How to Begin Strengthening Your Core

Podcast Episode #014: How to Begin Strengthening Your Core

Improving core strength. This is one of those "must-haves" that you hear every fitness fanatic talk about. A strong core is good for your posture, it helps eliminate back pain, plus it looks great to have a tight and toned tummy!

But, if you're just starting out, what's the best way to improve your core strength? You want results, right? Today we're going to talk about the best (and safest) ways to approach improved core strength.

How to Begin Strengthening Your Core [Full Text]

Today I have a really great question from Kate, and I know it's one that's going to apply particularly to women and moms, but to men as well. So let's dive right in.

Kate says,

"I'm almost 6 months out from having my 3rd baby, and I'd really like to start toning up my stomach. I used to be in quite good shape, but have lost so much after giving birth 3 times, and just falling out of a good exercise routine. I guess I just want to make sure I'm doing what's going to get me good results. Any specific suggestions?"

Kate, thanks for the question. When it comes to toning up your stomach or increasing your core strength, this is something that I know lots of people are looking for. That's why I say not just moms. I know you're coming out of a situation where it's specifically tied to giving birth to 3 babies. But men go through this as well. To help answer this question, I've recruited Celeste Goodson. She is an expert when it comes to core training, and specifically with pre-and post-natal training for women.

Celeste, she's going to share with us some amazing information that talks about strategies for starting core training. This could be for a new mom, or for someone who's just had surgery, or someone who just has a really deconditioned core, so someone maybe who hasn't worked on core strength for a really long time and wants to start out in a safe place. I emphasize that because Celeste is really good at starting from ground zero and then working your way up to having a really strong and functional core. Without further ado, let's meet Celeste and enjoy some of her advice.

Celeste, thanks again for joining us today.

Celeste: Thank you.

Dave: Maybe we could just start off, I think probably our viewers would like to hear your story. You've got a pretty interesting story of how you got into the fitness world and sort of where you've come from. I don't know if you could start off by just giving us a little bit of info about yourself.

Celeste: Okay, sure. Well, I went to school and got my bachelors in fitness and wellness management, and had 3 kids. During that time, being a certified personal trainer, I thought I should know more about training post-natal women. Going through it myself, I knew I was really lacking in knowledge. So I seeked out certification for pre-and post-natal fitness, got my advanced personal training degree through ACE.

At that time, when I was in school I was working with physical therapists. I did some cardiac rehab work in hospitals. So I really liked the aspect of helping people recondition their bodies when they're weak. That's really what I felt was lacking with women, post-natal programs. There's a lot of emphasis on boot camps and losing weight. But there's really missing the re-strengthening the inner core.

So that's what started my program. I developed Re-Core, which is a 6-week program for women. They can do it after they've had their babies, and it helps them ... That's what I recommend them doing before they return to typical exercise such as boot camps, running, CrossFit, P90X, the typical exercise they might jump into. So we get that core foundation strong.

Then I also, at the same time when I had my 3rd child, I was really disappointed in the lack of maternity supports out there for women. At the same time I was developing my program, I worked on developing a maternity support that would work post-natal as well. It's very flexible, and a custom fit. Women can wear it several different ways. That's the Fit Splint. That's my other side of my business, training and getting the product out there. That's what I do.

Why Is Having a Strong Core So Important?

Dave: Your training aspect, or your focus is almost solely on core strength?

Celeste: Yes.

Dave: Maybe you can explain why specifically core strength as opposed to ... I know there's a lot of program out there that are overall conditioning. Why is the core so important to you?

Celeste: Well, I felt like the training program was specific enough that people could do the program and then go to whatever types of exercise they like to do, return to yoga, return to Pilates. But really felt like there's a time post-partum when women ... And it's really never too late. I work people who are 5 years post. I work with people, maybe they missed that core restrengthening period, and so we go back and work on that. They see quite a bit of difference how it helps them out with typical core exercise. That's why I'm just ... I busy enough, so I just focus on the core program and it keeps me busy. I just love just focusing on that.

Dave: I know I recruited you for this podcast because the question today from Kate is specifically about post-pregnancy re-strengthening your core. It's right up your alley in terms of specialty. But one thing we talked about is whether the stuff, the training that you provide, or the training that you teach, if that's applicable to people outside of just post-pregnancy.

