They also help control movements, transfer energy, shift body weight and move in any direction. Core strengthening and balance training are intimately related. You can't balance without good core strength, endurance and control. An effective core conditioning exercise program needs to target all the muscle groups from your hips to your shoulders.

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You can expect: reduced back pain, improved athletic performance, better balance

Level of Effort: Easy

Time Involved: 20 minutes (or more)

 

Getting Started:

  1. Understand the core muscles
  2. Common core conditioning exercises
  3. Core conditioning programs & methods
  4. Determine your workout schedule

 

What to Consider:

 


 

1. Understand the Core Muscles

When someone talks about the core, they're referring the muscles deep within the abs and back, attaching to the spine or pelvis. Some of these muscles include the transversus abdominis (TVA), the muscles of the pelvic floor, the lats and the obliques, just to name a few. These muscles are where movement originates and it's also the source of our stability. Whether you're running, lifting weights or picking up a toddler, these 'core' muscles help keep your body stable and balanced.

The muscles included in the "core" can vary by expert, but in general the muscles of the core run the length of the trunk and torso. The following list includes the most commonly identified core muscles:

  • Rectus Abdominis - located along the front of the abdomen, this is the most well-known abdominal muscle and is often referred to as the "six-pack" due to it's appearance in fit and thin individuals
  • Erector Spinae- This group of three muscles runs along your neck to your lower back
  • Multifidus - located under the erector spinae along the vertebral column, these muscles extend and rotate the spine
  • External Obliques - located on the side and front of the abdomen
  • Internal Obliques - located under the external obliques, running in the opposite direction
  • Transverse Abdominis (TVA) - located under the obliques, it is the deepest of the abdominal muscles (muscles of your waist) and wraps around your spine for protection and stability
  • Hip Flexors - located in front of the pelvis and upper thigh
  • Gluteus medius and minimus - located at the side of the hip
  • Gluteus maximus, hamstring group, piriformis - located in the back of the hip and upper thigh leg.
  • Hip adductors - located at medial thigh

 

2. Common core conditioning exercises

There are many exercises that will strengthen the core while also enhancing your balance. You want a multi-purpose workout that challenges your balance, stability and overall coordination. To be safe and effective, core muscle strengthening exercises require proper alignment and progression from one type of exercise to another - adjusted to your body and fitness level. Core strengthening exercises are most effective when the torso works as a solid unit and both front and back muscles contract at the same time.

Core exercises are most effective when they engage many muscles throughout the torso that cross several joints and work together to coordinate stability. Core muscles need to work as a unit, contract at the same time, across joints in order to stabilize the spine. Some of the best core exercises are simple bodyweight exercises,

 

Core Exercise Equipment

A large number of core strengthening exercises can be done at home with no equipment while some require the use of equipment and gadgets. Core exercise equipment generally uses your natural need for stability in order to build strength in your core. It works by forcing you to engage your deep obliques and lower-back muscles to stay in place. The best equipment will involve moving your body in different directions while maintaining your posture. Adding an element of balance will naturally engage your core and add a whole new dimension to your training. Some products to consider:

  • Stability ball - You can use exercise balls in a variety of ways to challenge balance, stability and torso strength.
  • Medicine ball
  • Kettlebells
  • Wobble board
  • Bosu Ball - an excellent piece of equipment that can be used for everything from cardio to sports specific training
  • Balance board
  • Wobble board - Adding a wobble board to your routine will help you with balance, stability, torso strength and coordination
  • Foam roller - Using a foam roller in your workouts will enhance balance, body awareness, flexibility and torso strength
  • Dumbbells

 

Core Exercise Examples

Below are just a few exercises that can help strengthen core muscles. Concentrate on performing the exercises correctly, not on the number of repetitions or how quickly you can do them. Also, core training emphasizes balancing the left and right sides of your body. If one side of your body is weaker or stiffer than the other, train an extra set or two on the weaker or stiffer side.

 

Abdominal brace (also known as "draw in")

Abdominal bracing is a basic technique used during core exercise training. To correctly brace, you should attempt to pull your navel back in toward your spine, "bracing" the muscles, as if you were preparing to take a punch in the stomach. You should be able to breathe evenly while bracing and not hold your breath.

  • Instructions: Sitting, standing, or lying on your back, gently but firmly tighten the abdominal muscles, drawing the navel in toward the small of the back. The tailbone should be slightly tucked. Practice holding this position for 10 seconds at a time while breathing normally.

