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A Newbie Guide To Core Muscle Strengthening

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When many people think of their core muscles, they think of only the abdominal muscles. But there is much more to it than just the abs. The major muscles of the core run from the front of the belly around each side of the body to the mid to lower back.

The core is made up of five main parts:

Rectus Abdominus

These are the ones most people think about when referring to abs or a six-pack. Running from the sternum to the pelvis bone, they connect the upper torso to the lower on the front of the body.

Obliques

There are actually three types obliques: internal, transverse and external. They all work together to ensure we can tilt and twist the torso.

Intercostals

The intercostals support the ribs and are found in three different layers: External, Internal and Innermost. The way to think of them is the Innermosts run on the inside of the ribs, the Internals run between the ribs and the Externals run on the outside of the ribs.

Serratus

Often called Boxer’s muscles, these are the muscles that allow a boxer to throw a punch. Coming in both anterior and posterior, they run from the back under the arm and around to the front in the area around the abs. Along with the intercostals, these are the muscles that connect the back of the body to the front, thus forming a cage around the body providing upright support. The abs allow us to bend forward and straighten up; the obliques allow us to tilt and twist.

Erector Spinea

As you can imagine by their name, these are the muscle that run most of the length of the spine, from the tailbone to the back of the skull. Their job is to keep your spine straight and erect.

The body uses these core muscles to support itself in a vertical plane called the transverse plane and two vertical planes, the coronal – side to side and sagittal – front to back. To demonstrate a plane, let’s take the movement of walking uphill. While it is common to think of the leg muscles doing all the work, they are actually just propelling the body forward. Without the core stability of coronal and sagittal planes, the body would not adjust itself to overcome the angle and would either tip over forward or backward.

Because our core muscles are used for balance, it is important to include strength training routines that keep them strong – especially as we age.

4 Reasons to Strengthen Your Core Muscles

Most people don’t realize how often their core muscles come into play in their daily life. Physically they are the connection between your upper and lower body. Yes, your spine also connects them, but it does not have any strength to it by itself. It needs the strength of the core to do the heavy lifting (no pun intended) for it.

Regardless of what you do, core muscles are helping you do it. Everyday activities that you don’t even think about are using your inner core strength. Carrying in groceries or laundry, vacuuming, dusting and a whole host of other activities all either originate or travel through your core. Strengthen your core, and all of a sudden everyday tasks become easier to do.

Reduce Risk of Injuries

Because building a strong core improves balance and stability, you’ll have a lower risk of falling and suffering an injury … which depending on your age, can be life-changing. In the case of broken hips, some seniors never do fully recover and end up in an assisted living facility.

Take the back for example. Without the back core muscle Erectus Spinea running along both sides of it, it really is just like links of a chain hanging there; no real strength to support anything by itself.

Improve Posture

Weak core muscles eventually lead to slouching or your back bending towards the front. This creates an imbalance of weight that was located directly over the spine but now centered forward of the spine, creating an immense amount of stress on the back. But strengthening your entire core keeps your back straight and the weight centered over the spine.

Banish Back Pain

Four out of five Americans experience back pain of varying degrees in some point in their lives. Usually the cause is either weak core muscles as a whole or an imbalance where one muscle it taxed to do more than it should to compensate for another weak muscle, eventually itself giving out.

Look Great

This reason is a direct result of core strength, but it is an important reason in itself. If you feel good, have good posture, and have some confidence in your walk, you are going to look good and have a healthy outlook on life, instead of holed up worrying about your aches and pains.

And because your core is in great shape, it will allow you to do things that you might not be otherwise able to do, like water aerobics, dance, play tennis, etc.

Can Core Strength Help You Burn Fat Quicker?

Shape magazine understands that burning fat by working your core is about more than just doing crunches. Your core consists of your lower back, your upper thighs, your hips and your ab muscles. When you engage all of these core muscles, you burn fat at a much faster rate than if you are only working a few of them (which is what you are doing with crunches and sit-ups).