Celeste: It really is. I market to post-natal women, but it applied to anyone who has been deconditioned for quite a long time. Their inner core might not be firing like it should. Their diaphragm may not be working with the inner core muscles like it should, because there's a lot of weakness going on there. So anyone who's been deconditioned for quite a long time, anyone who's gone through C-sections, anyone who's been post-op, is going to have considerable core weakness. Yes, Re-Core would help anyone with any core lacking ... who's lacking in core strength.

The Inner vs. Outer Core

Dave: But I noticed even as you were speaking that you talked about the inner core. I'm sure this is a pet peeve of yours, as it is mine, but when people sort of correlate ab training with core training, kind of use those 2 terms interchangeably. Is that something ... does that bug you as well as me?

Celeste: You know, I get it. I understand that there's people who lump it all together. I just make sure people understand that there is an inner core system, and that is supposed to be firing first, and a lot of times it isn't. So when it isn't, then the outer core muscles are taking over with the gluts, the leg muscles. Those muscles have to work a lot harder. If I can just help people understand that there's an inner core system that's supposed to be firing first, and then everything works, then they get it, and they go, "Oh, okay." So yes, there's a core, but there's an inner core. Putting that together is what makes a bit difference for people.

Dave: Perfect. Let's talk a little bit about Kate's question here. She's probably your typical clientele. She's just had her 3rd baby 6 months ago and was talking about how she just feels like she has a weak core, and probably like a lot of trauma, going through giving birth. What would you suggest to her or anyone in that position for starting out? What's the best way to get back into it?

Celeste: Yes. For Kate I would definitely recommend going through reconditioning that inner core, and then moving on from there. After you spend several weeks reconditioning the inner core, activating the muscles, strengthening them, making sure there's not any dysfunctional diastasis. A lot of people have diastasis recti to some varying degree. It can be very minimal.

What is Diastasis Recti?

Dave: Can you give a quick explanation, because I know probably a lot of listeners aren't familiar with that? What is diastasis?

Celeste: Diastasis recti is when the tissue between the rectus abdominus muscles, right down the middle there, stretches out and thins out and weakens, so the abs kind of stretch out a little bit. When people do engage their core, the core may not be coming close together like it should be, or it's not activating like it should. There's a lot of confusion about diastasis recti as well. But what I've found, and there's also research to back this up, I've been working with women for 5 years, and women can, even if it doesn't close all the way, by reconditioning their inner core they can get to a functional diastasis state, where they may have a little bit of diastasis, but their core functions.

After they've done reconditioning, they can get their core functioning properly, and they can move on to more exercises. But it's important to take that time to get that core working correctly before they move on.

Dave: Just from my experience working with clients, I think that's something that a lot of women don't know about. You would agree with that, that a lot of maybe doctors don't talk about it, or there's just not a lot of conversation around it.

Celeste: Yes. There's definitely a lot of confusion. People will say, "Yeah, I have ab separation. I can't do this. I can't do that." Ab separation, diastasis recti, kind of sort of interchangeable. But a lot of women don't realize that they eventually, when they get to a functional state with their core, they can move on. They feel very limited for years and years and years. "Oh, I can't do that. I have ab separation." But they really, really can move on once they have someone to help them get past that.

So for Kate's question, recondition their core. I have a test that I do with women to help them evaluate their core strength, so they can see just how weak it is in the beginning, how the inner core's not working as well. Then at the end they can retest and see how well the core is firing. That kind of helps them see, "Okay, this is what I've been doing. This is how it's been helping me for the last 6 weeks." Then they can move on and go on to other things that they want to be.

Taking The First Steps

Dave: When you talked about that first step of strengthening the inner core, I think most people think about doing planks as the be all and end all of "core training" these days. Is that where you would have people start, or are there better, safer exercises just to get started with?

Celeste: Definitely better, safer exercises to start with. I have a ... It's like a ladder. I'm starting them at very stage 1, and I go up about 6 levels before I get to a plank. Each time they're getting a little more difficult, a little more difficult. But they do. They get to planks within a few weeks after they've made sure the core is doing what it should be doing and that it's capable of engaging with the exercise. A lot of times women can do a plank and think you're doing just fine. But the inner core, because it's not firing like it should, they've only got 50% of their core strength working, so the exercise is a lot more difficult for them. Once that inner core is working and they do a plank, they're like, "Oh, I feel much better, much more stable when I do this plank."

Dave: They might not even know that it isn't firing. The plank might just feel really difficult.