 

Basic crunch

Basic Crunch

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Place your fingertips at the back of your head.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles; then curl your upper body forward, lifting your shoulder blades off the floor.
  • Hold for one or two seconds
  • Slowly lower halfway to the floor; then repeat.
  • Work up to 12 to 16 crunches

 

Crunch With Stability Ball

Abdominal crunches with a stability ball tone and strengthen your core.

  • Place a stability ball on the floor, then sit top of it with both feet on the ground. Place your feet at approximately the width of your hips.
  • Cross your arms, placing your right hand over your left shoulder and your left over your right.
  • Engage your abs as you lean back, keeping your back straight.
  • Hold this position for three counts, then use your abs to bring yourself back up to your original position.
  • Repeat 5 times

 

Plank

Plank

  • Lie stomach-down on a mat, resting on your forearms.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles, and press up so you're balanced on your toes and elbows.
  • Don't let your hips sag or stick up: your body should be in a straight line from head to heels.
  • Hold for 20 to 30 seconds; then lower and repeat a few more times.
  • Work up to holding the plank position for 60 seconds.

 

Bicycle

Bicycle

  • Lie flat on the floor on your back.
  • Place your fingertips at the back of your head.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles, bring your knees up to a 45-degree angle, and lift your shoulder blades off the ground.
  • Turn your upper body to the left, bringing the right elbow toward the left knee and extending your right leg.
  • Switch sides, bringing the left elbow toward the right knee.
  • Continue this pedaling motion, slowly, for a total of 12 to 16 repetitions.
  • Rest and repeat. Note: Avoid pulling on the neck.

 

Arm and leg raise on stability ball

Because the ball is intrinsically unstable, core muscle activity is greater when you perform certain exercises on it than when you perform the same exercises on a stable surface.

Arm and leg raise

  • Lie over the ball so that your hips are on top of it and your legs are straight.
  • Toes and fingers should comfortably reach the floor.
  • Tighten your stomach muscles, then lift your right arm and left leg.
  • Hold for five seconds; rest a moment; then repeat with the left arm and right leg.
  • Do 8 to 12 repetitions. When you're ready for more, try lifting the same leg and arm.

 

Ball Pass

  • Lie down on your back on top of a yoga mat or towel.
  • Hold a stability ball with both hands, then lift your legs off the ground, bending your knees so they make a 90-degree angle.
  • Put your stability ball between your legs as you lift your shoulders, head and neck off the floor.
  • Bring your legs to the floor, then lift your stability ball with your arms and bring it up over your head.
  • Bring your arms and legs back up toward the center of your body, gripping the ball with your legs.
  • Switch positions, passing the ball between your arms and legs for a total of 12 repetitions.

 

Bridge

  • Place your stability ball on the floor, then lie down on your back and place your feet on top of the ball.
  • Tense your abdominal muscles as you dig your heels into your stability ball, and raise your butt and hips off the floor. Straighten your back so your body makes a diagonal line.
  • Hold the position for three counts, then lower.
  • Repeat five times

 

Quick Core Workout Routine

Simple, effective core workout that doesn't take much time or equipment, but covers all the basic core muscles.

  • Plank Exercise
  • Side Plank Exercise
  • Crunch (with or without ball)
  • Bicycle
  • Arm and leg raise with ball
  • Push Ups
  • Bridge
  • Ball Pass

 

3. Core Conditioning Programs & Methods

Certain types of exercise programs inherently challenge your balance, flexibility and torso strength, including Pilates, Yoga and dance. Look for workouts that incorporates basic moves that work on your abs, back, flexibility, balance, body and awareness.

 

Pilates and yoga have long been recognized for strengthening the body and adding to a long, lean appearance. While Pilates sometimes incorporates specialized equipment, there are many Pilates and yoga moves you perform with no additional gear necessary. Mat-based Pilates exercises and yoga movements use your body's weight and gravity to strengthen and provide core training workouts you can do anywhere.

  • Yoga Core Pose Examples:

- Staff pose / dandasana

- Side plank / vasisthasana

- Downward facing dog pose / adho mukha svanasana

- Half revolved belly pose / ardha jathara parivarttasana

- Dolphin pose

- Leg lifts

- Plank pose

Learn more about Yoga…

 

Belly Dancing Core Fitness Workouts: Use isolations and dance combinations to engage your core muscles. Learn more… http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/workout/gear/dvds/bellydance-for-core-fitness-dvd-workout-review/

 

4. Determine your Workout Schedule

1. Determine how many times per week you will perform your core & balance practice

2. Determine how long each training session will be - If you do core strength workouts in conjunction with weight lifting, begin with your core workout first before moving onto your other exercises.

