Moving from your CORE
Most workouts today emphasize core work, but what exactly is your core? Most people think it's their abdominal (stomach) muscles. But your core is so much more. It includes the muscles of your entire midsection: your upper and lower abs, your obliques (side abs), and the deepest muscle in your stomach, the transversus abdominis. It also encompasses the muscles of your low back, waist, pelvic floor, and hips. Your core is like a natural girdle for your body, effectively acting as a bridge between your upper and lower body, providing support for correct postural alignment, overall strength, balance, and mobility.
The superficial benefits of a flat, sexy stomach may motivate you to begin a core workout, but it's the overall benefits to your health that will keep you committed. A strong core may alleviate back pain and prevent injury. Conversely, weak abdominal muscles combined with extra weight around the midsection put extra strain on the back. Working your core also allows for greater freedom in functional activities like picking up your kids, carrying the groceries, or maintaining healthy posture. A strong core also enhances your athletic performance as you will be able to lift more weight, hold positions longer, and move with increased ease.
Desiree Bartlett, a featured trainer on Exercise TV, includes a substantial core workout in all her classes and private training sessions, "I have seen the transformative effect core training can have not only on one's body, but on one's confidence because you stand up a little taller when you have a powerful center." Bartlett also explains that on an energetic level, core training activates the third chakra, which is related to the ego and self-expression. You are thus strengthening your personal power in relation to the outside world.
Core exercises target the upper abs, lower abs, obliques, and low back and may involve leg lifts, isometric contractions, and bending in different directions. Bartlett suggests, incorporating "at least one exercise that is a combination of all the core muscle groups working together to encourage a sense of stability." For instance, holding plank position (the top of a push-up) for 10-30 seconds engages the entire core at one time.
The goal of any core exercise is to create a sense of balance and strength throughout the entire body so that weight is being distributed evenly to protect your neck and back. Start with this series of exercises from Bartlett based on both Pilates and yoga movements, which emphasize safety and alignment. You can also download Bartlett's workouts at www.exercisetv.tv. Remember to take your time with the movements, concentrating on your form, breath, and the target areas of your body.
Cow / Cat
This movement originates from yoga and is a great way to warm up all the muscles involved in core training. Begin on your hands and knees, hands shoulder distance apart, knees hip distance apart. Inhale as you lift your chest and look up, exhale, drop your head, and round your spine like a cat stretching. At the end of the exhalation, see if you can contract your belly up and in even more to work your deeper belly muscles (transversus abdominis). Repeat for 10-20 cycles, moving slowly and taking long, equal and deep inhales and exhales while focusing your awareness on your core. This exercise works all the belly muscles from the bottom of the ribcage to the pubic bone and the lower back.
The Roll Up
This is a Pilates movement. Begin seated with your legs straight in front of you. Reach your arms up above your head, and breathe as you feel the alignment in your spine. Roll your shoulders away from your ears and draw your ribs in to pull your belly up and in. On the exhalation, reach your arms out so they are parallel to the floor and start to roll down slowly along your low back, mid back, upper back, neck, and head, articulating each vertebra in the spine. As you roll yourself down, allow your arms to follow the arc, so your arms are overhead while you are lying flat on the floor. Use the strength of your abs to slowly roll back up. Continue to reach forward and beyond your toes as you exhale. Repeat 10-15 times. The beginner modification is to simply bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. For a more advanced move, take your feet off the floor and keeps your legs parallel to the ground throughout the entire exercise. This exercise works all the muscles of your belly, hip flexors, and low back.
Originating from the yoga pose navasana, this movement works the upper and lower abs, the obliques, and waist muscles. Start sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Lean back so that your upper body is at about 45 degrees. Extend your arms out, turn your palms to the sky, and lift your feet off the floor. Beginners can keep their knees bent. The more advanced movement is done with legs completely straight (as shown). Hold the pose for 5-10 cycles of breath. Take slow deep breaths through the nose. At the end of each exhale, focus on contracting your belly.
This is also a Pilates movement. Begin seated on your heels and then move your hips off to the right side so you are now sitting on the floor with your feet to the left. Bring your right hand down to the floor out to the side of your right hip, then bring your right elbow to the floor as you exhale and reach your left arm all the way over to the right so you are bending sideways. Inhale and press into your right elbow and lift your right hip off the floor creating an arc with the side of your body, your feet and shins are still on the floor. Hold for a breath cycle and then bring your hip down. Do 10-20 reps on each side. This exercise works your obliques and hip flexors.
Originating from the yoga pose dhanurasana, this exercise is great for any level and works lower back muscles. Start lying on your belly, then bend your knees, and reach back and grab the top arches of your feet. Keep your knees fairly close together and then inhale as you lift your chest and thighs off the floor. Hold the pose and breathe naturally for 3-5 cycles. Release and repeat at least 3-5 times. This is also a great stretch for belly muscles and hip flexors making it a terrific final core training exercise.