If you are not familiar with exercise and fitness terms, or following trends happening in the industry, the term, ‘core strength,’ refers to the ability of your abdominal and back muscles to support your spine. Having good core strength helps to keep your body balanced and stable, and promotes good posture. Whether you need to lose some belly fat for the upcoming summer, recover your strength after an accident or injury, or just get into a healthier lifestyle, look no further. Follow this comprehensive guide to strengthen your core muscles and get the body (and posture) you have always dreamed of.

Core Muscles and Back Pain

Several muscles make up your core muscle group. These include the Transverse abdominis (TVA), external obliques, which are your side abdominal muscles, internal obliques, which underlie the external obliques, the Rectus Abdominis (six-pack set of muscles), and the Erector Spinae, which is comprised of three muscles along your back. These muscles play crucial roles in supporting your posture, and can be conditioned using a series or exercises, including planks, crunches, arm sweeps, and back extensions.

Having weak, or imbalanced core muscles can cause severe personal injury related to back pain. An imbalance can occur if you focus too much on one set of core muscles, without having put equal effort into your other core muscles. This can cause your posture to suffer and for your body to feel strained trying to support your total weight. Back pain you might experience includes strains, spasms, sciatica, herniated discs, and osteoarthritis, among other things. Ensuring you have good core strength, and a healthy, balanced diet, can keep your body fit and keep you feeling healthier than ever.

Improving Your Posture

Another term that is frequently used among exercise and fitness circles is ‘proper form.’ This refers to your posture as you perform exercises meant to improve your back and core muscle strength. Practicing good posture can help lower your chances of sustaining an injury, and also helps promote proper bodily functions in other areas, including your digestive, respiratory, and nervous systems. Good posture is achieved by keeping your head centered, maintaining a straight line about your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles, and ensuring all of these are at equal height (i.e. your shoulders should be level, not lopsided from slouching).

There are two simple tests you can use to check that you are practicing good posture while you exercise. These include the Wall Test and the Mirror Test.

  1. The Wall Test

For this test, stand against a wall with your heels 6-inches from the baseboard and the back of your head touching the wall. Then put your hands between your back and the wall at two locations: the first, between the wall and your lower back, and two, between the wall and your neck. The distance between the wall and your lower back should be between 1-2 inches, and your neck, 2-inches, in order to achieve good posture.

  1. The Mirror Test

The mirror test can be done with a friend or workout partner, or by yourself in front of (you guessed it) the mirror! Use the mirror test to ensure your head is straight, your shoulders and hips level, your kneecaps aligned and facing forward, and that your ankles are straight. Once you have done this, it’s time to have your friend do a secondary check. Have them look that your head is straight, not slumped, and that your chin is parallel to the floor. Your shoulders should also be in line with your ears, your knees should be straight, and your lower back should have a slight forward curve.

Once you know what areas you need to improve in terms of your posture you can start to work on it on a daily basis, and not just while you are in the gym. Think about your posture while you are standing in line at the bank, sitting at your desk at work, or driving in your car. If you feel like you are slumping at all, remember to sit up straight and keep your shoulders properly aligned. Full-body or area-specific stretches can also help you rectify any habitual problems you may have with your posture, so be sure to check every time you start a new exercise in the gym and stretch, even at the office during lunch.

If you have persistent back pain, it is recommended that you seek the advice of an experienced functional medicine doctor to find a natural solution.