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Why endless crunches do not really strengthen your core

Want flatter abs? Read on to find out how to get them

Sleep and nutrition are crucial to great abs
Sleep and nutrition are crucial to great abs (Unsplash)

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Are you crunching yourself to death in hopes of a stronger core?

I will take a stab in the dark and say that it's not a stronger core that you want. Instead, it's a firmer-looking, flatter stomach. 

Precisely 100% of my clients have told me, "I feel like my core needs to be stronger," but when push comes to shove, their genuine desire was to have "flatter abs and a smaller stomach."

After all, the only noticeable indication to most folks that their core isn't as strong as it used to be, or wish to be, is a squishy feeling when they touch it with their finger or struggle with crunches in the gym.

This distinction between strength and size is important because getting a stronger core and having a flatter, smaller midsection are two different activities, neither of which involve endless crunches. We will first focus on what it requires to build a strong core, then dive into how to make it flatter without using body contour products like Spanx.

We have come to think of the core as simply our rectus abdominal muscle, our "6-pack" muscle that runs from sternum to pubis. We can't be blamed for thinking this, as "fitness models" and " fitness influencers" all have rippling 6-packs, so it's only natural to assume that if we want to be fit and strong, a 6-pack is a prerequisite or an indication, at the very least, of a strong core.

Also read: How you can build up your fitness by climbing and surfing

However, the core is a much more intricate, complex system. Having a visible set of 6-pack muscles doesn't indicate whether or not you have a strong core.

The most amusing definition I found of "the core" was from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)which said "unplug" the arms, legs, and head, and the core is everything that's left! In more technical terms, the lumbopelvic-hip complex and additional muscles that act on the spine are often considered the "core of the core."

As you can see, the core is more than your 6-pack. It's more like a can or canister. According to Josephine Key and her work published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, core muscles work together to allow for breathing, posture, coughing, laughing, singing, lifting heavy things, giving birth, and so much more. Some muscles are even "anticipatory," meaning they act before the need arises (to understand this, imagine if your pelvic floor didn't work before you sneezed!).

Alli McKeea writer for Girls Gone Strong, says that the best way to train your core without doing endless crunches is to do "a variety of movements, such as rotation, extension, flexion, lateral flexion, as well as anti-rotation/extension/lateral flexion, and hip flexion with a neutral spine." With all of that said, it boils down to training your core in how it naturally moves through rotation, bending, and bracing, not simply lifting your chest off the floor, as you do in a crunch.

I will give you some examples of simple-yet-effective core exercises that will help strengthen your deep inner core from the comfort of your own home.

Core Connection Breath

One of your core's primary functions is to allow for breathing. Your breath syncs your diaphragm to your pelvic floor, essentially the top and bottom muscles of the "core canister." You can develop a stronger core by purposefully focussing on your breath and engaging the right muscles while doing so.

Lie down in a comfortable position with a neutral spine. Place one hand on your chest and the other under your belly button. Take in a big breath through your nose, opening your body in a 360 direction (chest, belly, back, sides, and bottom), and relax all of your muscles, including your pelvic floor. As you gently exhale through your mouth, imagine lifting your pelvic floor like an elevator rising to the top floor, and then "zip up" your lower abdominal muscles like you are zipping up a tight pair of jeans. Relax on the inhale, and repeat. Try this for two sets of ten repetitions.

Good Alignment

The majority of our core muscles lie in between our rib cage and hips, so if we are slumped over (as you may be doing right now, as you read this), these muscles can't activate or work. By reminding ourselves to have good postural alignment (shoulders rolled back, ribs stacked over hips), we can engage our core correctly (which will feel like gentle tension down your midline when you're doing this correctly). You can practice this any time you want during the day - the more times, the better. As you brush your teeth, take a shower, and even better, as you're walking. This will build a stronger core from the inside out.

And, as promised, let's chat about how to lose the weight off of our midsections. As you may have gathered from what was discussed above, we can have a strong core regardless of how our bodies look. Don't be deceived by rippling six-packs.

But if aesthetics is your goal, then managing your diet is the best way to expose your strong core. Eat a diet rich in whole, fresh foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and millets, and lean cuts of meat. You'll want to avoid boxed foods, sugary treats, desserts, or fried foods, as they often aren't satisfying while being ultra-calorific, causing you to put on excess weight, disguising your core. Drink plenty of water, over 2 litres a day, and make sure you get a good night's rest. 

Also read: How you can have your cake and eat it too

The strange reality is the leaner you want to become, the more you have to prioritise your night's sleep. So, aim to get between 7-8 hours of good quality sleep every night. If that's not a good enough reason to get shut-eye, I don't know what is!

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