When you start reading about getting and staying fit as you age, you’ll see a lot of references to…the core.
While this can be a little vague if you aren’t familiar with this muscle group, a strong core really is the key to strength and stability. Understanding the purpose of the core and how to optimize it is key to flexibility, strength, and avoiding injury as you age.
So, what is the core?
The core is a set of muscles that are involved in nearly every movement you make. While most people think that the core and the abdominals are synonymous, the core is a group of muscles running through the body in all directions (or planes).
We’re not going to go into detail and name every muscle that is a part of the core–that will probably have your eyes glazing over. The important thing to know is that the core includes the muscles around and within your hip bones and up towards the bottom of your lungs…
- the gluteal muscles (aka the “glutes” or the butt muscles)
- the low back
- the pelvic floor
- the diaphragm
- and, of course, the abdominals
We should note here that the abdominals are more than the 6-pack (i.e., the rectus abdominis). In fact, your abdominals form layers of muscle, all with their muscle fibers pointing in different directions. They include the transverse abdominis, external obliques, and internal obliques.
What does “the core” do?
Your core muscles are not prime mover muscles. Instead, they lend support to the rest of your body’s movements, oftentimes providing a base of leverage and power for your arms and legs.
One huge function of the core is to provide stability. If you’ve ever worked with a personal trainer or physical therapist, you probably have heard them talk about “core stability.” A strong, stable core allows our balance to be much better by providing a lattice of support for other muscle groups.
In other words, if you tend to fall or lose your balance…working on strengthening your core musculature can be a significant step in the right direction.
The downsides of a weak core
It’s well-known that injuries become more common as people get older. This is far more likely when you do not have a solid core. One of the most prevalent signs of an underdeveloped core, regardless of age, is back pain.
When the core muscles are not strong enough, they force other muscle groups to take on the task of supporting the body’s weight. The result is muscle strain and discomfort in other parts of the body since they are compensating for a weak core.
Developing a rock-solid core
Effective core exercises do not begin with crunches and end with planks. Many exercises can help build muscle in this area and lend further support to all of your other activities.
The best thing about core exercises is that you do not need special equipment or a gym membership to begin. Adding these effective moves to your repertoire can help you start seeing benefits to your core right away:
Training with free weights can involve your core and help strengthen it while building definition in other muscle groups. The key to making free weight exercises core exercises is to maintain excellent posture and keep your abdominals engaged throughout the duration of the exercise.
Bridges and other glute exercises
The bridge exercise involves lying on your back with your knees bent and your back in a neutral position. Then, raise your hips until they are aligned with your knees. For more of a challenge, you can use a resistance band or loop–just place it above your knees. While you lift your hips off the ground, create tension in the band by moving your knees slightly away from each other.
Other glute exercises include:
- clamshell exercises with a resistance band
- standing hip abduction
- standing hip extension
If you’re new to exercising (or haven’t done so in a while), start by performing a plank with your hands on a bench, box, or other stable elevated surfaces. Hold your body in a straight line–thirty seconds is good to start. Try to work up to a minute or more.
As you get stronger, you can move your hands to the ground. Further progressions include elbow planks, side planks, and mountain climbers.
Do you find that you get bored quickly doing endless reps of classic strengthening exercises? Dancing can help improve your core stability and coordination due to the constant motion, use of different limbs, and changes in direction. Plus, it’s a fun way to exercise and reduce stress!
A strong core is a good foundation for a healthier life
The benefits of a strong core don’t just show themselves during exercise. They can be felt in every area of your life. You will find that you have more energy and stamina, whether you are on a five-mile hike or just waiting in theme park lines all day with your kids or grandchildren.
You’ll be able to take on more tasks yourself that range from cooking big meals to tackling your most stubborn garden plot. Once you start working on your core, other types of exercise and movement will come more easily, as well. Talk to your personal trainer or other health expert on the best core supporting exercises for you.