How Strong Is Your Core?

Do you feel you have weak core muscles? Or you want to know how strong are your core muscles. Put your core to the test by doing the three exercises below. Find out how strong or weak your core muscles are, and learn more about Pilates in the process.

The three exercises are arranged in increasing level of difficulty. The first is the easiest, the second is of moderate difficulty and the third, the hardest. So do the first exercise, before progressing to the second and third.

HOW YOU KNOW CORE MUSCLES EXIST

Being deep stabilising muscles of the abdomen and trunk, you can’t actually see core muscles when they contract. When a bodybuilder flexes his trunks and contracts his thighs, you could see the contour and size of his chest, six packs (rectus abdominis) and thigh muscles. This is because the chest, six packs and thigh muscles are large, surface muscles. But not so for core muscles, which lie deep beneath the six-packs and back muscles. Core contraction is not visible to the naked eye. They would not be featured in bodybuilding competitions.

Yet you know you have them. The uncontrollable shakes on the abdomen the first time you are on a stand-up board (SUP) or a kayak, or on other moving surfaces like a wobble board or a Pilates reformer, where your core muscles contract to keep your body stable, are some instances when you know they are there and you have them.

CORE STRENGTH EQUALS LUMBAR STABILITY

While we may not be able to see core contraction, we know core muscles play an important role in keeping the trunk, particularly the lumbar spine stable when we move. So exercises which challenge trunk, particularly lumbar stability, would provide a good indication of core strength.

All three exercises in the challenge are trunk flexion exercises. As the abdominal muscles are the main muscles responsible for trunk flexion, the exercises would also test your overall abdominal strength. Are you ready to take the core challenge?

EXERCISE 1: CHEST LIFT

Core Challenge

Start with hands behind the head and knees bend (Figure A.) Lift your shoulders and chest up. Keep your gaze long and draw your abdomen in, as you contract your abdominal muscles (Fig. B.) Lower your chest and head back to the start position. Perform 10 repetitions.

CHECK LIST

  • How high should you lift your chest? To your upper-mid chest.
  • Check if you have kept your abdomen drawn in and low back flat.

If you can complete 10 repetitions of this exercise, Well Done! 

EXERCISE BENEFIT

Chest Lift is a test of core strength. Are you able to draw in your abdomen to support your low back in trunk flexion? Can you lift your neck and chest up without feeling strain on your neck or upper-mid back? Tightness on the neck and upper-mid back can inhibit core muscle activation. Daily activities which require trunk flexion include bending over to pick up the newspaper, or heavier items like a box or a child.


EXERCISE 2: CHEST & LEG LIFTS WITH BALL

How Strong Is Your Core

Hold a medium-sized exercise ball between the thighs with knees bend, and arms above the head. (Fig. A.) Inhale to get ready, and as you exhale, lift the ball from the floor and straighten your legs. Lift your head and chest away from the floor, and reach your arms forward to touch the ball (Fig B.)  Lower the ball and return your chest and head to the start position. Perform 10 reps of the exercise.

CHECK LIST

  • Can you keep your low back flat on the floor?
  • Can you touch the ball?
  • Did you drop the ball?

If you can complete 10 reps of the exercise: Good job! You have strong core muscles

EXERCISE BENEFIT

As you have to lift both your chest and legs up at the same time, the exercise tests your upper and lower abdominal strength, respectively. Holding a ball between the inner thighs also increase core contraction.

The exercise also tests your ability to multi-tasks, and mirrors real life situations, where you have to perform different tasks at the same time. Can you move your upper and lower body, and still keep your low back stable? Signs of weak core muscles are you can’t lift your head and chest high enough for your hands to touch the ball, you drop the ball, or your low back hurts when doing the exercise.


EXERCISE 3: TEASER

How to challenge your core strength and stability

To start, lie on the mat with arms overhead, and legs straight and together (Fig. A.) Inhale to prepare, and as you exhale, lift your head, shoulder, trunk and legs off the floor until you are balancing on your pelvis. Keep your arms and legs straight, while maintaining a small scoop in your abdomen (Fig. B.) Hold for about 5 seconds before lowering your legs, trunk, shoulder and head back on the mat. Perform 10 reps.

CHECK LIST

  • Are you able to lift and hold in the position?
  • Do you feel a strain on the low back or on the front of the hips?
  • Can you keep the legs straight?

It you are able perform 10 reps with no feeling of strain on the back or hips, and your legs are straight, Excellent Work! You have exceptional core strength.

EXERCISE BENEFIT

Unlike the previous two exercise, in the Teaser, the low back is not supported on the mat. You are balancing the weight of your upper and lower body on the pelvis, which makes the exercise the hardest of the three exercises in the test.

