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Skip the crunches – here’s how to really work your core

So you want to strengthen your core – join the club. "The core" is part of every fitness class that we all love to hate, and we feel ripped off if we don't work it. Am I right? The endless crunches, the two-minute plank holds and the straight leg lowers are what we want because we think if we feel "the burn," then it must be doing something. Truth is, the burn is causing more harm than good, and it's time to think of core training differently.

Typical core training focuses on the outermost abdominals (the rectus abdominis) and fails to consider the true core, which is made up of the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, the transversus abdominis (the deepest abdominals) and the multifidus (in the back). Ideally, core training should involve all of these parts and encourage the synergy we need for stability, aesthetics and function.

So let's change the way we think about core training. Let's move away from the intensity-driven movements that are damaging our bodies to purposeful exercises that improve our posture, our muscle tone and our function.

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Here are three great programs that train the core as a whole and can help prevent and improve pelvic floor dysfunction, back pain and a poochy tummy.

Pfilates

Pfilates – pelvic floor pilates – was developed by urogynecologist Bruce Crawford, who was tired of telling women to go home and do their Kegels only to later see them in his operating room. He realized that the pelvic floor muscles need to work in movement – we are dynamic beings and Kegels are a static exercise.

So Crawford examined more than 120 fitness, yoga and pilates movements using wireless EMG to look at the activation of the pelvic floor (as well as the glutes, inner thighs and deep abdominals). He was trying to determine which movements incorporated the pelvic floor muscles the most.

He then looked for the point in the movement when the pelvic floor was most engaged (he calls this peak engagement) and asked his subjects to add a Kegel to that point. What he found was that adding a voluntary contraction of the pelvic floor when it was already partially engaged led to greater activation of the pelvic floor.

He took the moves that were most effective at activating the pelvic floor and compiled the top 10 into an easy-to-follow program. Some of the moves you will know, such as squats and lunges, and some are new, like the hover and the butterfly. The program consists of repetitions of the movement, static holds at the point of peak engagement and then tiny pulses at this point to train co-ordination. Pfilates is a great pelvic floor fitness program that is easy to do at home or the gym.

A favourite movement of mine is the yoga-inspired cat/cow. On all fours, expand your chest, lift your tailbone and look up and back as you inhale. As you exhale, tuck your chin to your chest, round your back and curl your pelvis under. Do this three times, then hold the curl – or cat – position for three seconds before adding three tiny pulses of the curl.

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Hypopressive Method

The term "hypopressive" refers to a decrease in pressure. This form of exercise (also called low-pressure fitness) reduces pressure to the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities. Traditional abdominal exercises, gravity and the majority of our daily activities are hyperpressive – they increase intra-abdominal pressure. This isn't to say these activities are bad for us – most of what we do, even walking, increases this internal pressure. What we need to address is how well our bodies can manage these pressures and prevent the onset of injury and dysfunction.

The Hypopressive Method is a revolutionary approach to core training, and fitness and pelvic floor physiotherapists are seeing amazing results in their clients. Hypopressive training incorporates the whole core (abdominals, back, pelvic floor, diaphragm) in a sequential pattern of postures combined with rhythmic breathing and breath holds. It is an odd-looking exercise program that is best learned from a qualified trainer who can instruct you on the proper postures, protocol and breathing technique.

MuTu System

Wendy Powell's MuTu System is a postpartum exercise program that focuses on optimal use of the deep core along with challenging movements that require little to no equipment. Powell teaches great information about core function as a precursor to the graduated program, available on DVD, online or as an app.

One of my faves is the monster walk. Tie a resistance band around your thighs just above the knees. Stand with your feet hip width apart so there is always tension on the band. Take a step to the right, then bring the left foot to the centre just far enough so that the band doesn't slip off. Keep side stepping for 10 reps, then go in the other direction – your glutes will let you know they are working!

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Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Kim Vopni is known as the Fitness Doula. Based in Vancouver, she is a certified pre/postnatal fitness consultant, co-founder of Bellies Inc. and owner of Pelvienne Wellness Inc. You can follow her on Twitter @FitnessDoula.

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