Whether you’re a gym rat trying to make up for the loss of your normal routine or just someone trying to stay healthy during the pandemic, you’ve probably looked up some online workout videos. And you’ve probably heard someone talk about core strength.
Core strength is one of those workout terms that gets thrown around a lot. But what does it actually mean and why is it important for your health?
What is your core, exactly?
In simple terms, your core is the center of your body (aka your torso), but it’s a little more complex than that.
The core is a group of muscles in the torso including the abdominal muscles, back paraspinal muscles, glutes, pelvic floor and diaphragm, says Dr. Eric Chen, a sports medicine specialist who sees patients at UW Neighborhood South Lake Union Clinic and at Harborview Medical Center.
“The job of the core is to stabilize the spine during movement, and it acts as a way to transfer and distribute forces in a proper manner so they don’t overload any one part of the body,” he explains.
Why building core strength is important
Since your core muscles help distribute weight and movement across your entire body, a strong core helps prevent any single spot from getting strained. Which means that a less-than-strong core does the opposite.
Signs of a weak core include poor posture and chronic lower back pain. You may also notice that your pelvis tilts forward when you walk.
Strengthening your core helps improve overall health by increasing stability and balance, improving posture and reducing back pain. For athletes, a strong core helps prevent overuse injuries and reduce knee injuries, plus helps prevent IT band syndrome in runners, Chen says.
Not to mention, strong core muscles make it easier to exercise and do everyday activities.
How to build core strength
Core strength isn’t just about how much power you have in your core, Chen says. Endurance, coordination and balance also factor in and are important parts of building core strength that you should keep in mind.
Before trying core exercises, the first step is to learn how to activate your core muscles, Chen explains.
“It can be more challenging than you might think if you’ve never intentionally thought about how to activate your abs when you’re just sitting,” he says.
Activating a muscle may sound like a fancy fitness term, but all it means is tightening your muscles in a way that actually uses them without straining or preventing normal breathing or movement.
There are several ways to learn how to activate your core. If you like a do-it-yourself approach, Chen recommends searching for core activation tutorials on YouTube or taking an online Pilates class.
If you’d rather work one-on-one with an expert, you can schedule an evaluation with a physical therapist or a sports medicine specialist.
Three core exercises to try
Whether you’ve done core exercises before or are trying them for the first time, here are three exercises that will help you build a stronger core.
One thing to note: If you’re a beginner, make sure you go at your own pace and don’t overdo it.
“For a beginner I would set a goal of 3 minutes per exercise,” Chen says.
Once you feel that you’ve mastered this amount of time, try gradually increasing how many minutes you do each exercise for, Chen recommends. That way, you can safely build up core strength over time.
And don’t forget to activate your core muscles during the exercises.