When you hear the word "core," do you think of doing sit-ups or crunches?
If so, you're not alone. Most of us were taught that this is a good way to work the core - trim down the waistline, get rid of the post-baby belly, or just generally improve our fitness.
However, the main muscle being exercised when doing sit-ups and crunches is the Rectus Abdominis. This muscle is the most superficial of all abdominal muscles - it's the one that gives you a "six pack" and is responsible for flexing your torso forward.
While there's nothing wrong with having a six pack or a toned Rectus Abdominis, calling that a healthy core is a dangerous misnomer. In fact, you can be "overweight" and have a stronger, healthier core than a gym rat with a well-defined six pack.
The muscles that make up your actual “core” include the external and internal obliques, the transversus abdominis, your diaphragm, your pelvic floor muscles, and to a certain extent your multifidus, psoas major and minor, and quadratus lumborum muscles (both located in your back, along your spine).
One of the main functions of your core muscles is to stabilize your spine, helping to prevent injury.
Unfortunately, doing sit-ups and crunches can actually work against you in an effort to have a strong and healthy core.
What to do instead?
Focus on the rest of the core muscles and make sure you have a good, stable, strong core that functions optimally before worrying about how your tummy looks on the outside.
This will require replacing sit-ups, crunches, and leg lifts/kicks with different exercises. Some good, generally safe exercises for your core include the following:
1. Hula Hoop. It sounds silly, but this is actually a great core exercise and will help strengthen and stabilize your spine as well. Pick two songs that you like to workout to - they should be the same length, give or take about 10 seconds, and hula hoop to one full song to the right and one full song to the left.
2. Circular Breathing. Inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, and repeat. (Don’t do this while you’re driving!)
3. Plank. Even planking can be detrimental so check with your healthcare provider first, but if planking is a good fit for you, make sure you’re breathing through the exercise and not holding your breath or bearing down.
4. Cross-Crawl Tabletop. If you’re familiar with yoga you probably know the tabletop position. For those unfamiliar, you simply begin on your hands and knees, with knees aligned directly under your hips and hands under your shoulders. From here, simply extend the opposite arm and hand. Hold this for a cycle of 3-5 breaths, and then bring the elbow and knee together under your torso. Extend again and then slowly lower your hand and knee, and repeat on the other side.
Work smarter, not harder, for a happy, healthy core.