When we think about a strong core, most of us imagine washboard abs and endless hours of crunches. Surprisingly, it’s possible to have a six pack with a relatively weak core. The core is comprised of the abdominal muscles but also includes surrounding muscles which help stabilize your spine, such as muscles in your back, pelvic floor and diaphragm. A strong core will help you run faster, prevent injuries, maintain good running posture and lead to a more efficient stride.
The abdominal muscles are made up of four parts:
- Rectus abdominus, the superficial muscles which give that six-pack look
- External obliques
- Internal obliques
- Deep transverse abdominis, the deepest abdominal muscles
It’s important these four muscle groups are balanced to avoid poor stabilization. The deep transverse abdominus muscles are often weaker as they tend to be neglected during core work but are key in developing overall core strength and power. Strong transverse abdominus muscles are important for maintaining correct running posture as we start to fatigue during a long run or race. This abdominal muscle supports the psoas, a muscle responsible for raising the leg while running. The psoas muscle will pull on your lumbar spine if the transverse abdominis is weak, potentially leading to pain and injury.
Because the transverse abdominus muscle is so often left out of our strengthening routine, it is important to learn how to activate it effectively.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Ensure your spine is in a neutral position (your lower back is not completely flat.) Place your pointer fingers on your hip bones. Move your fingers in towards the mid-line of your body one inch, and down one inch. On your exhalation draw your lower abdomen in towards your spine, and your pelvic floor up. The muscle should flatten and tense. If your stomach pushes out, you’re engaging your rectus abdominus and not your transverse abdominus.Your pelvis should not move as you activate your transverse abdominus. Hold this position for five breaths.
Practice engaging the the transverse abdominis and once you feel you’re able to activate this muscle, try incorporating into the following core poses. Remember: this is a new way of engaging your core and may take some practice.
Begin on your hands and knees, wrists directly below your shoulders. Spread your fingers and press your palms into the ground. Step back with both feet so that your body follows a straight line from heels to the crown of your head. Engage your core, drawing your abdomen and pelvic floor towards your spine to try to keep your lower back from swaying. If this is too difficult, come down onto your knees or forearms. Hold this pose for five to 10 breaths.
From plank pose, roll your heels to the right coming onto the outside edge of your right foot, stacking your left foot on top. Your right hand should be slightly in front of your shoulder. As you inhale raise your left arm to the ceiling. To modify this pose you can come down to your forearm or lower the bottom knee and shin to the floor. Hold this pose for five to 10 breaths.
Begin on your stomach, with your forehead resting on the ground and your arms resting at your side. Press the tops of your feet into the ground. On your inhalation, lift your head, chest and arms. Lengthen through the spine by reaching back through your feet and forward through the crown of your head. Lift your legs off the ground and hold.
Sit up straight with your knees bent, feet pressing into the floor. Place your hands on or under your knees for support.
On inhalation, lift the chest up and forward, and draw your transverse abdominis in. Draw your shoulders down. On your exhale, lift the feet off the ground and raise your legs so that your calves are parallel to the ground. If your transverse abdominis is not engaged your hip flexors will tighten and your lumbar spine will start to curve. Reach your arms forward.
If you are able to hold this pose correctly you can try to straighten your legs. Hold for five to 10 breaths.