What exactly is the core all about? Why does every fitness instructor tell you to engage your core, why does your doctor tell you that you have a weak core, and how do they even know?
The core is the support of your trunk, which supports the rest of your body. It provides support for your low back with movement, supports the movements of your arms and legs and allows you to breathe properly. All of this is possible, but only when you have a properly functioning core.
What exactly is the core? Well that’s a great question. Think of your core like a cylinder. The top is your diaphragm, the bottom is your pelvic floor, the front is your transverse abdominis muscle (your deepest layer of abdominal muscles) and the back is your multifidi, (your deep back extensors) . The good news is that your core muscles work together as a team, so you can activate one and get the others to kick in as well. The diaphragm functions on it’s own so we don’t get to control the actual strength in the diaphragm, but with proper techniques we can improve how well it moves and how efficiently we breathe. The other good news is once we teach our core how to engage, it won’t require as much effort to keep it that way. During normal functional movement, our abdominals only need to engage 10-12%, so it doesn’t require a huge effort to stabilize our trunk with daily activities.
So why does the core get weak? And how can you effectively strengthen it?
The core weakens over time because it is not a large mover muscle, like a bicep. It does require attention to make and keep it strong. It can become inhibited, or “turned off”, with low back pain and it requires conscious effort to turn it back on. It’s also really easy to compensate with other muscles, like our lats or back extensors which can also exacerbate back pain, further inhibiting the core and continuing the cycle. The core can also weaken with life events, hello childbirth, and again requires consistent exercises to help get it back. Following childbirth, you are dealing with not only weak core muscles, but also elongated core muscles, which does require some healing and tissue change. So when you’re trying so hard to “get that core back”, after a surgery or childbirth for example, you do need to wait on your body.
There are several effective ways to address strengthening the core. Pilates exercises are one of the best to incorporate for core strengthening. However, if you can’t figure out how to engage your core properly, just like anything else, it won’t be effective and you can set up yourself for injury. I typically recommend Pilates based exercise once my patients are done in Physical Therapy. Here are a few simple ways to start to engage your core:
It is important to work on both of these exercises in sitting, standing and during functional activities such as walking, lifting, rolling in bed, rising from sitting and doing stairs. If you’re an athlete or participating in a fitness routine, these exercises will need to be incorporated into those activities as well. You will know you are ready to progress when this exercise feels easy and you can engage without much effort. It is a good idea to try and engage during activity as soon as possible. Some examples of exercise progressions include:
It truly is “simple” to support your spine during functional activities. It’s important to realize that strengthening your core really can be done while sitting at a red light, watching your son’s soccer game or doing the dishes. In fact, this is exactly when you should be making time for this! Here are some other simple ways to engage and strengthen your core:
If trying to tackle a 30 minute pilates class seems overwhelming right now, start small and work your way into something bigger. Use these tips to make time for your core, Most likely this is what your body needs most anyway.
Katie Larsen, DPT
Katie is a Physical Therapist, wife and mom to 3; she lives in Alpena, MI and loves to be outdoors and spending time with family and friends.
When anyone hears the word, “posture” they immediately sit or stand up straighter. I watch this in the clinic all of the time. Why is your body having difficulty attaining or maintaining that “perfect” posture? It’s not always as simple as remembering to sit or stand up straight. You might need to stretch some overly tight muscles, or strengthen some overly weak ones. Even the most fit, strong, body aware individuals could find a way to grow in their postural awareness.
Awareness is the first step to improvement of your posture, but stretching and strengthening specific muscles is key to making sure you can maintain this long term. Having good posture allows your joints to be in proper alignment, which minimizes abnormal wear and tear; makes you look taller and more confident, helps you appear thinner and good posture can help strengthen your muscles!
The trunk and core muscles are the important postural muscles. The trunk includes everything from your shoulders to your hips. So how do you know where you are tight, or weak or what exactly needs attention? One of the easiest ways to check this is standing against a wall. You want to make sure your head, shoulders, low back and butt are all touching the wall, bonus if your heels can touch too! If you aren’t able to do this easily, pay attention to what is difficult or tight, and that is where you can focus first. As for weakness, when you are trying to sit up or stand up tall, what feels the most difficult? Is it hard to keep your shoulders back? Your head and neck in good alignment? Your abdominals engaged to support your low back?
