The key to stability, strength and reduced back-pain risk, as well as a flatter stomach and smaller waist, core exercises are a workout essential. HELLO! Beauty Editor Nadine Baggott takes a look at why...
Anyone who has visited a gym, taken a Pilates class or talked to a trainer will probably be familiar with the term "core". But quiz most people on what that is exactly – and just why it is so important to your health, strength, flexibility and posture – and they are likely to struggle. "There is a lot of talk about core in the health and fitness industry and a lot of confusion around what and where it is," says Johanna Francis, lead master trainer and head of dynamic reformer Pilates at Ten Health and Fitness in London.
It's important to work your core muscles during a fitness routine
"Your core is what trainers and therapists refer to as the big and rather complex group of muscles that make up the trunk of your body and are pretty much involved in every movement on a daily basis. They include the internal and external obliques – your waist – the transversus abdominis – often referred to as your trunk – the rectus abdominis – your ‘six pack' – the erector spinae and multifidus – your spine and back stabilisers – and, arguably the most important of all, your pelvic-floor unit."
These core muscles are essential for posture, strength, balance and to prevent lower-back problems, as well as for a flatter stomach and smaller waist. They are literally at the core of physical fitness.
To get an understanding of how important your core is – and where and what it is – start by imagining that you are bending your knees to lift a heavy weight; think of the muscles you tighten in the first second of that lift, before you use your arms and legs. It should be your abs, lower back, hips, pelvic floor and, to a degree, glutes – your bottom. These engage, or tighten, to hold your body stable and your back strong so that your arms and legs can do the actual lifting. Without them you wobble, fall or drop the load and can easily put your back out.
Engaging these muscles can leave you looking toned
Alternatively, think of the last time you had to stand on a bus or train with nothing to hold onto. Your core was what was keeping you upright, aligning your ribs, spine and pelvis and keeping your torso stable while your legs did the work.
You need those muscles to be strong both while you move and while you are still; known as dynamic core strength and static core strength respectively. Each is essential in everyday life, as well as for exercise, sport, fitness and health.
Static core strength allows you to stay in one position for a period, often under pressure or while bearing weight. Examples are standing on a moving travelator, doing the plank in the gym or doing a one-legged tree pose in a yoga session. Your core's function in each case is to cope with the effects of gravity and body weight.
Dynamic core strength is used for coping with external forces such as when lifting weights, walking up steep hills, climbing stairs or doing sports such as paddle boarding, skating, dancing or playing squash – anything that requires the body to move quickly and stay upright. Good core strength matters not only for sport and exercise, but also for everyday things such as lifting your children, carrying shopping, negotiating a slippery surface, walking or sitting at a computer all day – even watching TV.
"In Pilates we always say, ‘Engage your core,'" says Johanna. "By that we mean think about those muscles; tighten them and prepare for movement, resistance and weight bearing. Over time, you begin to do this automatically before you put your body under any stress. Your core is essential for balance, flexibility, strength and to prevent injury, not only during exercise but in everyday life."
Johanna trains at ten.co.uk and posts core--strengthening Pilates moves on Instagram @thisismypilatesbody.
Planks can be a great way to work these muscles
THREE ways to strengthen your core
We asked Johanna to talk us through her top three exercises for building core strength. "While it's hard to choose just three, I've opted for ones that challenge all areas of the muscle groups I've talked about and which can be done at home with no equipment," she says.
"However, as a reformer Pilates instructor, I find the reformer an incredible and unparalleled piece of equipment for core strength. The almost endless spring combinations with the moving carriage provide a constantly unstable platform, which challenges your deeper core stabiliser muscles."
Lie face-down on the floor. Rest your elbows and forearms on the floor with hands palm-upwards in front of you, as if you are holding two apples. Tuck in your toes and lift your body away from the floor as you exhale. The idea is to keep the body as long and strong as possible, without hunching your shoulders. Imagine a fire beneath your belly so you draw up towards your lower spine and prevent it from sagging. You should feel your midsection working to hold you in place. Do this for as long as you can maintain good form. If it's too tough at the start, drop to your knees for support instead.
Start by lying on your right side, propped up on your elbow with your upper arm vertical under your shoulder, keeping your knees and feet together. Engage your abdominals and draw up through your pelvic floor, then lift your hips away from the floor. Imagine a straight line from the crown of your head, pulling all the way down to the soles of your feet. Hold, without letting the hips drop, so that you feel the right oblique muscles engaging. It's also great for the back stabilisers and shoulder stabilisation. Repeat on the other side. If it's too tough at the start, drop to your knees for support instead.
Lie with your arms by your sides and your legs in tabletop – holding your feet in the air with a 90º bend at the knee. Knees should be over the hips, ankles level with the knees. Draw your abdominals towards your spine to support it and imagine your bottom two ribs trying to slide down to meet your hips as you exhale and straighten one leg, dropping the heel as low as possible. Maintain a neutral spine, ensuring it does not arch off the ground and the ribs do not flare upwards. Inhale and return the leg to tabletop position. Alternate single legs as your first challenge, moving on to both legs as you become stronger.