That is how proper core strengthening can burn fat a lot faster than other exercises. You are targeting so many muscles at one time. When you strength train your muscles, anywhere on your body, fat is burned for up to 72 hours after your workout is over. So it only makes sense that exercises which target the 6 muscle groups which make up your core will burn a lot more fat than if you only work 1 or 2 of those muscle groups.

The previously mentioned Shape magazine pulls no punches when speaking of core strength as a fat burner. In August 2013, they published an article titled “The Fastest Way to Lose Belly Fat”. That informative article explains how core exercises crank up your fat burning furnace.

Your core muscles, even if they are hiding beneath a couple of layers of fat, are very strong. When you strength train them, they are torn down. As they recover they become even stronger. Fat is burned to create energy to fuel your muscles, and since muscle burns more fat and calories than fat, this cyclical process feeds upon itself in a very positive way.

Perform core exercises like the standard plank, side plank, push-up into a walkout, and the alligator drag to work multiple core muscle groups. The traditional squat is another great all-over core-strengthening exercise. (A Google or YouTube search will reveal helpful videos to show you just how to perform these fat burning movements.)

Another way that core strength helps you burn fat faster is related to what your core does every day. When you walk anywhere, your core is engaged. Running, unloading your groceries, cleaning around your house, gardening and other common, everyday activities rely on your core strength.

The more you move and stay active, the more your core is working, and the more fat you burn. Even when you are sitting on your sofa or in your computer chair, your core is engaged. So if you want to burn fat faster and see quicker results, work your core muscles more frequently.

2 Ways to Test How Strong Your Core Really Is

The core consists of different groups of muscles running from the top of our shoulders to our pelvis. Its function is to connect our four extremities by transferring energy from the upper body to the lower and visa-verses. So basically the core is involved in one way or another in just about every normal day activity that we do. So we can see why it is important to have a strong core – it makes everyday tasks easier to do.

But how do you know if your core is strong or not? Grab your smartphone (and possibly a friend) and record each of the two movements below and we’ll show you how to test your core strength.

Push-Up

The standard push-up is a great test because it proves how well different core muscle groups work together. Start out by lying flat on your stomach, palms down underneath your shoulders. With your feet together push up into the plank position and release back down 3 times being sure to keep your back straight as a plank from your shoulders down to your feet.

Now review the video. If your back is sagging in the middle or arched upward, then your core needs some work. Shoulders, abs, pecs, back extensor and glutes all come into play when doing this move. Concentrate on doing push-ups and exercises that mimic push-ups, such as planks and walkouts to strengthen your back.

Birddog

This exercise tests balance, coordination, stability of the core when appendages are moving. Start out on all fours. At the same time raise and extend your left leg and right arm so they are pointing in opposite directions. Now bring in the extended arm and leg until the elbow of your arm touches the knee of your leg. Now extend the left leg and right arm again. Do 3 complete repetitions. Now switch leg and arm and do 3 repetitions of that side.

In the video, look for a difference in time of when your leg and arm came off of the floor. It should have been at the same time. Where you able to keep your back level side to side? Were you equally steady on both sides or was one side weaker than the other?

To improve, do more bird dog exercises, but in a slow and controlled manner. And wood chops help build the muscles used for balance, coordination and stability.

By doing the two tests, reviewing the video and making the corrections, everyday tasks will become easier to do. Give yourself some time between making the corrections and doing the video recorded tests again. Although the second time around the tests should look better.

3 Exercises That Can Strengthen Your Core

Many people that have exercised for years do not realize there is a difference between core strengthening and core stabilization. Do you? How you can tell the difference as far as core routines go, exercises that move your spine are core strengtheners. Exercises that equal no movement of the spine are core stabilizers.

Because we want to strengthen our spine and not focus on stability for the purpose of this article, we want to focus on exercises that involve flexing the spine.