The muscles in your upper back are typically weak. These muscles are called your scapular stabilizers, which means they are responsible for controlling movements of your shoulder. As a society, we are really good at strengthening the big movers, because we use them everyday. But we tend to forget about the little guys that help us control movements, and eventually that catches up to us. The core is the support of your trunk, which supports the rest of your body. It provides support for your low back, arms and legs with movement and allows you to breathe properly. All of this is possible, but only when you have a properly functioning core. The final important detail on these muscles is that they don’t have to function full force. These muscles can turn on at a low level but then stay on for longer to help support your posture and movements. These muscles need more endurance training then strength training.
So, let’s get practical on posture. What are some easy ways we can stretch and strengthen these important parts of our body?
Stretches for posture will target any muscles that keep you flexed or bending. These can include your hip flexors, core muscles, pecs and thoracic spine. The thoracic spine tends to develop a kyphotic deformity, which is a flexed posture. Think Quasimodo from Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is an extreme example of this posture. Feel free to use whatever stretches make you feel good, but my recommendations include:
Foam roller stretch: thoracic spine, pectorals and abdominals
Hip flexor stretch: hip flexors, abdominals
Prone press ups: abdominals and hip flexors
Chin tucks: thoracic extension, cervical extension
Strengthening will need to focus more on extensors or muscles that help keep you upright. These include core muscles, back extensors, scapular stabilizers and deep neck flexors ( I realize this one contradicts the extensor piece, but these little guys are important!) Examples of exercises include:
Posture correction: Sit up with extra perfect posture and then relax about 10%, hold this position for 5-10 seconds, slouch and repeat 5-10 times.
Shoulder blade squeezes: Sit upright, pull your shoulder blades down and back, hold
for 5 seconds and relax, repeat 10-15 times.
Bird Dog: On hands and knees, engage your abdominals, raise the opposite arm and leg and lower back down, making sure that your back doesn’t rotate. Alternate with the opposite side and repeat 10-15 times.
Scapular strengthening: rows, lat pull downs
Core strengthening: the focus should be neutral positioning, compared with a sit up or crunches. Examples include bridges, planks (modify if needed!) and supine marches.
Chin tucks: perform seated or lying down, keep your nose looking straight ahead, pull your chin back slightly without moving it up or down and relax. Perform 10 repetitions.
Posture support is critical for allowing proper sitting or standing mechanics. Think about your desk set up, or whatever daily tasks you spend most of your time doing. Are you driving a lot during the day with terrible lumbar support in your car? Do you perform a job that requires a lot of rotation in one direction? Adjust your daily tasks and work station to allow for improved support in good posture.
Lumbar support: purchase a lumbar roll or roll a small towel to place in the small of
your back while you are sitting or driving.
Work station: Make sure that while you are sitting your hips and knees are at 90
degrees with your feet on the floor, your elbows are at a comfortable position and resting on arm rests, your computer is level with your eyes and your hands can rest comfortably on your keyboard. You may need to prop up your monitor or get a wireless mouse or keyboard for a laptop. Sit to stand desks are also becoming more popular and can offer a way to change your position throughout the day. If you are on the phone a lot, look into a headset so you aren’t hurting your neck.
Hopefully these tips help you develop a plan to improve your posture and prevent long term complications. These tips can help reverse changes your body is experiencing from being bent over your laptop for the past year while you work from your dining room table, couch or even if you are still in your normal space but feel like something isn’t working right. Even small changes can have big long term impact!
Katie Larsen, DPT
Katie is a Physical Therapist in Alpena, MI who enjoys her job, spending time with her husband and 3 kids and all things outdoors.
I will admit that I have tight hamstrings and calf muscles. I will also admit to being terrible at stretching them. I also am guilty of telling my patients on a daily basis that they need to stretch so clearly there is something wrong with this picture.
When thinking about tight muscles, especially in the absence of a true musculoskeletal problem, why is stretching such a big deal? Why does flexibility matter? Should you really be doing a daily yoga program? And finally, why am I having such a difficult time stretching out muscles that I know need my attention, especially when I know better!
