Best Exercises for the Core
The most effective core muscle exercises include stomach crunches and planking, but exercisers should be careful to avoid sit ups as they are no longer medically recommended.
Core muscles provide strength to the whole body, and improving core strength can make a large difference to health, posture, and weight loss efforts. What’s more, through working out these muscles, the exerciser will reduce the amount of fat which is stored around their abdomen to create a slimmer, more toned stomach. The most effective exercises for strengthening core muscles are said to be stomach crunches and planking, which stretch the abdominal muscles and help the body get used to putting more weight on this area of the body. While these exercises can be difficult at first, consistently working out will help these muscles to strengthen quickly.
The Core Muscles
Getting into shape is often about more than just losing weight through dieting. Exercise is a vital part of developing a healthier, more capable body. In particular, for shifting the pounds around the gut and belly, it’s important to give proper attention to the body’s core muscles and make sure that they’re worked out regularly. This both burns off fat and helps the body to hold itself better, leading to significant health improvements, greater strength, and recovery from some of the aches and pains that can come from being overweight, including improved comfortable breathing.
When scientists, doctors and healthcare professionals refer to a person’s ‘core’, they’re actually talking about a collection of muscles around the abdomen, the lower back, the pelvis and the diaphragm. These muscles are used whenever a person moves, as their central location makes them essential to all activities – in particular, the core muscles are used for lifting objects, and the stronger a person’s core, the more they’re able to comfortably lift without straining themselves.
There are a lot of health benefits associated with strengthening the core muscles. A study in 2015 found patients suffering from lower back pain received alleviation of their symptoms by performing exercises to strengthen their core muscles. This is in large part because the core muscles support the spine, and through strengthening the core, less pressure is put solely on the body’s lower back muscles – what’s more, the affected muscles are in a better position to support greater weight and can therefore cope better with the body’s needs.
Beyond this, there is a variety of common everyday tasks that become easier when a person is regularly exercising their core muscles. This includes sitting at a desk for hours at a time, engaging in sporting activities, chores around the house that involve a lot of bending, and general balance. What’s more, when a person has an in-shape abdomen, their posture improves naturally as a result.
Notably, core exercises also help to better shape, define and tone your ab muscles, burning away excess fat around the muscles and letting your abs show through. This can be beneficial depending on your body goals, and will certainly help in improving your figure if you’re looking for a flatter stomach and a more streamlined physique. It also means that you’ll have the strength to engage in more rigorous exercise throughout the rest of your body, thanks to the support that your core muscles give to your body as a whole.
There are a range of exercises which those looking to strengthen their core muscles may wish to consider. These range from fairly intensive exercises which can provide solid aerobic workout, through to relatively relaxed exercises that don’t require too much strain.
Regardless of the exercise chosen, though, beginning to train the core muscles will be difficult at first, particularly if the body isn’t used to putting a lot of pressure on these muscles. Consistency is key, especially at first, to helping your body get into a routine and strengthen its core muscles so that subsequent exercise periods aren’t as strenuous as the first few weeks.
One of the most intense exercise groups – and therefore one of the most effective exercises for strengthening core muscles – is the collective form of exercises known as stomach crunches. These involve the exerciser lying on their back, then lifting their back up partially and moving back and forth in a series of movements which stretch their core muscles and move them from their centre.
The exerciser should lie directly on their back, with their feet flat on the floor and their knees bent, with their legs hip distance apart. The exerciser should then slowly lift up their back until their shoulders are three inches above the floor. The position should be held for a short period before the person lowers themselves back down again. This action should be repeated multiple times.
An alternative version of this exercise (known as an oblique crunch) involved the person lying flat on their back, with their feet flat on the ground in the same starting position, then slowly rolling their legs down to lie flat on the ground on one side, as if their legs are in the foetal position, which their back stays flat on the floor. The exerciser then performs crunches by lifting their back slightly off the ground, holding the position for a few seconds, and then lowering back down. Performing this exercise several times, then switching their legs to the other side and repeating, will strengthen the body’s side core muscles as well as the muscles on the front.
When first performing this exercise, it’s perfectly natural for the activity to be strenuous, but consistent practice makes it easier. As the motion involves moving the person’s back up, it’s tempting to move the neck so that the exerciser’s head is touching their chest – this is not advised as it will make the exerciser feel nauseous and will put extra pressure on the spine. Instead, the exerciser should keep their neck relaxed but straight to avoid unnecessary back stress.
Planking can take some getting used to, but it can become relatively easy once the body has begun to build up its core strength. Because the exercise involves remaining stationary, it’s a lot less strenuous than many core muscle exercises – although the challenge then comes from remaining in one place and supporting the body’s weight with core rigidity, and this can be a difficult exercise to begin with.
To perform a plank, the exerciser should lie face down on the floor, then lift up their body so that it is supported on their toes and their forearms, without any other part of the body touching the floor. The spine should be straight, the head should look down, and the shoulders should be square and in line with the elbows. If this exercise is performed correctly, the person should feel a tightening in their abdominal muscles as this part of the body takes the strain for the person’s weight.
The goal with this exercise is to hold this position for an extended period of time. This will be easier depending on how strong the user’s core muscles are already, but the more practice the body gets at holding itself in this way, the longer it will be able to endure this exercise. Initially, new exercisers should aim for around a minute of planking without moving, and once this goal has been achieved, they should extend their period to aim for new goals.
It’s important not to let the body sag down, or to let the neck and spine curve in any way. The spine should be straight, and the neck should be pointing down so that the exerciser is looking at the ground beneath them. This pose ensures that the core muscles are strengthened and that the body does not experience damaging stress.
The abdominal press, which can be performed in multiple positions and using either one or two legs, is similar to the stomach crunch, but instead of moving the person’s back to meet their knees, they move their legs towards their chest.
To perform this exercise, the person should lie flat on their back with their knees bent in the air and their feet flat on the ground. The exerciser should then lift their legs slowly – either one at a time or both together – to form a ninety-degree angle with their hips, as if sitting in an invisible chair, but lying on the ground. The user should hold this position for a few seconds before slowly returning to their starting position.
Avoid Sit Ups
Not all exercises which focus on the core muscles are considered equally effective. After many years of supporting the use of sit ups as a form of exercise, the medical community has elected to move focus away from this form of exercise in favour of planking and stomach crunches.
This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, sit ups are only useful for working out the front abdominal muscles, meaning that the full range of core muscles don’t get the support they need. Secondly, sit ups put a lot of pressure on the back, which can lead to further lower back pain and discomfort as a result. Because of this, while sit ups may have been popular in the past, it’s now advised that exercisers focus on planking and crunches to improve their core muscle strength.
Strengthening the core muscles is thought to be an excellent way to improve general health, increase the whole body’s strength, reduce lower back pain whilst improving spinal posture, and help the user to burn off excess fat around the abdomen. While the exercises associated with developing core muscle strength can be difficult at first, they become less strenuous as the user’s core strength develops and the body learns to put more weight on these muscles. The most effective exercises are stomach crunches and planking which tighten the core muscles without overburdening them, but medical professionals now warn against sit ups as they are associated with back injuries.
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