Core Competency

6th September 2019

A strong core means more than just an attractive flat stomach or a striking sixpack. Lisa Botwright explains more…

Look at the cover of any health and fitness magazine and chances are you’ll see a model with a lean and toned torso on the front cover. A rippling set of abs (for men) or a flat stomach and tiny waist (for women) are the ultimate in #fitnessgoals. But having a strong and toned core is about so much more than aesthetics; it means having the strength and flexibility to carry out our daily lives without worrying about injury or pain.

Tracy Reeve, a Watford-based Nordic Walking Instructor explains: “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,” she points out, “most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles”.

Ever winced when you’ve tried to pick something up from the floor, or fallen sideways when trying to stand on one foot to put your socks on? That’s your core muscles letting you down. Matt Turner is an injury rehabilitation specialist who sees “people in pain every day”; he believes unequivocally that, “if you have a weak core you are more likely to injure yourself.”

Almost everything we do begins with our core muscles – from when we sit up in bed and stretch, to when we bend down to put our dinner in the oven. “Without [protecting these muscles] we risk injuries that could prevent us from working or providing for our families,” Matt emphasises. “It is only [after an injury] you realise that we use our core to do everything! A strong, injury-free core is essential to our health and wellbeing.”

Since this part of our body plays a role in all kinds of movement, almost all exercise will help to build and maintain strength of these essential core muscles in some way.
It’s a common misunderstanding, however, that working this area is just about activating your abdominal muscles (abs). There is a whole web of other muscles in place, which protect our organs and allow us to move freely.

Rickmansworth-based yoga instructor Mary Mackie tells me that the ‘core’ is actually more than just the superficial abdominal muscles, back muscles and pelvic floor. “The primary core muscle is a huge muscle called the Iliopsoas, ‘psoas’ for short. The main psoas muscles – right and left – are deeply embedded in the back behind the abdomen running down each side of the inner lumbar spine then swooping forward to attach at the front of your pelvis and back down to attach to each inner thighbone. It’s a big old muscle, which, at some points, is as thick as your wrist, and as it comes down through the body it comes into contact with all sorts of other muscles. Often people work on their superficial muscles trying to get ‘abs of steel’ but this can contribute to ongoing back pain, shallow breathing and movement dysfunction.”  

She believes that our sedentary lifestyle contributes to much of the discomfort we can feel on a day-to-day basis, and that stretching and learning to breathe well, two major components of yoga, can help enormously. “Unfortunately we all sit down far too much, and, as in other areas of life – if something is over-used it becomes shorter, harder and stiffer.  With the psoas, the shortening and stiffening [from sitting] will have an effect on our lower back because of its close connection to the inner lumbar vertebra. We need the lumbar curve; if we lose it due to poor posture then we get back pain.”

The key is finding an activity you love, so that it becomes something you look forward to rather than a chore. This will bring the added bonus of a positive impact on your mental wellbeing, as well as improving your energy reserves.
“I always advise my clients to look after their physical and mental health,” explains Valerie Raphael, who teaches pilates in Bushey and the surrounding area. “We all run busy lives, working and looking after our families and we don’t always have time for ourselves. Not everyone has the time to exercise and many just don’t enjoy exercising. Some people come to my studio or classes because they need to: because they understand the necessity for their body to practise pilates.”

While pilates has an excellent reputation for its gentle and effective approach to core-work, Valerie reiterates the idea that it’s about doing something. “I always recommend that you do a discipline you enjoy, but in any discipline, what you get out of it depends on how much work you put in. To strengthen your core you need to take the time, but also make a  mental commitment with yourself to work hard and not be afraid to sweat.”

It’s never too late to challenge yourself or to aim to move more. As Matt says, “building a strong core can be built into your daily life so it doesn’t feel like a task.” He recognises that most people “don’t need something else to worry about.” He recommends that “with simple and effective exercises built around your daily habits you can keep your body healthy and moving for many years to come.” 

WE ASKED the following fitness experts, from a broad range of disciplines, the same question. In their opinion…

What are the best exercises and activities for maintaining and building core fitness?

PILATES
Valerie Raphael (pilatecore.co.uk) says: “I always recommend Pilates as it is very adaptable for any age and levels and there are so many benefits to it. Pilates is also very complementary to other disciplines. I also recommend swimming, a great discipline, which involves lots of muscles being worked… it’s great for building your core and has little joint impact. Surfing, rowing and cycling also work your core really well. I hired a Segway recently and was surprised how much core work was needed. Horse-riding is very good too; if learnt with good technique, posture can also be improved, as in Pilates, and if you don’t use your core you will hurt your spine.”

NORDIC WALKING
Tracy Reeve (nordicwalkingwatford.co.uk) says: “Nordic Walking works 90% of the body’s muscles and naturally activates the core due to both postural improvements and pushing back on the poles. Your upper body will ever so slightly lean forward which will activate all the core muscles, including abs. When you push yourself forward with the poles your core rotates slightly. You can really feel how you need to activate your obliques with the motion to stabilise your core.”

PERSONAL TRAINING:
Matt Turner (prehabpro.co.uk) comments: “There is no one golden exercise that helps maintain core fitness… you need to move your body in different ways to continue to develop strength in every area. I highly recommend that people combine walking or running with lifting weights and completing some mobility and flexibility training such as yoga: this allows you to challenge the core in many different ways and prepare it for anything you need it to do.”

YOGA:
Mary Mackie (marytmyoga.com) says: “I use a functional approach to yoga and somatic awareness to enable the whole body to move and breathe well. Learning to use gravity from whatever base you are in is key – so the feet when you’re standing and the sitting bones when seated – sense them engaging the floor or chair to become grounded and stable so you can then feel a lightness of the whole body, lifting away from gravity as you move. A common exercise is the bridge (lying on your back with knees bent, feet on the floor directly under the knees) – next time you practise this, start by feeling your heels – allow them to really go down into the floor to ground you, and the more they go down, the lighter first the pelvis and then the back will feel until they lift off the ground.  Avoid pushing your torso to the ceiling, let the feet and legs do the work and allow your belly to rest onto the spine – I call this the ‘hammock’.”

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