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5 reasons to strengthen your core and pelvic floor

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When you think of core strength, you might picture a magazine-worthy six-pack. But while a chiseled trunk is undoubtedly impressive, abdominal muscles are just one part of the core. 

Along with abdominal and back muscles, the core also includes your glutes and pelvic floor muscles, which support your uterus, bladder, vagina, and bowel. “Your core is your center,” says Logan Lynch, PT,  DPT, owner of Life in Motion Physical Therapy, and pelvic floor guru.  “These muscles work together to provide stability and support for your spine and pelvis, helping you to move more efficiently.” This is especially important for those with obesity, as excess weight can put more pressure on the hips and back.

But it can be intimidating trying to find core exercises that accommodate larger bodies or bad knees. Read on to discover the benefits of a strong core, the signs of a weak one, and targeted exercises you can start doing today. Bonus: it doesn’t always require getting down on the floor. 

5 ways it pays to have a strong core

1. Helps improve and prevent back pain

A weak core can lead to strength imbalances (i.e., uneven distribution of tension between muscles), leaving some muscles too tight and others too loose. Poor posture and misalignment are common ramifications as the body tries to compensate. The result? Back pain.

A strong core can help to distribute force so that tension falls evenly between your muscles rather than on your spine—lowering your risk of back pain.

 2. Improves balance and stability 

When your trunk, hips, and glutes work together as one unit, your movements are more controlled, and you’re less likely to feel off-balance or fall. 

3. Helps prevent and reduce urinary incontinence 

We’ve all been there—sneeze a little too hard, and a little dribble comes out. But if this happens to you frequently, it could be a sign that your pelvic floor needs some love, aka strengthening. 

According to Lynch, “bladder incontinence often stems from poorly managed intra-abdominal pressure.” And having obesity can put you at an increased risk of urinary incontinence due to the pressure of excess weight on the bladder and pelvic floor.  

But fear not, because studies have shown that core strength, specifically within the pelvic floor muscles, reduces urine leakage during physical exertion—exercise, coughing, sneezing, climbing stairs, you name it.

In addition to strength exercises, Lynch recommends working with a pelvic floor specialist to learn proper breathing techniques. This can help reduce intra-abdominal pressure and start to resolve symptoms.

4. Makes everyday tasks easier 

Core exercises often fall under the category of functional fitness training, which prepares your body for everyday tasks that require pushing, pulling, lifting, twisting, and squatting. 

A strong core can make everything from climbing stairs to rising out of a chair to unloading heavy grocery bags easier and more comfortable. 

5. Builds a strong base

Your core is essentially the foundation of your entire body. Doing any other exercise safely and with correct form—balancing during walking lunges, staying stable during squats—requires a strong core. 

But just like any other muscle, the core, specifically the pelvic floor, can begin to weaken with age. In addition, if you’ve been pregnant, given birth, or have chronic constipation or obesity, your core strength might also take a hit. 

Some signs that your core may be weak: 

  • Pain in the lower back, hips, or pelvis

  • Urinary frequency and urgency

  • Difficulty standing for long periods of time

  • Poor balance

  • Difficulty getting up from the couch 

5 expert-recommended, beginner-friendly exercises that work the entire core

Now that you know why core strength matters, here are some exercises you can do to work on yours. (Bonus: no crunches are required.) Try adding this circuit to your regular workouts twice a week. 

1. Standing March 

Standing upright, position your feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart. Inhale and fill the belly, then exhale and pull your navel to your spine (imagine an internal lifting sensation within your pelvic floor) as you bring one knee up to form a 90-degree angle. Inhale while you slowly place your foot back down. Continue, alternating legs, filling the belly as you inhale and pulling your navel to your spine as you exhale. Try 3 sets of 10 total. 

2. Bird dog 

Come to all fours on a mat or soft surface and position yourself with hips stacked over your knees and shoulders over your wrists. Simultaneously, reach your right arm out in front of you (bicep by your ear) and extend your left leg long as you inhale. From here, exhale and bring your knee and elbow together, as close to touching as possible, while engaging your core. On each inhale, release back to the starting extended position; on each exhale, pull in and contract. Try 10 repetitions on your right side and switch to your left. Do three sets on each side.  

3. Heel tap AKA dead bug

Laying on your back, lift both legs up and bend your knees so that your thighs and shins form a 90-degree angle. From here, inhale as you release one heel down while keeping your lower- and mid-back glued to the floor. Go as far down with your heel as you can without arching your back. Exhale, bring your knee back to the starting point, and repeat with your other heel. Do three sets of 8 to 10 heel taps, alternating sides.

4. Suitcase carry 

Grab a light to medium-weight kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand and stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Engage your core and release tension in your shoulders by drawing them down and back. From here, take small steps forward while focusing on keeping your core engaged. Set a timer and walk slowly for 30 to 60 seconds. Switch the weight to the other hand and repeat. Repeat on both sides two more times.

5. Glute bridges 

Lay on your back with your hands by your sides, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. From here, press your heels into the ground as you exhale and lift your hips to the ceiling while engaging your core. Hold for 3 seconds. Inhale as you release. Aim for three sets of 8 to 10 repetitions. 

Remember what we said earlier about breathing? You’ll also notice we cued breathwork with the exercises above. That’s because proper diaphragmatic breathing (expanding and contracting the stomach with each inhale and exhale, rather than your chest) allows us to get more air into the lungs and even engages the core muscles more. 

Key takeaway 

The core, which includes the abdominal, trunk, and pelvic floor muscles, works to provide a strong base for the body. This helps to prevent back pain and urinary incontinence and can make everyday tasks easier.

Although perfectly sculpted tummies flood the internet, everyone (beginner or pro) can benefit from a stronger core and the benefits are far greater than what we see with the eye.

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