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Major muscles of the core are not groups we regularly think of to engage in our day to day lives, especially outside of the gym. Our posture at the computer crumples, sitting up at the dinner table descends, and our overall chair composure collapses. Weakness in the core as a result of these poor sitting ergonomics can lead to functional instability of the core as a whole. Practically, this plays out as difficulty supporting the spine; as such, weakness in the core can commonly cause issues like lower back pain. Lack of proper use of muscles supporting the core, such as various hip flexor and extensor muscles, can also lead to poor mechanics in daily exercises. For example, poor strength in the hips when walking can translate force through the hips towards the spine. Generally, the larger and more robust hip muscles are capable of absorbing the impact of walking. Lack of strength in these muscles can lead the remaining force to overload areas of the lower spine, leading to lower back pain or other issues (Akuthota & Nadler 2004).
Luckily, core exercises tend to be very budget friendly–no large space or equipment required. Our Cary physical therapists research and implement various exercises to help clients re-build and maintain functional stability in their core. Below is a quick list of some of our favorite exercises, along with what major muscles they work, benefits of the exercise, and images on correct form.
Bird-dogs are widely prescribed exercises by physical therapists to help rebuild core stability. The exercise itself isn’t particularly unpleasant or burning like many core exercises you’d do in the gym. Rather, bird-dogs are focused on the proprioceptive and neurological standpoint of exercise: feeling out where your body is in space and helping receive feedback and adjust to what your body’s saying. Controlling and coordinating various core muscles together helps to maintain core stability, reducing the likelihood of pain and injury from poor body mechanics. Involved here are muscles of the back used to lift and keep your arms and back stable, which are your latissimus dorsi (“lats”), erector spinae (lower back), and deltoids (shoulder); muscles to lift and keep your legs stable, which are your gluteus maximus (butt) and hamstrings; and various core muscles including the rectus abdominis (“abs”) and obliques.
Modified side planks are incredibly effective at targeting critical hip muscles supporting the core. The “glutes” are the largest muscles in our bodies for a reason: extending our hips to “push” is essential for walking, running, jumping, etc. Again, if your strength and/or endurance in your hips is poor, your back can eat the brunt of the force when doing any daily exercise. Modified side planks reinforce our focus on injury prevention to avoid development of chronic instabilities in the first place. Rather than a regular side plank, which tends to engage your obliques to keep you up, modified side planks focus on using your gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and gluteus maximus to keep the body erect. Not sure where the gluteus medius and minimus are? Don’t worry, you’ll feel where they are with this exercise (and see where they are with provided diagrams).
Similar to bird-dogs, Russian twists are great for improving core stability as a whole. Twists focus more on the obliques and rectus abdominis as opposed to any back muscles. If you’re new to exercise, you’ll first have to work on your balance a bit holding this form. Eventually, you can move into the twisting motion to get a bit of a burn going to really strengthen some crucial core muscles: your rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis (a deeper version of the obliques), and the iliopsoas (a deep muscle that helps hold your hips forward).
This exercise is a bit of a bonus and is often overlooked. Your diaphragm is at the top of your core and is responsible as the primary muscle of inspiration (breathing in). Many people overlook this muscle and instead rely on using primarily their external intercostals, which help open up the rib cage as supporting muscles in breathing. Those over reliant on their intercostals may find themselves dealing with an underutilized, weaker diaphragm. While the diaphragm would be thought to only affect breathing, its ability to help maintain intra-abdominal pressure when breathing aids in core stability (Akuthota & Nadler 2004). You may set reminders on your phone every once in a while to remember to work on breathing by letting your belly rise (which uses primarily your diaphragm). It becomes a habit quicker than you’d think!
We hope these exercises give you a uniquely refreshing way to get your core in gear. Look forward to future articles with exercises in other areas to add to your routine! If you’d like to learn more about the best approach to exercise for you, click here to contact one of our specialists or schedule a fitness consultation.
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Akuthota, Venu, and Scott F. Nadler. “Core Strengthening” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 85, no. 1 (March 4, 2004): 86-92. doi:10.1053/j.apmr.2003.12.005.