Last fall, I introduced my monthly fitness challenge, explaining my "inspiration" and why I think it's so important to do strength work ESPECIALLY as we age. (You can read all about that here.)
How are you doing?
By now, I hope you're having some success with my challenges.
Keep up the good work.
(And if you haven't started yet? Well. You can begin today!)
And add this one . . .
Challenge #4 -- Identify your core, learn how to engage it, and . . . (ahem) do your Kegel exercises every day!
I can hear you groaning and see you rolling your eyes right through my computer. I know. I know. Core work . . . is no fun. In fact, it’s downright unpleasant. But . . . developing a strong core is super important for us, and especially as we age.
I’m not talking about developing six-pack abs here (for me - and probably for most of you, too - that train left the station years ago). I’m talking about developing strong core muscles to help us all move more confidently, stand taller, prevent injuries, and take some of the load off of our joints and spine. Because our core? It's the foundation for every move we make!
I did Pilates for years and years, and every class my instructor (“Alabama Renae”) would tell us (in her best Alabama accent) . . . “Y’all. We do this so we can get ourselves up off the floor when we’re old women. None of y’all are going to say,’I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.’ Not on my watch.”
And THAT’S why we care about our core: To get ourselves up off the floor when we’re old women.
So. What is our core anyway?
(Because it’s a lot more than that six-pack!)
Our core. . . comprises the deep muscles that help support our pelvis, spine, butt, back, hips and stomach. Basically it’s the foundational muscles for keeping our posture strong and tall, and for allowing us to twist, bend, run, jump and just move.
There are several main core muscles. These include:
- Rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscles)
- Transverse abdominis (the lower abs or the "seatbelt")
- Inner and outer obliques (they're on your sides and help you twist side to side)
- Multifidus (the deep muscles of your lower back)
- Erector spinae (the muscles that run along your spine)
- Diaphragm (the muscle at the bottom of your ribcage that supports breathing)
- Pelvic floor muscles (the muscles low in your pelvis that help control continence and have a huge role in pregnancy and birth)
Pretty much . . . it’s everything you need to get yourself up off the floor should you find yourself down there. (So much more than just your abs.)
And how, exactly, do we engage our core?
A lot of people thing that "engaging your core" means "sucking in your stomach." But that's not it at all. In fact, it's kind of the opposite of that. Engaging your core means bracing and tightening all of the muscles in your core at the same time. When you do this, your entire mid-section should feel like a single, strong cylinder – which is way more than just “sucking in” your stomach.
To engage your core, imagine that you are bracing yourself for a sucker-punch right to the stomach. You’re not going to suck in your stomach in that situation! You’re going to take a deep breath and tighten all of your abdominal muscles. My (pre-pandemic) personal trainer used to tell me to picture “zipping up” my abs – bringing my navel up and toward my spine.
Try it! Engage your core several times a day . . . just for fun. And especially before you do any kind of exercise – even just walking around the neighborhood.
What if you CAN’T engage your core? Could it be . . . weak?
Maybe. . . *
Here are some signs that may indicate a weak core:
- How’s your posture? If it’s hard for you to stand or sit up straight, it might indicate a weak core, especially the erector spinae muscles.
- Do your limbs feel weak? Maybe your knees ache? Like . . . do your legs tire easily when you go up and down stairs? Do your arms ache when you’re carrying the laundry? A lot of time, a weak core (which is the foundation for all of our movement) is not doing its share of the load, and you're feeling it in your limbs. Or your knees.
- Can you hollow your stomach? Try it! Take a natural breath, and, as you exhale, pull your belly button toward your spine. Hold for a count of 10, then release. If you're unable to sustain the hold for the entire count, this is a good indicator that your core is weak.
- Do you . . . dribble? (Yeah. You know what I’m talking about.) This could be an indicator of a weak pelvic floor. (And, trust me, none of us want a weak pelvic floor as we head into our . . . golden years.)
And . . . What about your pelvic floor?
Oh, yeah. That.
Like any muscle group, your pelvic floor requires routine exercise to stay strong and function properly. And for women, the pelvic floor serves a Very Important Function: it’s the sheet of muscle that supports the bladder, uterus, and bowel.
To keep your pelvic floor functioning properly (and to help with involuntary dribbles and such!), incorporate Kegels exercises into your daily routine. Once you figure out how to do them (follow this Mayo Clinic link for an excellent how-to description), you can do your Kegel exercises discreetly just about any time, whether you're sitting at your desk or relaxing on the couch – or as part of your daily meditation practice or even while you’re in the shower.
So. There you go! This month’s fitness challenge is simple - but important: Identify your core muscles, engage them . . . and do your Kegel exercises every day!
Previous Get Strong Challenges:
Challenge #3: Increase your physical activity every day.
Challenge #2: Stretch your hamstrings, activate those glutes . . . and spare your back just by changing the way you bend over.
Challenge #1: Strengthen Your Lower Body by Doing Body Weight Squats . . . All Day Long
*Interested in doing more to strengthen your core?
Try yoga! Yoga is a fabulous way to strengthen your core. (And there are many other benefits, as well.) Last year, I did a couple of in-depth posts about yoga. You can check them out here and here. If you're interested in trying yoga, I highly recommend Yoga With Adriene. (She's been my at-home yoga instructor since the pandemic shut down began in March 2020.) She's got a free "30-day yoga" thing going this month (click here) -- but y'know . . . you can start ANY day -- and you can take as long as you want to do the program. You don't need to 30 days in a row. (There are no "yoga police.")
Or practice this basic core workout for beginners! Not ready for yoga? Here's a 10-minute workout comprising 6 different core exercises. These are pretty "standard" moves that will help you strengthen your core (but only if you do them).
And if you have a Peloton membership . . . try the Crush Your Core program with Emma Lovewell. Take it from me . . . it's challenging! But it works.