To the Core

Strengthen your midsection – the right way – and you’ll be surprised at what your body will be able to do

The Wichita Eagle

To the Core by Karen Shideler / Wichita Eagle

“Core” isn’t the same as “abs.” But if your core is strong, your abs will be, too. Along with other parts of you.

“All movement originates from the core of your body,” says Jessica Tarbell, fitness director for the Greater Wichita YMCA. “It’s the powerhouse of your body.”

With a strong core, you’ll be able to sit at your desk, pick up your toddler, enjoy a round of golf or play your cello — in comfort.

Your breathing and digestion will be better. And you’ll no longer hear your mother saying, “Stand up straight, dear” because you’ll be doing that naturally.

One woman’s story

A few years back, Sara Felt had to give up her cello because the pain in her neck, back, arms and hands was so bad.

Wichita Talk“I had those problems off and on probably from about the time I was 16,” she says. As a student at the University of Kansas, she had to quit playing because “I just had constant pain.”

Her physical therapist suggested Pilates exercises, which focus on core strength, as part of her rehabilitation, and Felt discovered that she could play pain-free — once her core was strong.

“Understanding the core muscles actually affects how you play,” she says, and makes a difference in tonal quality as well as in physical comfort.

Now, Felt teaches other strings players how to strengthen their core muscles using Pilates.

The wrong muscles

People commonly have overdeveloped thighs and tight shoulders — and chronic neck, back, shoulder, hip and knee pain — because they use those muscles instead of their core muscles, says Aliesa George, president of Centerworks Pilates.

And people mistakenly think they’re working their core when they do crunches — but lift with their head, neck, arms and chest. Hooking your feet under a bench doesn’t help; then you’re probably using your hip flexors.

Being “strong” doesn’t mean having a strong core. Several years ago, George worked with a high school football player who could bench-press 200 pounds — but had problems lifting the two-pound hand weights she gave him for exercises to work on muscle imbalances.

Doing it right

To really work your core, you need to go deep, George says, because having a strong core means having strong muscles deep inside your torso.

To find your deep abdominal muscles, the Mayo Clinic suggests coughing once to activate your transversus abdominis. That’s a muscle you want to contract during exercise.

Don’t obsess about having a six-pack, says Angie Kendall, group fitness director for Genesis Health Clubs. Working the six-pack muscles without working your other core muscles is like working your biceps but not your triceps.

Many exercises to strengthen core muscles are “small” movements that you might not see but should feel, George and Kendall say.

“As you do the exercise, think about where you’re feeling it,” Kendall says.

5 to try at home

  1. Plank. Sort of a modified push-up position, with your body supported by your forearms and toes. Just hold the position to start with, keeping your body straight.
  2. Drawstring hold and release. Pretend the muscles around your sitting bones are tweezers and close them. Pretend your tailbone and pelvic bone are a clamshell, and close it. Inhale and exhale as you draw a pretend drawstring tight around all four bones.
  3. Lower ab “zip.” Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Put your hands on your lower abs, where they’d be if you had pockets in a pair of pants. Inhale without your abs rising into your hands (breathe into the back of your body). Exhale and actively pull everything below your waistline up toward the waist and back to the floor. You should feel the muscles pull away from your hands, as if you’re trying to zip up a tight pair of jeans. Repeat five to 10 times.
  4. Pregnant cat. Kneel on all fours. Maintain natural curve of back, head in line with shoulders (use a mirror to check position, if possible), eyes looking toward floor. Inhale and exhale, allowing abs to relax and hang without pulling you back into a “saggy old mare” position. Inhale and actively pull abs up and back to spine without losing natural curve of back. Back stays still during exercise. Repeat three to eight times, rest, repeat set.
  5. Breathing. Stand or sit with good posture. Inhale into lowest back ribs and fill lungs with air from the bottom to the top. This should lift the ribcage up, away from the hips. Lower abs should lift up and back to spine slightly during inhale and should actively pull in more on the exhale, to maintain the lift. With each inhale, torso should continue to lengthen. It’s not unusual to feel slightly dizzy as you continue — take a break or go back to a shallower breath if needed.

And some more

The Mayo Clinic offers a slide show of more core exercises online. Go to or

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