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The core is key (part 1)

Most of you reading this will be aware of the importance of a strong core - the muscles of the lower back, trunk and abdomen, whose principle functions are:

· To stabilise the spine and protect it from excessive movement and injury

· To transfer force to the limbs, acting as a bridge between the lower and upper limbs

The first function is important in relation to many activities of our daily lives, such as lifting boxes, moving furniture or simply carrying a backpack, as spinal stability is critical to reduce the risk of back injury.

The second function is of particular relevance in relation to effective performance across many sports and will be addressed in part 2 of this blog.

What are the main muscles of the core?

Although there doesn’t seem to be universal agreement as to which muscles definitively comprise the core, they can be generally described as the muscles which directly impact the spine and pelvis. The principle core muscles most people will be familiar with are:

Abdominal muscles

· Rectus abdominus - the ‘six-pack’ muscles at the front of the abdomen which flex the trunk forward

· Transversus abdominus - the ‘girdle’ which wraps around and compresses the abdomen

· Internal and external obliques – connecting the ribs and pelvis laterally on both sides of the body, these muscles control lateral rotation and flexion

Spinal muscles

· Erector spinae – the large group of muscles that essentially run vertically on either side of the spine and extend and stabilize the whole of the vertebral column

Trunk muscles

· Quadratus lumborum – controls lateral flexion and stabilise the lumbar spine and pelvis

· Iliacus and psoas – these are deep lying hip flexors which connect the spinemattach the spine to the femur, passing through the pelvis

The gluteus muscles which principally control hip movement are generally not considered to be core muscles but are generally included in core strengthening activity due to their critical role in maintaining balance and stabilising the trunk.

The deeper-lying muscles of the pelvic floor can also be considered as part of the core and will be impacted positively be general core strengthening activity. There are additional exercises specifically designed to strengthen the pelvic floor - often focused on bowel and bladder control for post-natal women.

Bearing in mind the wide range of functional movements influenced by the core muscles, it’s clear to see why maintaining their integrity and strength is important to prevent the risk of injury.

Five core strengthening exercises you can do every day at home

You don’t have to go to gym or use specialist equipment to tone and strengthening core muscles – here are some simple bodyweight exercises you can do each day at home.

1) Plank– principally works the abdominal muscles. Rest on forearms in a press-up position and try to keep the shoulders, hips and knees aligned throughout. Hold for 30 seconds.

2) Bridge - principally works glutes and quadratus lumborum. From a back-lying position with knees bent, raise the hips off the ground to create a straight line from shoulders to knees. Hold for 2-3 seconds and drop hips back down to the ground. Perform 10 reps.

3) Side plank – works obliques, glutes and lumbar stabilisers. Raise yourself up with your forearm resting on the floor. Keep the shoulders, hips and knees aligned. Feet can both be resting on the floor (as illustrated) or stacked on top of the other to make the hold more challenging. Hold for 30 seconds.

4) Superman – works hamstrings and glutes while the muscles of the upper back (deltoids, trapezius) work as stabilisers. From kneeling on all fours, fully extend opposite arm and leg (so right arm with left leg). Hold at end point for 2-3 seconds. Perform 8 - 10 reps for each opposing arm/leg.

1) Side-lying hip abduction – works lateral hip muscles which help stabilise the trunk. From the same starting position as for the side plank (see 3 above), raise the upper leg away from your body, keeping it straight and lower gently back down to starting position. Perform 8-10 reps either side.

There are progressions for each of these exercises, but you can also make them more challenging by extending the time you hold them for or increasing the number of repetitions.

Regular pilates, yoga and core-specific fitness/circuit training sessions are also great ways to help improve your core strength.

It’s worth investing some time to build and maintain a strong and healthy core. It’s a great way to stabilise your spine and reduce the risk of lower back pain and injury.

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