Staying in good shape is a must for fashion models, for you never know when you could be called for a bare body shoot, says Prathamesh Maulingkar. Having won the Mister Supranational 2018, the 28-year-old Goan cannot take part in pageants for the next five years. But that hasn't kept him from gruelling core workouts. “You have to be ready all the time. That's what keeps me going,” says Maulingkar, an avid footballer and cricketer who got into modelling after an injury kept him from sports for a long time. “Also, for a tall person, strengthening the core is all the more important. You tend to get a lot of injuries if your core is not strong.”
If you want to get a defined core with your abs popping out, try weighted crunches, suggests Maulingkar. “This involves holding dumbbells or a plate while doing your crunches. It is more difficult than normal crunches as there is weight involved. But it can work your muscles more and make your abs bigger,” says Maulingkar, who won the Mr India title in 2017.
His favourite exercise is the plank, which is suitable for both youngsters and senior citizens. “That's the most important core exercise one can do,” says Maulingkar. “Full-body plank burns a lot of calories. It is like using your whole body to keep yourself up. The main plank combined with the side plank and back plank can keep your core strong from all sides. Nowadays, people are coming up with variations on the plank to jazz up their workout sessions.”
Core muscles are the unsung heroes of our body. Anatomically, the core is the middle portion of the body. “The core is the central trunk of the body and [includes] the muscles in the abdominal area, lower back, hips and around the pelvis,” explains Grand Master Akshar, founder of Akshar Yoga. “If the core is strong and well developed, it gives the individual added stability and controlled flexibility in his or her movement.”
Ever wondered how a boxer generates power for his power-packed punches? It is generated from the core, not the arm. “It passes through the core set of muscles and builds into a powerful punch. There is something called a boxer muscle, which is part of your core,” says Rishabh Telang, fitness expert at cure.fit, headquartered in Bengaluru. “The arm is a small muscle. One can't generate so much power from the arm.”
Similarly, one can't do weightlifting just by using their arms. A weightlifter leverages power from the glute. The glute muscles that make up the buttocks are also part of the core; they are the most powerful muscles in our body. Weightlifting might seem like an upper body movement, but you need to have strong glute and abdominal muscles to do weightlifting, says Telang.
If your core is weak, you may have trouble doing everyday activities. Even getting up from the chair or picking up a grocery or vegetable bag requires core activation. However, most of us take note of our core only when we experience pain or stiffness in the back.
The best way to build a stronger core is by enhancing the muscles that make up the trunk. Core strengthening exercises are essential for everyone, from the athletically inclined to those who lead sedentary lives. A strong core reduces pressure on the limbs for various body movements. If your core is weak, it results in inefficient movements. A person having a weak core may experience calf pain or have weak ankles. “It is important to strengthen your core, for it will improve your strength and stamina,” says Nishriin Parikh, a 53-year-old bodybuilder and fitness trainer.
Sunaina Raju, a forensic science student at Jain University in Bengaluru, would agree. The 20-year-old from Thanjavur swears by core drills, a staple in her workout session. “They keep your body in an erect, upright posture. They also tone abdominal muscles, and as I am a gymnast, core exercises reduce the risk of injury,” says Raju, whose favourite core exercises include stomach vacuums and dragon flags. Stomach vacuum is a breathing exercise, wherein you contract your deepest abdominal muscle—transverse abdominis. Dragon flag, on the other hand, involves lying on a flat bench, with both the hands holding its edge behind the head, and lifting your legs, with only the upper back in contact with the surface. A micro influencer on Instagram, she encourages her followers to try these exercises.
Core exercises are gaining popularity like never before, says Telang. “When you go to a place where there are good coaches, they will help you work on your core, with weights or movements that require more engagement of your core,” he says. “Coaches have become more knowledgeable, and they have started educating people about the importance of the core. So a lot of people engage in core activation now.”
