Starting from the bottom…
When I got my first job out of college, I had a special opportunity to work with a personal trainer at my local fitness center. Our sessions were an hour a week, and much like my actual college experience, came with lots and lots of homework. After our hour was up, I was expected to come to the gym and train five days a week, thirty minutes on weights and another thirty on cardio. I was given a list of recommended foods (all clean), taught how to properly stretch and roll muscles, and then essentially let loose in the new world of protein-powdered gymnasia to test the strength of my resolve.
During those months spent training, a singular theme rang louder and truer than the routine slam of mishandled barbells: everything depends on your core. Everything.
Both my trainer and my body spoke of the comical weakness of my core muscles. With a wide smile, my patient trainer would demonstrate our next round of exercises effortlessly—bear crawls, ick—and I’d try to mimic him with flabby duress. All of me wobbled. I forgot to breathe. My back curved. A resounding ache pulsed from my lower back all the way to the base of my skull. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even make it three crawling gaits before I landed with a huff on my hands and knees, completely spent.
“Cristin, you’re strong,” he’d say, “in fact, you’re already stronger than a lot of my starting clients, but your core? Your core is very weak. And because of that, the strength in your arms and legs counts for less.”
I didn’t understand what he was telling me at the time—in fact, I was likely breathing too hard to really grasp much of anything—but what I didn’t know then I learned through an abrupt change in routine. Our training became entirely focused on my core. We went from bear crawls and battle ropes to planks, holds, twists, TRX exercises, and lots and lots of leaps. Not another training session went by without hearing “focus on your core” on repeat.
Admittedly, I didn’t know what he was talking about and I was too scared to ask. What is this elusive core, I thought. Why is this man imposing his six-pack dreams on me? Oh gosh, please don’t make me plank on the Bosu ball again…
A year later—now with a much stronger core, much less back pain, and much better posture—I can finally say I understand what my trainer was trying to tell me from the start. I am writing now to impart this, dear reader, to you.
What exactly is the core?
The core is a term used to reference the large muscles that surround the spine and internal organs, stretching from beneath your sternum (between your chest muscles) all the way down to your lower hips/pelvic floor. These muscles act as a crucial hinge point between your upper body and your legs, and—going against the grain here—account for much more than the coveted six-pack. Choosing to strengthen your core and doing it the right way may eventually lead to a dreamy set of abdominals, but the benefits will extend far beyond the beach.
6 good reasons to strengthen your core…
1) Having a strong core makes it easier to do most physical activities. Whether you’re bending to pick up a box, swinging a golf club, climbing a ladder, holding a toddler, or even reaching to tie your shoes, having a stable center will help you move more effortlessly. There are very few movements we make daily that do not depend on core muscles. If most of your movements rely on a foundation of core strength and your core is weak, then moving is never going to feel very pleasant. It’s like Newton’s first law of motion. An object at rest stays at rest, and resting is always going to feel necessary when movement taxes you more than it should.
2) As I said before, having a stronger core helped with my back pain. It will do the same for you. Again, when you work your core properly, you engage the muscles that surround and support your spine. According to this article, this helps “align the vertebrae, which takes off unnecessary stress,” “arranges the ligaments in the back,” and “further prevents painful back conditions.” For how common back pain is, there is no more natural way to remedy it.
3) Having a strong core not only helps to prevent back pain and spinal injury, but it helps to prevent all injuries. Studies show that people who have tight, focused centers are better able to effectively control their extremities than people without, thus preventing things like twisted ankles, stiff shoulders, popped knees, and pulled hamstrings. It doesn’t matter what sport you play or the activity you do—if you want to stay mobile and capable for longer, then targeting the core is key.
4) Core strength helps mitigate the negative side effects of desk jobs. We’ve all heard it before. There are thousands of articles and scientific reports on how the regular 9-5 is killing us. One of the many deathblows our desk jobs deliver comes from sitting at a desk for too long, which compromises the integrity of the spine and leads to stiff necks, shoulders, hips, and even tight ribs. It also compresses the nervous system, internal organs, and makes it difficult to breathe deeply. When strong, the core acts as the support the body needs to sit through an 8-hour shift without doing irreparable damage to the body’s most important structures (but also, don’t ever sit for that long please).
5) There’s a reason why it’s called your ‘center of gravity,’ and when it’s off, then you’re off balance. Your core is vital to your sense of balance. Whether you’re walking a tightrope or balancing drink trays, you will struggle unless you make your center into a stiff axis of muscle.
6) For the athletically inclined (or perhaps anyone who wishes to be): a strong core is essential to a strong anything else, so if you plan on toning up your entire body or improving your athletic abilities overall, you should build core strength first. Doing so will help protect you from bad form, pulled muscles, and will lend you the torque power you need to make the punching bag move, as it were. No matter how much you can bench press, you will lack explosive force behind kicks, throws, and swings if you have a flimsy foundation.
Since my stint working with a personal trainer, I have quit the gym to survive a pandemic. However, I find that when I take the time to work on strengthening my core—whether it’s through a traditional workout or just taking the time to stretch out and engage—I feel so much more stable and comfortable in my own body. It wouldn’t surprise me if you did too.
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