The Scoop on Core Strength
Today’s guest blog is from Heather Mims, who has been completing a clinical affiliation at Finish Line Physical Therapy since January. Heather has a BFA in Dance from UNC-Greensboro and an MFA in Choreography from the Ohio State University. She was a professional dancer and dance teacher for many years, and has been teaching and practicing Pilates for 10 years.
Core strengthening is a popular concept in fitness lately, but why exactly should runners or cyclists care about their core strength? And what is the best way to improve it?
When we talk about core strength, we are mostly referring to the transversus abdominis, or TVA muscle. This muscle looks and acts like a corset, hugging in around the waistline and attaching to the fascia in the low back area to shore up your lower spine from all directions. It acts in concert with your multifidi, which are tiny muscles that connect one vertebra to the next to stabilize the spine, and also works with your pelvic floor muscles to provide support for your abdominal and pelvic organs.
When you brace for any kind of impact or effort, these core muscles should fire to stabilize your spine, protect the discs, and help support your visceral organs. This translates to less wear and tear on the joints of the lower back, less strain on surrounding muscles, better balance, and fewer issues with stress incontinence (always a bonus!).
Having good core strength allows the muscles of the hips and shoulders to get stronger because they have a solid base of support to work from, which means more power and mobility for your sport. In running, when your core is firing properly, your hips and thoracic spine can be freed of the need to grip for stability, and you can then increase your stride and trunk rotation for better running form. Good core strength in cycling means better ability to absorb the impact of jumps and bumps along the route and to change direction and correct for moments of imbalance more effectively. In fact, improved balance is also a major benefit of core strengthening for runners, as it can contribute to a decrease in lower extremity injuries.
So now that you know why core strength is important, what should you do to work on it? There are tons of functional core strengthening exercises, but here are just a few of our favorites to get you started.
Set yourself up in a plank position on your hands and feet. If you have wrist issues, you can do this on your forearms instead. Also, if core strengthening is brand new for you and very difficult at first, you can start with your knees on the mat instead of your feet. Shift your hips side to side like a typewriter carriage, starting with a set of 4 times to each side. Rest, then repeat with the hips rotating like a steering wheel, right and left, for a total of 4 times each direction. Rest, then repeat each version 2 more times. Be sure that throughout the exercise, your pelvis is no higher than your shoulders, or else your core muscles will not be working properly! Take your time with these exercises. You want to build up endurance as well as strength in these muscles, so rushing through the set will take away from some of the benefits you could be getting out of it.
There are also many types of group exercise classes that address core strength. As a certified Pilates instructor as well as a PT, I am a personal fan of Pilates for core strengthening (the plank exercise above is similar to many Pilates plank variations), but many other fitness professionals are targeting this important topic in conditioning, yoga, or barre classes too. Whatever form of core strengthening you choose, just make sure that you feel your abdominals hug in around your spine as you exhale for each exercise, and never hold your breath during effortful movements. A nice flowing breath with emphasis on drawing the abdomen inward on each exhale is critical!
So that’s the scoop on core strength; scoop those abs in and get started on your own core strengthening program right away!