Get Strong: Your Monthly Fitness Challenge Jan 2022
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.
I have been doing Adriene’s January series and yesterday I was noticing that some of the movements that require core muscles are not as hard as they were in the first week. This is the first time I have stayed with the schedule and it does feel,like an accomplishment
Posted by: Juliann | 01/20/2022 at 08:19 AM
I keep saying that I need/want to get back to yoga...but so far I have not. I tried YWA last year, but got too easily distracted. I did like the link you sent for the basic core work out. And, on a day like today (rain/sleet/snow), this is perfect since I don't want to go out and walk! Thanks.
Posted by: Vera | 01/20/2022 at 08:37 AM
My Mil fell in her garden and laid there for four hours until she could get someone's attention to help her up. So you have my attention! My ob nagged me about Kegels after I had each child, and I still do them. I think I will try the basic core workout. Even I can devote 10 min/day to core exercise, and I want to be able to get up. Really, I want to improve my core and balance so I lessen my chances of falling in the first place.
Posted by: Bonny | 01/20/2022 at 08:38 AM
This is the one thing that Pilates taught me... without any core strength, you really are not that strong. I am sure my core could be MUCH stronger, but I do engage it daily. Great rewards from doing this... no nagging back aches and better posture! (no shrinking old woman here!)
Sherman wants to update you all that he just loves helping with weight lifting... especially the "get up around the dog without your hands" technique! But his absolute favorite is all the bend and pet exercise!
Posted by: kat | 01/20/2022 at 08:42 AM
Been doing my kegels for years thankyouverymuch. Great advice on the importance of a strong core, I need to work on mine for sure. I think yoga is so good for creating a strong core.
Posted by: Carole | 01/20/2022 at 10:30 AM
I really appreciate these strength posts. I have really gotten into Pilates over the last year thanks to classes included on the online yoga website I use. It’s really helped with my yoga and just overall. I am kind of fascinated with the strength of the instructor and curious to see how much strength I can gain over time.
Posted by: Erika | 01/20/2022 at 12:37 PM
I know I will never have a 6-pack, but I've definitely focused on strengthening my core in the past several years. As part of my (almost) daily exercises that I do after my big walk, I do a 2-minute plank and crunches. I've definitely noticed a difference!
Thanks for the reminder to do my Kegels. I'll admit they have not much been on my radar since I was pregnant!
Posted by: Sarah | 01/20/2022 at 12:46 PM
Alabama Renae is so right with those words. We don't indeed want to be the ones who cannot make it up from the floor if we end up right down there without intending to. I love my daily yoga practice. I have used YWA and I also love Yoga in Melbourne which is a lovely lady called Paula, also on You Tube and all free.
Posted by: sustainablemum | 01/20/2022 at 04:49 PM
I agree with you. We need a strong core to age as best we can. For the record, there are therapists who specialize in pelvic floor therapy. While it can be intimidating, I recommend it. I had some trouble with chronic cystitis not due to infection but diet and medication related. Pelvic floor therapy helped me learn to Kegel correctly and manage pain. I use the Yoga with Adriene videos frequently. This years series is kicking my rear. All the more reason to stick with it.
Posted by: Jane | 01/20/2022 at 08:19 PM
I was with my mom today for her first PT since her hip dislocation. I can't think of a better motivation to keep moving and do my kegels and yoga!
Posted by: Mary | 01/20/2022 at 09:29 PM
Thanks to you, I'm back on the Yoga With Adriene bus. I've even started having my littles do it with me occasionally (though I do prefer to do it during nap time!). I made it 23 days last year, and plan to finish the 30 days this month, then continue throughout the year.
And about the getting up off of the floor. When my daughter was born in 1989, I was 29 and my mother was 53. My mother had to crawl over to the coffee table to get up after playing on the floor with Jordan. I swore (silently), then and there, that I would do everything in my power to age strongly and with grace.
Happy to say, I can get up and down with out using my hands, and I practice my balance every day while brushing my teeth.
Here's to strong, capable bodies as we age!
Posted by: Mary | 01/22/2022 at 09:49 AM