3. Schedule your workout on your calendar

Frequency and Duration - As with any strength routine, your core muscles will need time to heal and recover. Just like lifting weights, you should give yourself at least a one day break in between workout sessions. You should plan on working your core muscles at least three times a week to develop and maintain strength. But, in the end how you set up your program is up to you and will depend on your goals and fitness level.

Schedule it - now that the elements are determined, schedule your workout. If you set aside the days and times you will perform your practice you are more likely to stick to it. Remember the idea is to make it a habit, so schedule at least 2 weeks of sessions and don't miss or change them and you are on your way.

 

Pilates class

 

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Benefits of a Strong Core

The current drive behind core conditioning comes in part from studies conducted in the 1990s showing that before they move an arm or leg, people with healthy backs automatically contract their core muscles. Experts concluded that well-coordinated core muscle use, stabilizes the spine and helps create a firm base of support for virtually all movement. The strength and coordination of these muscles is important not only for sports and fitness routines but also for daily life - for example, reaching up to a shelf, lifting a child, or sponging a spot off the floor.

 

Reduces Back Pain - Abdominals get all the credit for protecting the back and being the foundation of strength, but they are only a small part of what makes up the core. In fact, it is weak and unbalanced core muscles that are linked to low back pain. Weak core muscles result in a loss of the appropriate lumbar curve and a swayback posture. Stronger, balanced core muscles help maintain appropriate posture and reduce strain on the spine.

 

Improves Athletic Performance - Because the muscles of the trunk and torso stabilize the spine from the pelvis to the neck and shoulder, they allow the transfer of power to the arms and legs. All powerful movements originate from the center of the body out, and never from the limbs alone. Before any powerful, rapid muscle contractions can occur in the extremities, the spine must be solid and stable and the more stable the core, the most powerful the extremities can contract.

 

Improves Postural Imbalances - Training the muscles of the core helps correct postural imbalances that can lead to injuries. The biggest benefit of core training is to develop functional fitness; the type of fitness that is essential to daily living and regular activities.

 

Core exercises improve your balance and stability- Core exercises train the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen to work in harmony. This leads to better balance and stability, whether on the playing field or in daily activities. In fact, most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles.

 

Core exercises don't require specialized equipment or a gym membership - Any exercise that uses the trunk of your body without support counts as a core exercise. Abdominal crunches are a classic core exercise. Try lying on your back and placing your feet on a wall so that your knees and hips are bent at 90-degree angles. Tighten your abdominal muscles, then raise your head and shoulders off the floor. Classic push-ups count, too. You can also do push-ups on your knees or standing up against a wall.

 

Core exercises can help tone your abs - Core exercises are important for defined abdominal muscles. Although it takes aerobic activity to burn abdominal fat, core exercises can strengthen and tone the underlying muscles.

 

Strong core muscles make it easier to do most physical activities - Strong core muscles make it easier to do everything from swinging a golf club to getting a glass from the top shelf or bending down to tie your shoes. Weak core muscles leave you susceptible to poor posture, lower back pain and muscle injuries.

 

You can take it slow - You don't have to dedicate hours a day to core exercises. Instead, concentrate on doing each exercise with correct technique and proper form. Gradually build up to 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise. Also remember to take a break when you need one. If you work your core muscles to fatigue during an exercise session, wait at least a day between workouts to give your muscles time to recover.

 

You can do core exercises at home - Remember, you don't have to trek to the gym to do core exercises. Try them on the floor at home while you're watching your favorite shows. You can even do core exercises with a fitness ball. To do abdominal crunches with a fitness ball, for example, sit on the ball with your feet resting on the floor, about hip-width apart. Cross your arms on your chest, tighten your abdominal muscles and lean back until your abdominal muscles kick in. Hold for three deep breaths, then return to the starting position and repeat.

 

Core exercises can help you reach your fitness goals - Aerobic exercise and muscular fitness are the primary elements of most fitness programs - and stretching counts, too. But to have a truly well-rounded fitness program, you should include core exercises in the mix as well. Whether you're a novice taking the first steps toward fitness or a committed fitness fanatic hoping to optimize your results, a well-rounded fitness program is the best way to reach your fitness goals.

 

Warm up and Cool down with each workout

  • Warm Up with a few minutes of cardio and stretching before each session: Learn more…

 

Write in your activity journal

Track your activity, duration, intensity and how you felt before and after the activity. Learn More...

 

Purchasing equipment for your home

There are many options available for how to work out, whether you belong to a gym or just want to workout at home. Take an inventory of the equipment available to you. Purchasing equipment for your home, such as free weights and resistance bands can be a great investment. Learn more about setting up a home Gym at About.com

 

Additional Resources and Articles

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