Let’s do a little “core” experiment together:
- Wherever you are currently sitting, scoot towards the edge of your seat.
- Plant both feet solidly on the ground (create a 90-degree angle about your knees).
- Sit up nice and straight.
- Pull your shoulders back.
- Lift you chin up slightly.
- Contract your gluteus maximus (your buttocks!).
- Contract your stomach by sucking it in and holding it.
- Now continue breathing!
- Remain seated in this position throughout the duration of reading this article!
You are probably thinking to yourself: This is silly! No one sits like this! Well, you are correct. Most people do not sit this way; however, this is how we SHOULD be sitting all the time! After a few minutes you will perhaps start feeling fatigued in your upper back and shoulders. You will want to stop contracting your gluts and abdominals, as it takes a significant amount of effort to keep them tightened.
The question is: Why is that? Why does it seem so hard to sit up straight with the core engaged?
“The Core” consists of muscles in the abdomen, pelvic floor, sides of the trunk, back, buttocks, hip and pelvis. Core muscles stabilize the spine and help transfer forces between the upper and lower body. Many people think that “The Core” simply refers to the abdominal muscles; however, many more muscles are part of the core muscles. In fact, there are 29 muscles attaching to the ribs, hips, spinal column, and other bones in the trunk of the body.
Lack of core muscle fitness can create an unstable spine and stress muscles and joints. A weak core is often the cause for back pain, which plagues over 85% of Americans at some point in their lifetime. In fact, low-back pain is the second most common ailment in the United States. Estimated costs associated with back pain reaches approximately $50 billion a year!
Although back pain can be the result of a sudden and traumatic injury, more commonly it is due to weak and inflexible core muscles, poor posture and poor body mechanics during activities. The latter two issues are also directly associated with weak core muscles.
With the advent of modern technology, humans have started sitting more and moving less. Sitting a lot and moving very little usually contributes to poor posture and weak core muscles, as they are NOT stimulated, trained or fit! Weak core muscles, especially the gluteal muscles, contribute to an unstable pelvis, which can lead to increased pronation of the lower extremity (an inward roll of the foot when walking). In addition, the knees and feet can be severely impacted due to forced rotation of the lower extremities. Injuries may result. Other parts of the body may be forced to pick up the slack of weak core muscles, which is not how we are designed to function best.
Much of what we humans do each day includes a forward curve in our upper back, such as driving, typing, watching TV, etc. When the core muscles are weak, they cannot counteract this forward position, which then results in regular slouching, potentially causing tension in our shoulders leading to headaches and other discomforts.
Quick check: What is your posture like right now? Are you still sitting like explained in the experiment? If not, repeat steps 1 – 9 above and then reassess yourself again in a few minutes. You will be surprised, how difficult it actually is to remain seated like this.
The answer to a weak core is to strategically train all the muscles and build core fitness. There are many ways that core strength can be built, including whole body exercises, using free weights, using stability balls and many more. Firstly, It is important to work on muscle strengthening exercises 2 – 3 non-consecutive times per week at minimum. Start slowly and build up fitness gradually. If you have not strategically worked on building your core strength, here are a few basic tips on how to get started:
- Repeat the experiment of sitting up straight throughout the day (create a reminder to check yourself according to steps 1 – 9)
- When sitting, alternate contracting and relaxing your gluteal muscles at 3 sets of 15 repetitions four times per week (non-consecutive days)
- Sit straight on the edge of a chair and complete straight and bent leg-lifts, alternating legs at three sets of 15 repetitions on each side (non-consecutive days)
- Lay flat on the floor, supporting your lower back with a little towel, alternating straight leg lifts at three sets of 15 repetitions on each side
Don’t underestimate the power of a strong core! It can prevent injuries, avoid pain and discomfort, it can protect your spine and allow all areas of the body to function properly without overcompensating for a weak core. Improving core strength will improve your posture and improve your overall quality of life. Do not delay; get “The Core” fit by starting your training today!
For more ideas for core strengthening exercises, check out theses suggestions from the American Council on Exercise (ACE):