The “pelvis” is the Latin word for “basin.” It earns the name as it functions like the basin of the body. The pelvis is the structure where the spine sits on. It also connects the thighs and legs to the main body. The exercise tests sitting balance. Are the hip bones even on both sides, so that you can stay in balance on the pelvis? Are muscles of the hips which not only affects the low back, but also the legs tight? If you can sit with good balance on your pelvis in this exercise,  your sitting and standing posture are likely to be good.

PILATES FOR CORE STRENGTH

How did you fare in the challenge? If you are looking to strengthen your core muscles further, give Pilates a try. Pilates is one of the best exercises you can do to improve your core strength. When compared with abdominal exercises at the gym, Pilates exercises have shown to produce more core strength than gym exercises.

However, the exercises you do in a Pilates session are not exclusive to Pilates. You would have had done similar exercises at the gym or in yoga. But what sets Pilates apart is these exercises are done with a greater focus on core  activation than in the other trainings. Below are some examples of Pilates exercises which you would also find in strength training and yoga. See how they are done differently.

PILATES VERSUS GYM 

Teaser, the third exercise in the core challenge, is a classic Pilates exercise. You would find it taught in most Pilates programmes. There is a similar exercise to Teaser in strength training, called the “V-Up.”

As in the Teaser, you would lift both trunk and legs up from the floor at the same time in the V-Up. The low back is in the shape of the letter, “V.” On the other hand, in the Teaser, the shape of the low back is more “U” shaped than “V” as the emphasis if to maintain a small scoop in the abdomen during the exercise. To keep the abdominal scoop, you would have to contract your core muscles more to increase lumbar flexion. As a result, the Teaser is a better core exercise than the V-Up.

On the other hand, the V-Up is a better exercise for strengthening the hip flexors, muscles at the front of the thighs, than the Teaser.

Both exercises improve strength in trunk flexion. However, Pilates is more core-centric, while strength training is more focused on strengthening the big muscles of the body.

PILATES VERSUS YOGA

Similarly, you would find many shared exercises between Pilates and yoga. Both exercise methods stretch the body and promote lean muscle growth. But Pilates improve core strength more than yoga.

For example, the “Downward Dog” is a popular yoga pose. The low back is shaped like an inverted V, an upside down version of the earlier exercises, the V-Up and Teaser. The Pilates version of the exercise is known as the “Long Stretch.” Both versions of the exercise stretch the back and the posterior leg muscles (or hamstrings and calves.)

Pilates versus Yoga
Yoga exercise: the Downward Dog

How Pilates and yoga are different
Pilates exercise: Long Stretch

The Downward Dog provides a better stretch than the Long Stretch. Notice the gradient of the back in relation to the leg is steeper in the Downward Dog than in the Pilates version of the exercise, suggesting a bigger stretch than in the Pilates exercise. But the Pilates exercise is better for improving core stability than the yoga exercise.

The Long Stretch is performed standing on the Pilates reformer. The long-back position is accompanied by hip flexion and extension, which send the reformer bed moving. You have to contract the core muscles to stabilise the low back. As a result, the Long Stretch becomes not only a stretch, but also a core exercise.

Whether you are doing strength or stretching exercises, the emphasis on using your core muscles to maintain lumbar stability is a reason Pilates is one of the best exercises to do for core muscle activation.

PILATES FOR BEGINNERS

Even though Pilates is often practiced for fitness, the exercise programme is also good for beginners. This is due to the long tradition of Pilates as an exercise for injury recovery. You would see many equipment in a Pilates studio. These equipment increases your core challenge, but they are also designed to be assistive if you have weak abdominals and core exercises are difficult for you.

Most iconic equipment for core training
Using the Pilates reformer increases the challenge on your core muscles, but the reformer was originally designed for WWI invalids.

For example, the Pilates reformer, the most iconic piece of equipment for core training, was created by Joseph Pilates (1883 -1967) to help invalids in World War I who could not get out of bed to exercise. Doing exercises on the moving bed restored their strength and health. Today, the Pilates reformer is found not only in Pilates studios, but also in hospitals and gyms for rehabilitation and fitness.

If you are looking to strengthen your core muscles, drop by your local Pilates studio for a session. You may have done some of the exercises before at the gym, in yoga or from YouTube videos. But just like listening to a remix of an old song, it could give a whole new meaning to the work. You will feel your core muscles in the session.

Take the core challenge. Try a session today.


Medical Disclaimer: Always consult your physician if you have an existing pain or a pre-existing medical condition before beginning any exercise. The above information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or replace your healthcare professional.

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