Let’s tackle the “ why” for flexibility first. Tight muscles create an imbalance with how your body and joints function. The bones and joints of your body have been fit together in a very precise way, they are also designed to move in a certain pattern. When tight muscles pull on your bones and shift this precision, it creates an abnormal movement pattern, which can, in very small doses, create abnormal wear and tear on a joint. Eventually, this abnormal wear and tear can create a problem that will need to be addressed by a medical professional. Ideally, you would prevent this as much as possible and stretching (and maintaining good posture and alignment!) will help keep your joint moving smoothly through daily activities.
Now, how often do you need to stretch? Principles of tissue lengthening teach us that consistency is key. Muscle lengthening can take 8-12 weeks for full elongation to take place and the only way this is possible is with consistent stretching on a daily basis. Ideally this would be performed 3 times per day for 1-2 minutes, for that particular muscle. If you think of a typical stretching routine, none of us are doing enough to target these tight areas of our body! Yoga is starting to sound a lot more necessary isn’t it?
So to recap, stretching tight muscles is necessary to allow your body to move properly. To be preventative, that you want to minimize any problems with your body as much as possible. In the world of fitness, cardio and strength training get a lot of attention. Flexibility and stretching aren’t as popular, but really need to be your friend. If you don’t have adequate flexibility, let’s say in your hamstrings, it will be very difficult to be able to properly perform a deadlift. If your form is compromised with a deadlift, that excess strain will need to be taken up somewhere else, and typically this will be in your low back. Perform those reps 10-20 times, 3 times per week and add 20# to the deal, and eventually your back is going to let you know it is not happy with this off balanced arrangement.
So, should you start doing daily yoga? Not necessarily. As I mentioned before, stretching your tight muscle only needs about 3 minutes per day. Maybe you have three muscles that really need your attention, that’s still less than 10 minutes total to address this muscle tightness. You could be creative about stretching. Maybe while your lunch is warming in the microwave for 2 minutes you get a hamstring or gastroc stretch in. While doing dishes, you get a standing hip flexor stretch in. If your mind is swimming thinking, how the heck do I even stretch my gastroc? Or even better, what is my gastroc? Don’t worry, I’ll include pictures of some simple stretches you can do. Now if you want to really level up and get that amazing feel good, full body stretch of yoga, then by all means, jump into it. I’d recommend seeking out the website: www.doyogawithme.com for a free profile and highly customizable options. Yoga also provides relaxation and breathing techniques that can provide additional full body benefits. So should you do more yoga? Probably. I do want to caution, that even something good can create a problem, so please listen to your body and don’t ever over stretch or force your body to move in a direction that doesn’t feel good. Stretching isn’t supposed to hurt.
So why am I so unmotivated to spend 10 minutes per day stretching? There are a lot of reasons for lack of motivation that are more than what I want to dig into right now. Most likely, I don’t see why it’s important for me. I am not yet experiencing, on a pain level, the impact my tight hamstrings and calf muscles are having on the rest of my body. I’m carving out time for a run and strength training session, but not giving my body the blessing of a good stretch. Here are some simple ways I can try to incorporate more stretching into my day:
There are other creative ways to incorporate stretching into your daily routine, whether it is linked with another activity, before, after or during, or you just make a stretching session part of your morning or afternoon routine. Stretching isn’t going to completely eliminate a future musculoskeletal problem, but it can make it easier for your body to recover from, less severe or less of a problem when it does arise.
So do your body a favor and stretch it out.
Katie works as a Physical Therapist in Alpena, MI. She enjoys running, biking, baking and hanging out with her husband and 3 kids!
Dear Fitness Inspirers,
I'm here and I want to coach you! I would love to coach you at the highest level I’m offering right now which is the VIP package, but if that is not the right fit for you right now or yet. The Inspired level of the signature program is just phenomenal, and it will rock your world if you let it! It will give you the tools, the coaching, the accountability and team! It will help you show up for better health in 2021! And a better mindset, waist line if that makes sense for you as well, and other positive ripple effects are here when you notice.