Crunches

Start performing a crunch by lying on a mat or floor. Using your abs, pull the top half of your body up so that your shoulder blades are off the mat. As far as your arms, you can either have them crossed in front of your or slide up and down the top part of your legs. To avoid neck strain, refrain from locking your arms behind your neck. A modification to this exercise is to have your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

If just starting out with this exercise, do one to two sets with 10-12 reps in each set. Work up to three to five sets with 12-15 reps in each set. If you want to “kick up” this exercise a notch, do crunches while on a stability ball. The different angle and instability of the surface will further challenge your core muscles.

Arm Sweep

Start by sitting on the floor, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms outstretched. Using your mid back core muscles to keep you sitting up straight, rotate your torso so that your right hand touches your left foot. Come back to the neutral position and then twist the other way so that your left hand touches your right foot. The arm sweep works the abs and back muscles.

At the beginner level, try to do one to two sets of 8-10 reps in each set. Gradually work up to the advanced level of three to five sets with 15-30 reps in each set.

Planks

This last exercise is both for stability and strength and comes in many variations. Start by lying face down on a mat or the floor. Now push up your body so that only your forearms, hands and feet are touching the surface and your body is in a straight line from your neck to your feet – straight like a plank.

Through the tightening of your hips, legs, arms, back, chest and abs, hold in that position for as long as you can working up to 30 seconds. Come back down to the flat position and plank up again. Do as many of these as you can. Once 30 seconds becomes a breeze increase the time by 5 seconds.

Adding a 15-minute routine of these three exercises to your workout sessions three or four times per week will have your core stronger in no time. And with the plank, you’ll also work on core stability.

How to Track Your Core Exercise Progress

There is an old adage that says “That which is measured, gets improved.” And it is true in a couple of ways. First, just the act of recording measurements on paper brings with it a certain accountability that otherwise would not be there if the numbers were not recorded. Second, you have to know where you started, where you currently are, and where you want to be to know if you are making progress toward your goal; writing these things down helps keep you on track. In particular, you’ll want to keep track of numbers in these three main areas:

Weight

Some people get so freaked out by the number on the scale. What they fail to realize is it is just that – a number at the present time. Tomorrow it could be higher, lower, or the same. And that number does not tell the whole truth.

Do you know it could be a good thing if you gained weight according to the scale? It’s true. Because muscle weighs more than fat, if you lost fat and gained muscle, you could actually be in better shape now fitness-wise than before. The point is to not obsess over the number.

It may show you have lost weight since the last time you weighed, but what kind of weight did you lose? If it was muscle, that is not the kind of weight you want to lose. But without body composition measurements too, to tell you where you lost your weight, your number on the scale did not tell you much.

Body Composition

Weight is only part of the picture. Measuring composition tells the other part. Basically you’ll want two pieces of equipment – a cloth tape measure and a set of body calipers.

Once a week before your workout, record the following measurements:

•    Neck – around the center of the neck looking straight ahead
•    Waist – at the belly-button line
•    Hips – at the widest part
•    Thigh – at the widest part

The biggest thing to making this work is to take each measurement at the same place on your body each time. Don’t cheat; the only person you are hurting is yourself. With the body calipers, take a reading ion the love handle region. Read the directions that came with the calipers to ensure you are measuring correctly.

Your concern shouldn’t be how the numbers change each week, but where the overall trend is heading. Graphing each measurement with its own line color over time is a good way to instantly see your trend in that measurement. That also makes getting an overall trend easy or to see where one measurement is not doing as well as the rest.

Workouts

This is another area that needs documenting for a couple of reasons also. One, for trending purposes it is easier to see how you are doing, but the second reason is even more important.

Let’s assume you write down or graph that you did three sets of 10 pushups again yesterday as you have for the last week. Now you need to ramp it up by two pushups per set. By merely having the numbers written down and your mind knowing you have to improve by two each set, you will get to 12 reps per set the next time you do pushups.

Studies have verified this over and over. Participants that had the same goal, but not past performance records, did not make their new goal as often. As with weight and body composition, there is something motivating about writing down and seeing the numbers.

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