Want a Strong Core? Skip the Sit-ups.

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(5 min. read)

Everyone knows that flat abs and six-packs require a heck of a lot of sit-ups. Right?  Unfortunately, this outdated wisdom is often still used and can do more harm than good. On the bright side,  we now know how to strengthen the core effectively without possible injury.

What's wrong with sit-ups?

A word on anatomy to begin: the primary muscle activated from sit-ups is the Rectus Abdominins. This is the outermost muscle, the one that gets all the credit for the "six-pack." The external obliques, the muscles to the sides of the core, are also activated. So that's it! That's the core, right?..... Not quite.

Sit-ups place a lot of compressive force on the spine - as much as 750 lbs! (340kg) This can lead to herniated or bulged discs, back pain, and pinched nerves. Ouch. 

Your back hurts from sit-ups. Does this mean you have an injury?!

Not necessarily, but you could always check with a doctor. A group of muscles also activated with sit-ups are the hip-flexors. Much of the population is plagued with chronically tight hip-flexors from sitting at desks, driving in cars, and sitting on the couch watching tv. In brief, tight hip-flexors make it it so we don't engage our Glutes, which help protect our lower back. Try stretching or attend a yoga class, but if it causes pain, stop.

What to do instead of sit-ups?

Come onto your hands and knees. Place your hands directly under your shoulders & spread your fingers wide. Now step your feet back so your back/butt/spine is as flat and straight as possible. Begin to think about the line of your body that runs from the heels to the crown of head. You can keep your feet together or at hip distance. Squeeze your thighs & butt, try to draw the stomach towards the spine and continue to breathe here in plank for 30 seconds. Overtime you can work up to 60 or even 90 seconds. 

In this one minute, you will have worked "all your major core muscles including the rectus abdominals, internal and external obliques, serratus anterior, TVA, deltoids and pecs as well as the hip flexor groups and muscles of the front of thighs are engaged when you do a plank. This makes it incredibly effective at building core strength." (1)

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Can I do something else instead? My core is too weak to plank (AKA I am postpartum..). 

Definitely.  "A critical component for restoring your abs and the development of core strength is learning to control the shape of your abdominal wall during exercise. To do this, you need to train your abs to pull back in toward your spine during exertion." (2

Set your alarm for 5 minutes. Lie down on your back with your hands on the sides of your ribs. Breathe normally. Once you've got the flow of your own breath under raps and feel relaxed, begin to elongate the exhalations, squeezing out the air from the lungs and continuing to exhale, contracting your TVA and engaging your pelvic floor.

.....your what?! The Transverse Abdominis (TVA) is the deepest core muscle, the one that is responsible for making sure your organs stay in place later in life (yay!). "It acts like an internal splint, helping to close abdominal separation from the inside. It’s the body’s most important core stabilizer and is responsible for re-flattening the abdominal wall after pregnancy." (3

Once you're able to connect with your core, you can flip over to your hands and knees. Again spread the fingers wide. Staying aware of your breath & the engagement of the TVA, press your hands into the ground and exhale, lifting your knees 1-2" from the ground, exhaling, exhaling, exhaling, TVA ENGAGED! Boom. 

I can tell my core is getting stronger, but there's still softness that I want to get rid of. What can I do?

First off, well done!! It takes a lot of hard work, determination, and breath work to establish a healthy relationship with the deep muscles of the core. 

It's important to remember that women are naturally a bit softer here and that's SEXY. It's amazing. And it's YOU! Another thing to keep in mind is you can't slim down a specific area of the body. It's an all or nothing kind of deal and the best ways to trim off a few centimetres is to: 1.) Limit or quit sugar/alcohol/simple carbs. 2.) Manage your response to stress better by getting enough sleep, drinking less caffeine, and practicing mindfulness or yoga. 3.) Hydrate! Make sure you're getting plenty of water. 4.) Find enjoyment in what you're doing. Sounds strange, but happiness is an important and crucial drug for weight loss. 

I'm a realist. How does any of this translate to real life situations? 

Have you ever jumped rope, only to notice afterwards you peed a little? Blame it on the core!

Almost every movement comes from the core - extending the arms, moving a leg, or holding the pee inside. When you do a sit-up, you're primarily flexing the spine. The core muscles, however, primarily stabilise the torso. So the strength gained from sit-ups sadly does not get used much in the real world.  With the core, you're much more likely to stand up straight while lifting a heavy shopping bag/ suitcase a half a dozen times than sitting up in bed repeatedly. 

I'll leave you now with this final advice on the pursuit of strength and other goodness - Keep breathing, conquer from within and happy jumping!

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by Sarah Hodgens

February 2018

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