For people who prefer working out at home, Cult, a workout space, has come up with fitness apps. “We have 10- to 15-minute videos featuring core exercises that people can do at home,” says Telang. The entire philosophy of Cult is around body weight and equipment. “We use equipment, but we don't use machines,” he says. “While using a machine, you don't have to engage your core unless you are doing it consciously. At Cult, you are forced to activate and engage your core much more because your body is doing the entire job. The core plays an important part in whatever we do with our body. Doing bodyweight exercises strengthens the core and helps you with consistency.”
Core exercises like animal flow and primal movements have become quite a rage these days. “They are effective and are being done by many to get the best results,” says Mustafa Ahmed, celebrity fitness trainer and cofounder of AKRO fitness studio in Mumbai.
Sitting is the new smoking. Even the best workplaces in India do not offer standing desks to their employees. Stand-up meetings are yet to gain popularity here. Jag Chima, an internationally renowned fitness entrepreneur, prescribes core exercises for everyone with a desk job. “Core exercises are essential, especially for people with back problems. I tell people, 'You don't need to have a gym membership. You can do these exercises at home',” says Chima, who has worked with actors like Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham and Arjun Kapoor. “Strengthening the core will help you get a better posture and avoid lower back pain. If you are in a desk job, my suggestion is that you do these exercises three times [a day] and you will see a huge change in your core strength.”
Most of us shy away from core workouts, thinking they are intense, strenuous and time-consuming. But these exercises can be done anywhere and anytime, even while standing in queues, brushing your teeth or at work, says Wanitha Ashok, 52, who could easily pass off as a 30-year-old.
A finalist at the Gladrags Mrs India Contest in 2009, Ashok offers some simple exercises for people who cannot make time to exercise. Tuck your stomach in, hold it for ten counts and release. It engages your core muscles. You can repeat this exercise throughout the day. Standing core exercises are great for the young and the middle-aged. Try this easy-to-do exercise: Lift one leg up and balance on the other leg. Hold it long enough to activate the core. Repeat with the other leg. This workout should be avoided if you have lower back, knee and balance issues, warns Ashok.
One of the easiest ways to exercise your abdominal muscles is by taking a deep breath. “When you hold your breath, pull your navel inwards towards the back of the spine for a few seconds. This is a great way to engage your abdominal muscles or 'abs'. This simple exercise can activate your core all through the day, even when you are sitting in a chair or standing or lying down,” says Parikh, who secured fourth place in the World Bodybuilding Championship in 2018. Women having urinary incontinence should do core exercises, she adds. “They can strengthen the pelvic muscles,” she says.
Leg raises are good for burning abdominal fat. “I love leg raises and recommend them for beginners,” says Maulingkar. “To start, you can do single leg raises, followed by double leg raises. Slowly, you can start adding weights. You lie down, grab the dumbbell with the insides of your feet and then lift your legs. I do leg raises with weights. They make my workout very tough and help me burn those extra calories.”
Running, swimming, skipping and cycling are effective core workouts, too. “Cycling strengthens lower core and legs,” says Yusuf Jerrin, 19, from Lucknow. Jerrin was introduced to core workouts at the age of 10. “I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. I dreamt of being like them and joined Taekwondo training. There, I was taught core exercises like leg raises, jumping jacks and sidelocks as warmups, before training to fight,” recalls Jerrin, an undergraduate student at St Joseph's Evening College, Bengaluru. “I quit Taekwondo after achieving my first dan black belt but continue to do the core exercises. I focus more on strength now.”
Jerrin's core workout regimen starts with crunches and leg raises, followed by Roman sit-ups, which are done on a declined bench. “It is a complete workout where you lie down on the bench and go up and down, as in crunches,” says Jerrin. “Roman sit-ups are helpful for both lower and middle core.” Jerrin loves twisting crunches, where you rotate your upper body towards one side as you lift up and then rotate it back to the centre as you go down. It is good for the stomach, he says.
Jerrin does the hanging knee raise religiously whenever he goes to the gym. The workout done using a pull-up bar is known to be a favourite among those wanting to build six-pack abs. “I don't aim for a six-pack,” clarifies Jerrin. “I do have abs, but not hardcore abs. Natural hardcore abs are gained after three years of regular diet and workout.”
