How to Self-Assess Core Strength

October 29, 2018

self-access core strength
JayDee Vykoukal, DPT

The phrase “core strength” has become very trendy today.   There is talk of the importance of it, but what exactly does it mean to have a strong core?  Literally speaking, a core is the central part of an object that is crucial to its very existence.  This couldn’t be truer for the core of the human body.  

What makes the “core” of our bodies.

Most of us immediately think of our abs when talking about core strength.  While they play an important role, the body requires more of an effort.  This involves not only the 3 different muscle groups of the abs, but also the pelvic floor, erector spinae (the muscles that run along the entire spine) and lats (the large muscles on the side of the rib cage): basically all the muscles in the middle of our body.  It can also be argued that the muscles of the hips are part of the core due to their location and role in stability of the pelvis. All these muscles provide stability to the spine for strength, support and a base for use of the limbs.  

So why is it important?

If you want to know how important your core strength is try using your arms or legs while keeping your mid-section relaxed.  If you can even manage this awkward task, you’ll feel like a wet noodle and know immediately how your core plays a role in movement. Without the core, fine and purposeful movement with our limbs becomes impractical and nearly impossible.  Movement becomes exhausting and inaccurate, two qualities we can’t afford to have in daily life.  

How to assess strength.

If you want to optimally exercise and strengthen the core, its good to know your current level of strength.  While there are several debated ways to measure this strength, a classic technique that is easy to understand and follow is called the “Sahrmann Progression.”  It encourages coordination between all the muscles of the core we just discussed.  

Here is a quick review of how to complete it, for more detailed information look here:

To start, you must be able to adequately tighten your muscles while lying on the floor with your knees bent and spine/pelvis in neutral (the back it not flat on the ground, there is a small gap that feels comfortable). If you take deep breath and rapidly exhale you can feel the muscles tighten that you should focus on (or think belly button toward the spine).  Sometimes just finding these muscles can be difficult.  Once found, your trunk should feel rigid but you should still be able breath and move.  Once this is accomplished, you can start with level one. With each exercise the key is to keep your back and pelvis relatively still, you can monitor this by putting your hands on your hips or have someone observe.  Once you feel movement or you can’t hold a good contraction anymore (your stomach should look flat with no muscles bulging), you have failed and found the level you are starting at for strength.  You should be able to complete each level 5 times per side with good form to progress to the next level. Level 1:  Always starting with knees bent, lift one foot off the ground and bring the knee toward the chest.  Stop when the knee reaches hip level and return it to the floor. Level 2:  Slide one leg out parallel to the floor while keeping the heel on the floor (leg is allowed to rest on the ground when extended).  Return to the starting position. Level 3: Bring one leg out parallel to the floor holding it a few inches from the ground. Return to the starting position. Level 4: Slide both legs out parallel while keeping the heels on the floor.  Return to the starting position. Level 5:  Bring both legs out parallel to the floor holding them a few inches from the ground.  Return to starting position.  

What now?  My core is weak.

Usually, this assessment of strength is a huge eye opener for even the fittest of people.  It is pretty difficult to breath, focus on form AND keep the muscles contracted while keeping your trunk from moving.  Once you realize that you could be using your core better with exercise, it will make even a basic crunch feel hard.  That’s ok, it will get easier with practice and daily awareness.  The best place to start is working on perfecting the highest level you achieved above.  From there, the use of these muscles can be incorporated into ALL of your daily movements, especially exercise but also household chores, walking and standing.  Especially when standing, keeping your spine in a habitually good posture while lightly tightening your core can strengthen it further.  At work, this means a good set up for your environment incorporating things like a standing desk.   This assessment should either motivate you to get stronger or add new intensity to your current core workouts.  No matter who you are, there is always room to improve!

Sign Up to Receive Our Newsletter & Get the Best Ergonomic Tips