With swimsuit season upon us, you may be hoping to flatten those abs before you hit the beach. But in addition to helping you look good in a bikini, a strong core is essential to athletic performance and avoiding injury. To learn more about how to tone and strengthen your core to avoid injury, perform at your best, and look great, follow these guidelines from Nicole McDevitt, a physical therapist from DMOS Orthopaedic Center.
Your core refers to a key group of muscles around your trunk and pelvis. These muscles are important for balance and stability which contribute to top athletic performance as well as performing everyday activities. A strong core helps you keep good posture, which in turn protects your lower back and helps avoid injury. And most of us think toned abdominal muscles look great!
In addition to aerobic exercise and an overall strengthening and stretching routine, core exercises can be a key aspect of your fitness program.
If you currently have mild lower back pain or if you aren’t used to working your abdominal muscles, try this simple core stabilization exercise: Lie on your back with bent knees and draw your belly button gently to your spine, being sure to keep breathing naturally. Hold this form for about five seconds and repeat five to ten times.
If you can do the core stabilization exercise without pain, move on to the following three exercises. At first add these exercises to your routine every other day, progressing to every day, and over time even to twice a day if you’re feeling strong and pain-free and you want better results.
Lie on your back with bent knees and feet hip-distance apart. Fold your arms over your chest and tighten your abs. Raise your head and shoulders off the floor, holding for three seconds before returning to start. Repeat this exercise for as long as you can maintain good form.
Lie on your back with bent knees and feet hip-distance apart. Tighten your abs, then raise your hips off the floor to be level with your knees and shoulders. Hold this exercise for as long as you can maintain good form.
In addition to being a great core exercise, planks are a full-body exercise that also works your shoulders, chest, triceps, biceps, back, and legs. Lie on your stomach on the floor, then raise up so your weight is balanced on your feet and forearms with the rest of your body parallel to the floor. Tighten your abs and low back, keep your bottom down, and tuck your elbows. Hold this exercise for as long as you can maintain good form. This is a challenging exercise, so at first, you may only be able to hold it for a few seconds.
“Listen to how your body responds to these exercises,” McDevitt said. “Abdominal soreness is normal, but make sure these exercises don’t cause lower back pain. If they do cause back pain, take a break from abdominal exercises and visit your physical therapist to help you perfect your form and avoid injury.”
In addition to stabilizing your core during abdominal exercises, it’s important to tighten them during “load transfer” such as picking up a heavy object at home or at work or performing any activity that generally tends to stress your lower back.
Although it’s important to stabilize your core during certain activities, McDevitt said we shouldn’t keep our core muscles tightened all the time.
“Sometimes you find people who are trying to keep their cores tight all the time, but that can also lead to problems,” she said. “If you have a muscle clenched all day long, it’s going to be sore. Our muscles like to stay strong when they’re working, but they also need to relax sometimes to allow good blood flow. As with most things, keeping that balance between work and rest is important.”