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Strengthening and Protecting Your Core Muscles

IMAGE Core muscles are more than just abs. Your core are the muscles that help support and move your spine, pelvis, rib cage, and hips.
Having strong core muscles that work together properly is important for all movement—from sports to basic functions of daily life. A strong core can help prevent injuries, improve balance, and promote proper muscle development.

The Core Muscles

In addition to abdominal muscles, the core muscles include all the muscles of the lower back and shoulders, the internal and external obliques, pelvic muscles, gluteal muscles, and hamstrings. Deep core muscles, such as the multifidus muscle and pelvic floor muscles, are endurance type muscles that work constantly to stabilize posture. Superficial core muscles, such as rectus abdominus, are more powerful and are typically involved in producing forceful motion.
Therefore, to maximize core strength, working one or two isolated groups of muscles is not enough. You need to work several muscle groups together.

Avoiding Injury

While no one is ever completely safe from injury, strong core muscles are thought to go a long way toward injury prevention in both sports and routine activities, like carrying groceries or picking up a child. Weakness of core muscles also may be related to the development of chronic back pain, one of the most common medical complaints.
  • Strengthening—Back injuries often result from weak trunk muscles. Strengthening your core results in a stable spine, which may reduce the risk of back problems.
  • Balancing—Sports that involve repetitive motions that stress the two sides of your body differently—like golf or tennis—can lead to imbalances. Since core training works all of your major muscle groups, such imbalances can be minimized.
  • Coordinating—Strong core muscles help your extremities to work with the rest of your body. So when you are teeing off or serving, muscles throughout your body contribute to the effort and cushion the strain on your joints.

Sport-specific Training

Core strength plays a role in many sports:
  • Baseball and softball—The best throw starts with your legs. Strong core muscles help transfer energy from your legs through your trunk and arms and into the throw.
  • Basketball—A strong core provides stability and balance to help endure the repetitive stop and go motions of basketball and improve the ability to do quick direction changes.
  • Golf—Strong core muscles help correct the imbalance caused by using only one side of your body. The golf swing also relies on the ability to rotate the spine and pelvis together.
  • Hockey—On the ice or on the field, hockey players spend most of their time bent at the waist and leaning over their sticks, which can strain the back. Strong trunk muscles help stabilize the lower back.
  • Racquet sports—In all racquet sports—tennis, squash, and racquetball—there's a lot of flexion, extension, and rotation of the trunk. These activities rely heavily on core muscle strength.
  • Running—A strong core helps runners maintain good posture and balance, and avoid injury from the slight but repetitive rotation of the spine that occurs with every stride.
  • Volleyball—Whether arching for a serve or lunging for a dig, volleyball players are constantly extending and flexing their spines. Strong core muscles provide a fuller range of motion.
  • All activities—The more efficiently your body works, the more energy you have to spend on other activities. If your core is strong, you will spend less energy working on things like balance and stability, meaning you have more energy to put into your sport.

Get Strong

There are several ways to strengthen your core muscles. Talk to a certified personal trainer or instructor to see which is best for you and to make sure you are doing it right. Work on strengthening core muscles three times per week for at least 15 minutes per session or longer.
  • Physio balls—When you do a crunch or oblique twist on the a physio ball, you are using more muscles to stabilize your body
  • Push-ups—This basic exercise works more than your arms; holding the push-up position forces your shoulders, abdominals, and lower back muscles to work together.
  • The "swimmer"—Lie on your stomach and lift one arm and the opposite leg. Hold for 10 seconds; do 8-10 repetitions. Repeat with the other arm and leg.
  • Pilates—Pilates is a series of exercises designed to strengthen the body from the inside out. It is done on machines and mats and should be taught by a well-trained instructor.

RESOURCES

The American Council on Exercise http://www.acefitness.org

American Society of Exercise Physiologists http://www.asep.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology http://www.csep.ca

Healthy Canadians http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca

References

McCamey K, Evans P. Low back pain. Prim Care. 2007;34(1):71-82.

Rethinking core training. The American Council on Exercise website. Available at: http://www.acefitness.org/blog/1729/. Accessed November 13, 2013.

Stanos SP, McLean J, Rader L. Physical medicine rehabilitation approach to pain. Anesthesiol Clin. 2007; 25(4):721-759.

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