Celeste: Because all the other muscles can take over and do what they need to do to do the plank.

Dave: Right.

Celeste: Yes.

Dave: In your 6 steps there, what's the very base level?

Celeste: Starting with just getting the inner core activated, which is the transverse abdominis muscles, the diaphragm, the pelvic floor. Getting those things to work dynamically, getting the breathing down, and then adding a little more resistance or weight. Not weight but levers to make the exercise more difficult, and to make that core work harder. I definitely think progression is very important. A lot of people will just do the basic TVA breathing and exercises and call it good and then jump to a plank. A lot of times there's just a lot more things they can do in between to be ready and stable for a plank.

Dave: You use the term transverse abdominus. Again, there's probably a lot of listeners who aren't familiar what that is. Can you describe, so when you're talking about inner core, what is transverse abdominus, and what practically can engage the TVA.

Celeste: TVA stands for transverse abdominis muscle. It's a muscle that's underneath the rectus abdominis muscles. It goes around and wraps around to the spine. Other people will call it the corset muscle, because it stabilizes the spine, and it works with the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. Those are the things that should be turning on first when we make any sort of movement. Getting that TVA to work dynamically with the pelvic floor and the diaphragm is key to progressing in cor strength.

Dave: Quite often I'll refer to it as a weight lifters belt. It wraps right around your midsection and gives you that stability, that support.

Celeste: Right.

Learning Proper Core Training Technique

Dave: I know because we're just chatting through this, it's pretty hard to talk about specific exercises and describe what that exercise would look like. Are there any resources that you have that you could point someone like Kate, or anyone else that's post-op and just wants to really start base level with safe approach? Do you have resources that maybe in the show notes I can point someone to?

Celeste: Sure. I do have a few YouTube videos up. It's The Mom Bod Fitness Channel. I start with ab sets, have women start with that exercise. I have a few more up there. I need to get more up there. That's where I'm lacking. But I spend so much time training that I don't get them up there. But I also have a blog with a lot of information, and then the website as well.

The other thing I wanted to throw in there is when women learn how to engage their core properly, they're also learning how to contain intra-abdominal pressure. A lot of people will hear "intra-abdominal pressure is bad. That's what's causing your DR, and that's what is bad." I try to teach women that if anyone gets to weight lifting, or lifting anything heavier than 15 pounds, then that core, when they lift, it's important to know how to control that intra-abdominal pressure. If that pelvic floor's not working properly, all the intra-abdominal pressure goes down. That's what causes pelvic floor issues with women. This is another important thing that comes from retraining your core, is learning where, how to contain that pressure. That's what helps you lift heavier weights and lift safely.

Dave: For someone to develop that, does it start again with breathing exercises. I know you sort of mentioned in passing breathing. Is that kind of like your level 1?

Celeste: Yes. Yes. Breathing, learning how to be aware of the inner core, learning how to lift the pelvic floor, relax pelvic floor, engage the transverse muscle, relax the transverse muscle, and then the correct breathing with that. Yes.

Dave: I'm going to throw out a question. Sorry, go ahead. Sorry, what was that?

Celeste: I said, "I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about."

Dave: Totally. I know that some of this is going to be new for listeners, but I'll link it to your YouTube videos, because I know you have some excellent ones. Actually that's how we met, is I stole one of your YouTube videos because it was excellent.

Celeste: Yeah, and you put a great article together with a lot of other resources, which is great. Thanks a lot.

Dave: Oh, thanks.

Celeste: I only do so much, and a lot of people do a lot of things. So it's great.

What About Crunches?

Dave: This is a question you probably get asked a fair bit. What do you think about crunches? That just seems like everyone's go to, when you talk about core strength or abdominal strength. Even though I think most people maybe know there's other exercise, that's like the first one. What's your opinion.

Celeste: Right. We don't consider crunches a core stability exercise, so try to encourage women after they've finished reconditioning the core to focus on core stability exercises. I don't necessarily say crunches are terrible, terrible, terrible. But I would say they're at the bottom of the list.

Focus on doing other core stability exercises, like planks, using TRX equipment, dynamically, functionally using your core. Crunches, if you do have any ab separation, any back issues, crunches and situps are going to stress the back. If they don't use their inner core properly, it puts a lot of pressure on the pelvic floor, so it can cause a lot of problems for women.

