Easter is over, the chocolate has been devoured and now everywhere I look – from social media, to email marketing , to billboards – I’m being screamed at to get “beach ready”. These are usually accompanied by pictures of gorgeous models in bikinis, whose stomachs have that lusted after light definition of “abs”. Even in my dance classes, girls are insisting we do huge numbers of exercises for the core, ready for “operation bikini”.
I say, enough! We need to understand the actual importance of our abdominal muscles, and how best to work them – and none of that is about having a defined stomach, or doing hours of crunches.
What are your core muscles?
Okay, before we go any further, let’s just delve into human anatomy and have a look at exactly what our core muscles are.
First of all, your core muscles are more than just your abs. They cover the area of your torso, stretching from the middle of your back down to your hips, your stomach – including your diaphragm – and even down to your glutes (the muscles at the top of your legs, under your butt). Think of the core like a complex piece of machinery that helps you in everything you do – it helps us with almost every movement of our body.
Have a look at this diagram:
Here you can see all the different muscles which make up your core. It’s much more than just those abdominals at the front. And we need to work all of these muscles to make sure they do their job well. So what exactly do they do?
What do they do?
A well developed core helps us in a few different ways. It supports your spine and helps you to improve your posture. This in turn stops us from suffering from back pain – particularly important in our modern society, where we spend lots of time sitting down. This is because back pain is often caused by weakness of the erector spinae muscles – the ones running alongside your spine.
It gives also you balance during movement – whether that’s walking down the road, or performing pirouettes. And, of course, it supports muscle movements throughout the rest of the body. Plus, the better your posture, the more confident you’ll feel. It will make you feel taller and slimmer, but also posture seems to change our hormone levels. Expansive postures – in other words standing up straight, with your shoulders back and down and your head up – decrease cortisol levels, a.k.a stress hormone, in the saliva.
So, whatever form of exercise is your favourite, or even if you just want to live your life and be able to carry your bags of shopping back home (without hurting yourself or falling over!) you need good core strength. It makes your stronger, less prone to injury…and happier!
And none of that has anything to do with sexy six-pack abs…
Why is the fitness industry so obsessed with “abs”?
First of all, we all have abdominal muscles. If someone has a low enough body fat percentage, those muscles will show (regardless of how well trained they are). Abs on display, therefore, is not an indicator of good core strength. Equally, you might have impressive core strength and your abs don’t show because they are hidden under a layer of fat.
But back to the obsession. Even though, according to social media, we’re currently in the middle of a “booty” revolution (everyone in the world seems to want a bum like Kim Kardashian at the moment) having abs is still up there as one of the most lusted after traits. So why are fitness people so obsessed with them?
My guess is that it partly comes down to a perceived idea of beauty in the male form. We see statues of Greek models/athletes and we have come to associate this with manly perfection. And to some extent, that is true. When a guy trains his body to be capable of withstanding a tough workout regime (and be able to lift heavy objects!) he will gain muscle. This paired with (as I mentioned before) low body fat, will lead to him having abs.
Therefore, we have come to associate a six-pack with peak physical fitness. And nowadays, women are getting in on the act as well. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having abs, but I do think that exercising for the sole intention of having your abs show is wrong. Especially if it means you end up doing endless hours of crunches everyday…
Why crunches aren’t the most effective exercises for the core
Oh crunches, the perfect way to get a “flat stomach” right?! Wrong.
First of all, crunches only really target a small area of your abdominal muscles. It doesn’t address your lower abs, or your back muscles. The activities which require core strength need your muscles to work together, not in isolation. That means you need to be working various muscles at once in order to strengthen your core effectively.
Secondly, according to Ben Greenfield, “Imagine your spine is a credit card. In the same way that repeatedly flexing and extending a credit card will eventually lead to wearing out of the plastic, repeatedly doing crunches can put damaging strain on your back”. In other words, as well as not being very effective, crunches can actually be damaging to your muscles.
Okay, crunches are out then, so let me share with you some more effective exercises for the core that won’t leave you with back pain!
My favourite exercises for the core
The famous plank! One of the very best abdominal workouts there is. Plank pose targets the abdominal muscles, the spinal erectors, the abductors and the glutes.
I like to work with a forearm plank but you can do this exercise with straight arms too.
Place your forearms on the ground, shoulder-width apart, with your elbows in line with your shoulders. You can do this with hands flat on the ground, or clasping the hands together (which puts less pressure on the wrists). Extend and lift your legs so that they are in a straight line. Look at a spot a little way in front of your hands so that your neck stays long and line with your spine. Engage your abdominal muscles and your glutes to stabilise the body, and hold the position. Breathe!
Side plank is a nice variation which also targets your obliques, as well as your thigh muscles.
Come into plank position on your hands with arms straight. Shift one hand towards the middle (under your head). Roll over so your feet are stacked on top of each other (or crossed if you want greater stability). Raise the free arm up to make a T shape, looking at that hand – or place on hip, looking forwards. Make sure you don’t drop your hip down towards the floor. Engage the muscles, hold and breathe.
The walkout is a great exercise for the whole core, as well as targeting shoulder muscles and providing a nice stretch in the hamstrings.
Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend down, placing your hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward to plank position, engaging your abs and squeezing core glutes – be careful not to let your hips drop towards the floor. Reverse the movement, walking your hands back to your feet and standing up. Repeat.
Get yourself a yoga block, football, exercise ball, or even a pillow.
Begin in a v-sit position, place the block between your feet. Lay back with your arms stretched above your head. Sit up in a v-sit, grab the block and lay back down. Repeat the v-sit, this time placing the block between your feet again.
For an easier variation, place the block between your knees with legs bent. Or lift legs first and then reach up to grab the block, lower legs then torso. Repeat: lift legs, roll up with block, place it between your feet, lower legs then torso.
Down Dog Abs
And finally, Down Dog abs. One of my favourite exercises for the core because the added movement makes it even more important to engage your abdominals for stability.
Start in a Downward Dog pose – come into this pose from your hands and knees. Place your knees underneath your hips and reach your hands out just in front of your shoulders. Lift your knees off the floor, keep them slightly bent while you move your tailbone up towards the ceiling. Stretch your heels towards the floor – depending on your hamstring flexibility they might not touch the floor. You are aiming to create a v-shape with your body.
Now extend one of your legs towards the ceiling, squeezing the glute. Be careful not to twist and open the hip – height isn’t as important as keeping the muscles engaged. Shift your weight over your hands, bringing your knee (of the extended leg) into your chest and sucking your tummy to your spine. Lift your leg back out again and replace it back into Downward Dog. Repeat on the other side.
So, there you have five great exercises for the core that work all the important muscles. What are your fitness goals? In need of some inspiration? I have just the thing!
Sign up to my FREE dance fitness workout… It works your whole body (including your core!) and make you feel stronger, sexier and happier. Plus you’ll get some nice bonuses to help you live your best, most glittery life. Pop your details in the box below and get started straight away…