If someone asked you to point to your core—where would you point? Probably your belly where your abs are. But it turns out, core muscles actually run band to band (AKA from the tip-top of your ribs to the top of your hips) and all the way around all the way around. Yep, core got back.
“Your core technically includes your pelvic floor muscles, your internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis (and all the other superficial layers you think of when someone says six-pack, the erector spinae and multifidus (which are in the back), and all the deeper, smaller muscles in your trunk,” says Alena Luciani, MS, CSCS and founder of Training2xl. To put it one way: The core is more complex and complicated that my relationship with my ex, but unlike my ex, it’s a total #powerhouse.
Not only does the core protect the body and stabilize the spine and pelvis, powers your movement, and is the cornerstone of boss-babing the sh*t out of your workouts. So yeah, your core has to show up for you at all times. And if it doesn’t…or if it’s too weak? “The rest of your body and muscles have to compensate for it, which can cause a giant (and bad!) chain reaction,” explains Bethany Lyons, founder and CEO at Lyons Den Power Yoga.
It can be hard to know if your core is weak, because even visible six-pack-abs are not a sign that your core is strong. Lyons suggests two quick at-home tests to determine whether or not your core is weak. “You should be able to hold a hollow hold—your low back is pressed into floor, legs and arms hovering in the air, and core ignited—for at least 10 seconds. And you should be able to hold a plank for at least 50 seconds,” she says.
Beyond a decreased ability to do these OG ab-sculpting moves, having a weak core can result in a host of not-so-pleasant everyday symptoms. Keeping reading for five more signs your body is compensating for a weak core, plus how to deal.
Clue 1: Your posture is sub-par
You know that the best way to sit at your desk isn’t all crunched or crouched over. But what if you can’t help it? Hunching over your desk can put strain and pressure on parts of your body that weren’t meant to support that position for long, which physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault says includes your hip flexors, low back, pelvis, glutes, and shoulder girdle.
“Over time, sitting with poor posture can make your entire body to shift out of alignment, and eventually lead to overuse injury of the muscles that have to work even harder to compensate,” explains Dunlop.
The fix: Practice sitting with your core engaged—belly button drawn back towards your spine—and shoulders pulled back, suggests Lyons. If you have a job that forces you to sit more days, you can try setting an “engaged core” timer, which’ll remind you of your goal.
Clue 2: Your lower back arches when you walk (AKA you have a pelvic tilt)
Have you ever noticed someone (or maybe you do it yourself) walking pelvis-first or with a super-arched lower back? Yep, a weak core could be the culprit here, too. Because carrying and delivering a baby can weaken the pelvic and abdominal muscles, this particular symptom is common in new moms.
“When your core is weak, sometimes the hip flexors or glutes may have to takeover, which long term could result in an anterior tilt of the pelvis—basically when the pelvis itself is pulled off balance,” explains Lyons. This pelvic tilt can also result in back, knee and hip pain or injury. “If you’re not bracing your core when walking, gravity can also pull our shoulders forward, which puts a ton of strain on your neck and upper back,” Luciani says. Instead, you want to walk with your chin in a more neutral position.
The fix: When you’re walking, Luciani suggests asking yourself: “Are my hips stacked beneath my shoulders?” To strengthen your core and make this stacked position possible, add pelvic tilts, leg extensions, single leg extensions, and glute bridges into your morning routine, suggests Wickham.
Clue 3: You have frequent lower back pain
If you’ve ever felt a tweak, pinch, or twinge when performing a day-to-day movement like transferring the laundry, tossing a ball to the dog, or taking something out of the oven (like these upgraded Ina Garten approved roasted carrots), weak core muscles could be to blame. When your core isn’t as strong as it needs to be, your lumbar spine can get all wonky, explains Wickham, which can put undue pressure on your vertebrae, discs, and the rest of the muscles that encase the spine.
The fix: Work specifically on strengthening your spine. “Strengthening the erector spinae— which runs from your neck to your lower back— can help reduce back pain by helping to encourage proper posture and form when performing exercises,” says Katie Dunlop NASM certified personal trainer and founder of Love Sweat Fitness.
Clue 4: You feel weak when throwing or jumping
Ever feel weak when performing exercises like tossing a ball, throwing a punch, jumping up and down, or even doing something like a bicep curl? “Difficulty doing these things could mean your core isn’t trained properly,” explains Dunlop. That’s because our core muscles stabilize and send power and strength to other muscles. “If we aren’t strong throughout the midline, we throw out the chance that we’re going to be strong in arms, legs, shoulders, or ankles—called our distal parts,” explains Wickham.
The fix: Add compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, push-up, and lunge, which will tone and strengthen your extremities and core at the same time, suggests Luciani. “Even unweighted, these movements teach you how to brace your core, while using and strengthening your extremities.” #multitasking
Clue 5: You use objects and people around you as a “crutch”
If you frequently rely on the furniture or friends around you to get (and keep) you standing, it’s time to add some core bracing moves to your routine. “It surprises people how much core strength simply getting out of bed, a chair, or standing in line takes,” says Wickham.
The fix: Trying to sit down, get up, or stand without reaching for poles, pillars, tables, or your pals for help, will eventually help you strengthen the weak muscles, says Lyons. As with any other exercise, it’s get easier the more you do it.