Eventually, if they are capable and they're strong, and it's activating properly, I don't think a few crunches are going to hurt, eventually. But, like I said, they're not my favorite. They're probably not your favorite. They're at the bottom of my list. Yeah, definitely, avoid ... I don't do them. I don't do them.

Dave: I like that in your answer you said, okay, maybe after everything else is done, do a few crunches. Not a thousand crunches or a hundred crunches.

Celeste: Right. I don't think it's going to hurt if they don't have any issues going on. They're not going to hurt. But they're definitely not ... As you know, they don't work all the abs fully. They don't work all the obliques and the transverse very well. Core stability exercises do. They engage all those muscles, and that's why those exercises are better.

Dave: I put together a post, this was a couple years go, where it was based on some research that showed the contraction force of a crunch and then compared it to the contractile force, I guess is what it's called, of all different types of core exercises. The crunch was the bottom of the barrel, kind of like you said. You could just see all these other exercises cause so much more muscle recruitment. It's sort of one of those things, when you look at it, you can do a lot of crunches, and maybe it's not hard on your back, but ...

Celeste: You don't do yourself a whole lot of favors.

Your "10 in 4" Takeaway

Dave: Exactly. One thing that we like to do on this show is do what I call a 10 in 4 takeaway. That's sort of like homework or something that someone could jump in and do today. What would you suggest for someone? I know we've been talking a lot about women. Back to Kate's question, it is about post-pregnancy how to get back into core training. But anyone who's just starting out, what would you give them as a piece of actual advice? "Do this today."

Celeste: I would say, go check out the ab set video. See if you're core is functioning like it should. See if you can do the breathing right, you can engage the transverse abs, if the pelvic floor lifts, if it relaxes when it's supposed to. That's the starting point.

If someone does that and they're at a loss, then they probably need some work. If they do the exercise and they're like, "Oh, okay, I've got this." And they can also check for ab separation, see that video and measure, see if they have any ab separation going on. Then if they do, they can spend some time working on that to make sure that their core is functional. It may already be functional and they may be fine. But if they've had a baby and they haven't done anything like this, most likely they need some work.

Dave: This is for my own learning. Teach me something here. Does ab separation happen commonly with men? Because I've only really read about it with women. What's your understanding?

Celeste: I don't work a lot with men, but I know it does happen. If they get very weak, if you have poor posture, if you have a lot of intra-abdominal pressure, bloating issues, it can stretch over time. If they do thousands and thousands of crunches and they're not doing them correctly, then every time they do those crunches the belly is bulging, and that can cause abdominal separation. So yes, men do get it. They don't get it as severe as women do, someone who has multiples, or has had several children, the tissue weakens out over time. It can get a lot worse for women than men. But they do, they do get it.

Dave: I'll post in the show notes a link for your video about testing for ab separation. But that same process applies to men and women. Men can do the test the exact same.

Celeste: Yep. Exactly.

Dave: Great. Celeste, you're full of wisdom here. I really appreciate it. I'm going to post a bunch of links to some of your videos and some of your resources. But if anyone listening wants to find out more about you and about your teaching and your programs, where's the best place that they can connect with you?

Connect With Celeste

Celeste: Go to my website, mombodfitness.com. There's a lot of information on there. You can click on the blog as well and then check out the YouTube videos. Join us on the Facebook page too on there. You can always send me an email if you have a question. I'm open to that. I'm definitely going to let people know about you. I've learned about you over the last couple of weeks. You're amazing yourself. So I'm going to be ...

Dave: Oh, I appreciate it.

Celeste: Telling people about that so they can check you out and know what they can be ... You do great stuff, too. So I appreciate it.

Dave: I appreciate that. Hopefully I can have you back for another podcast episode, because I actually have some questions that are asking about more advanced training. I know today we started talking about the ground level stuff.

Celeste: Basics.

Dave: But if you'd be willing to come back I'd love to have you chat some more.

Celeste: Yeah, I would love it. Any time. That's great.

Dave: Great. Thanks, Celeste.

Celeste: Yeah, thank you.

Dave: Thanks again for joining me on this episode of the Lose 10 in 4 Podcast. If you have a question that you'd like to see featured on the show, email me at [email protected]

If you enjoy this podcast, leave me a comment, or give the show a rating in iTunes. It's really simple to do. Just go to makeyourbodywork.com/itunes, and it will take you under 1 minutes. It'll give me some feedback about how to improve this show in the future, and also help other people learn about the podcast as well. Thanks again for tuning in.

Thanks for joining me today!

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