Functional training helps strengthen the core, too. It involves doing things your body has been designed to do, including resistance, in terms of your body weight, and engaging more than one muscle or joint. Functional training can be done using equipment like dumbbells or a resistance band. “Many people don't realise that you can work your core to its maximum potential by doing movements like squat, deadlift, push press and bench press. Adding these movements can help in developing a strong core,” says Ahmed.
Namratha Sunil, 35, from Bengaluru, has had an amazing fitness journey. A mother of two, she was genetically blessed with a lean body structure. However, to keep up with the trend then and for the fun of it, she tried Zumba, but her interest in it died down soon. As time passed, Sunil went through a medical challenge and was advised to be active. So, she took up structured aerobics as her fitness regime. Gradually, fitness became her lifestyle, and she started doing core exercises. “Along with everyday cardio, I do core workouts, focusing on the abdomen, the lower abdomen, the oblique, stabilising the spine and back muscles as well as the butt,” she says. “These workouts make the muscles work together properly to maintain balance, agility, posture and movement and to help the body move efficiently and prevent injuries.”
Her favourite core exercises include plank variations, single-legged core workouts and reach throughs. “Plank jacks are my favourite. It super challenges my core,” she says. Plank jacks are easy to do and can be performed in the comfort of your home without any fitness equipment. “You begin in a plank position, with your hands on the floor and body parallel to the ground. Your arms will be right beneath your shoulders and feet together. Hold your body up on your forearms and toes, and then jump your legs out to the sides and jump them back together. Do this as many times as you can in a minute. Take a short break and then repeat the exercise,” says Sunil. Plank jacks are a great way to tighten and contract all of your core muscles, she adds. “Spider crawl and Superman walk are my other core options. Core exercises give good results. I have got fit like never before,” says Sunil.
Ashok does a lot of single-legged core exercises and yoga to challenge her core. “I use gliders to do various planks to super challenge my core; a napkin can double up as a glider, too. These exercises offer other benefits like strengthening the weight-bearing leg, improved balance, focus and concentration. I also do core stabilisation exercises like variations of floor planks and bridges and cobra,” says Ashok. For youngsters, she recommends core workouts like TRX (total resistance), suspension workout, yoga, functional fitness, kickboxing, pilates and piloxing.
“Yoga has become very popular when it comes to activating or strengthening the core,” says Telang. “Yoga might come across as something not very intense, but when you go and do it, holding an asana for a long period, it challenges the muscles that have not been worked over for long.”
Yoga has a splendid repertoire of asanas that enhance various muscles of the body core. “We practise them regularly, for their benefits begin with the external muscles and reach the internal organs as well,” says Akshar.
Dhanurasana (bow pose) is a simple pose that can strengthen the core. “Lie down on your stomach. Hold your ankles tight with your palms. Lift your legs as high as you can. Hold the posture for a while and then release,” he explains.
Regular practice of asanas will help one tone and strengthen the core and provide relief from back pain. “Forward bending asanas such as Paschimottanasana help strengthen the spine, stimulate the nerves, and increase vitality. Similarly, backward-bending asanas such as Bhujangasana give a stretch to the abdominal muscles and strengthen the spinal muscles. Vakrasana and Ardha Matsyendrasana, which involve the twisting of the spine and trunk, stimulate the spinal nerves,” says Dr Rajeev Rajesh, chief yoga officer, Jindal Naturecure Institute, Bengaluru.
Listen to your core when you perform every activity. Do not ignore those cramps and pains in the lower back when you bend down. It is possible the core has weakened over a period of time. Lower back pain is an increasingly common problem. A strong core is needed to maintain a strong back. Lower back problems sometimes manifest when you lift weight or take part in sports. It may not be the exercise but a weak core that is causing the pain. Even bad postures over a period of time can lead to issues like spine degeneration and disc bulge, which translates into lower back pain.
Strengthening the core is an uphill journey that starts from within.