With the virtual options that all of us need for 2021, I don’t need to put a cap on these two groups. But we made the decision to anyway. Because I want to know who my team is! I want us to show up for each other, and for your goals too! I am so excited to see your potential in real life! I promise you, if you stretch yourself, if you challenge yourself even a little bit each workout/program/session on repeat, you will amaze your self/family/friends/team with how much you are capable of!
I am going into this year, with renewed and fierce belief with what you are capable of. With what this Fitness Inspired community is capable of. And the ripple effect of positive impact and the decision to invest in ourselves like we invest in others. Your generosity, joy, knowledge and impact will overflow when we “but first” make the choice to put some water in our cup to start our days and keep on doing that!
Here’s to you! Here’s to 2021! There are seven spots left in our VIP level right now let me know if you want in on that or the Inspired level!
You’re A Star!
Happy Fall y'all! Below are the bullets/cliffnotes if you will of this episode with the same name on Making Changes You Love to Live With Podcast, where I go into more detail and of course invite you to take a little walk in the crisp fall air or drink some fall inspired tea while you enjoy the listen too!
Who feels better when they have great energy?! Me. Me. Me and I can always feel it when I’m around people at a workout or around someone in general what their energy is! If we are being honest, we know that this makes a difference right? The energy we bring to a situation and what vibes other people are bringing makes a difference! We are in the middle of a fired up 4 day challenge here at Fitness Inspired and I wanted to share these 3 ways we can do to get and keep us fired up!
How do you get and stay fired up?! Any hacks you practice to keep your mind right and pump you up to bring your best self to the situation?
Here are five strategies you can try that I think could really help you when you are not feeling motivated! Or maybe you are in a downward spiral of emotion or mindset muck (like I was the other day ). Or it could be that you keep on not doing and being the person you set out to be.
Yeah, me too! I want you to start by doing two things: 1) know that you are not alone! 2) Let’s take a big deep breath together, hold the air in, and blow out the air with a long exhale. I wanted to share a few ways we can all use exercise as medicine (please note I am not a doctor and this doesn’t replace any medical advice) to help during this time. Think of exercise as an incredible tool, especially if you are feeling like your schedule, sleep, or stress is out of hand! Check and see if one of these ways of looking at exercise helps you, and I invite you to disregard anything that doesn’t apply to you, and your current situation. Don’t forget to apply these tips in a safe way given our current health and pandemic recommendations :)
If you didn't already, be sure to check out Part One of this post HERE.
FUEL YOUR BODY (AND MIND) THE BEST YOU CAN
What we are consuming for our physical body and what we are consuming for our mental and emotional health matters! Period. end of story, right? Yes, it matters. Now what do we do about it? There are several traps I see people in the middle of and find myself in the midst of too at times. Here are some strategies that have worked for me and other Fitness Inspirers too. I will go through a list of ideas for you— give yourself some grace, find one that feels good to you, and be proud of yourself for even going “there.” Bring your awareness to what and when and how much of what types of food, drink, water, media you are consuming? It helps a lot of people to get it down on paper. Ask yourself some questions, one idea—does this feel healthy for me in this season of life right now? Another idea is what I call the “But First” principle. You know the shirts that say But First, coffee? It goes with this idea if we can change just one thing, change what you lead each meal with for example, But First, I eat my veggies. And what we start our day with, and out of transition how do we start our next “thing.” This has been a life-changing principle that so many Fitness Inspirers are so happy to have adopted! Your day just goes that much better when you start your day with a workout for an example.
As I write this, gyms are closed, social distancing is becoming increasingly important and there is fear of the unknown. With this current reality, it's easy to get in a head-spin of fear and negativity. However, we don't want to live in that place for long or often. Research tells us, and I think we all know deep down, that getting stuck in fear will erode our mental and physical health. Like always, we have a choice of how we will react to our situation. Will we stay down or will we rise? We have an opportunity to make the best out of this situation and we ALL have it in us to do so! Let's get some strategy and tools to stay healthy, strong, and inspired during difficult times like now.
I am a passionate, adventure-seeking, fitness entrepreneur who loves having fun, my family and friends, a challenge, and creating a positive impact (to name a few :))!