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  • Caroline

What is good core strength and how do I know if I have it

You may be used to seeing people at the gym pushing out butterfly crunches, mountain climbers and Russian twists and thinking: is that what I should be doing?

For me as a non-gym goer, core strength has always been about function. Can I walk on a log in the forest without losing my balance? Am I able to stay on a horse in the canter as it takes a sudden side step? And can I carry heavy shopping bags without doing my back in?

Butterfly crunches, mountain climbers and Russian twists have their place but if you're new to core strength, have recently had a baby or any form of abdominal surgery, it's best to start with exercises that work your innermost core. This includes your diaphragm, corset abdominal muscle (transversus) and pelvic floor.

Say what? Yes, there is a lot more to your core than a six pack and the obliques. So let’s dive straight in to look at how you build your core foundation so that you can progress to full core strength.

Breathing: Are you breathing optimally? Can you take a full inhale where you feel your ribs expand sideways as your lungs fill with air? Or do you take shorter, chesty breaths while raising your shoulders towards your ears? Most of us could do with improving our breathing, especially after having a baby.

Let’s practise together: Place your hands around your lower ribs, close your eyes and take a gentle inhale and feel what happens. You can also do it in front of a mirror with your eyes open if you’re more of a visual rather than a kinaesthetic person. This takes a bit of practice but you should be able to feel a lateral expansion into your hands and ideally into your lower back. This is a full 360-degree or diaphragmatic breathing pattern. It has lots of other benefits but let’s stick to a good core function for now.

Why is breathing important? If we get a good inhale, we are more likely to get a good exhale which is when our inner core contracts ie our pelvic floor lifts and our transversus muscle activates.

Tell me more…

Our pelvic floor plays a big role in core strength. But most of us don’t quite realise until we have a baby and our pelvic floor weakens. We might end up with lower back pain and think we need to strengthen our abdominals (which we do) but forget that the pelvic floor also has a role in providing stability as part of that inner core.

In the previous breathing exercise, we should ideally feel our pelvic floor muscles relax and lengthen as we inhale, and engage (lift up) as we exhale. If you can’t feel this, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not working so keep trying. Sometimes it’s worth changing the position, for example if you lower into a squat position, it’s usually easier to feel the lengthening of the pelvic floor, and then you can think about ‘zipping up’ as you return to standing.

The transversus muscle co-contracts with the pelvic floor on the exhale. This is why it’s so important to work on the breathing first in order to give both of these muscles a chance to activate as well as relax. The transversus stabilises the spine so as you can imagine, it’s super important for deep core health.

Let’s now try to bring all of these things together into an exercise that is suitable from six weeks post-birth and beyond. Lie down on your back with your knees bent and held over your hips (tabletop position). Then try sliding one leg away from you very slowly while breathing in and out and keeping your lower back in contact with the floor. Then bring it back to just above your hips and switch legs. You can keep your hands around your lower ribs to feel the lateral expansion on the inhale.

If your lower back arches or your abdominals start to shake or dome, you can do an easier toe tap instead of a full heel slide. Once you've mastered this, try adding the opposite arm overhead for a full dead bug exercise. The key is to move slowly and correctly in order to activate the transversus and the pelvic floor. Make sure your lower ribs stay connected to the top of your pelvis. If you tire, take a break by simply hugging both knees to the chest and then try again.

Before you know it, you’ll be doing stronger core exercises again but make sure you build your foundation first by working on your breathing technique and pelvic floor and transversus activation and relaxation. From there on, you can add in more intermediate core exercises to watch your core get stronger each week and month. If you have any abdominal separation (diastasis) or prolapse, you may need to regress some intermediate exercises until you’re able to do them with good control and form.

Need help to strengthen your core progressively and safely after having children? Why not join a group class or book a Discovery call to find out how I can help.


Mamaste Fitness

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