‘At the Core’ – Strength Training to Help Seniors Perform Better and Avoid Injury
Following her win of the Women’s Division at the USA National Winter Triathlon Championship in January 2016, Jan Guenther told Senior Triathletes that seniors preparing for a triathlon should make core strength training a top priority.
Great advice! We need to continue to “build core strength” because, beginning at age 30, we began to lose muscle strength and the amount of muscle loss appears to increase with age.
The statistics that I have seen indicate that the loss is, on average, 3% to 5% per decade after age 30, 8% per decade from age 40 to 70, and 15% per decade after age 70. However, there is also evidence that muscle tissue can be regenerated even at an advanced age with a diet consisting of high-quality foods and exercise.
How do we build core strength? For that matter, what is the ‘core’? Answering these questions is the focus of this article.
What is the ‘core’?
Our core muscles include those in the abdomen, mid and lower back, hips, and pelvis, all aimed at keeping us upright. Having strong core muscles is key to ‘moving young’ as well as to training without injury. If one of our muscles is weak, others will try to compensate, which can lead to overuse of the compensating muscles and injury.
Strong core muscles are also key to better performance. For example, in swimming, a strong core is required to keep us horizontal in the water so that we avoid dropping our legs and creating the significant extra drag that will not only slow us down but cause us to expend extra energy to get through our routine or triathlon course.
How do we build core strength?
NOTE: If you are new to exercise, injured or suffering from a chronic disease, speak to your doctor before starting core strengthening exercises.
Following is the core exercise plan that I follow 1-2 times per week. Note that these that require no special equipment, though make use of a yoga mat or towel.
Complete one set of each of the following exercises and then repeat each of them as time permits.
Planks are great for developing strength in the core, shoulders, arms, and glutes. This is how to do this exercise.
Lie face on the floor, bend your elbows and rest your weight on your foreman which should be directly below your shoulders. From this position, get up on the toes with your back as straight as possible such that there is a straight line from your shoulders to your heels. This is the start.
Concentrate on using your muscles to draw your belly button toward your spine while continuing to breathe.
Hold this for as long as you can with the goal of reaching 2 minutes. Don’t worry if you cannot hold it that long. However, stop as soon as you are no longer able to maintain the straight back, which is key to the proper execution of this exercise.
Side planks are great for building endurance and strength of the core muscles, especially those involved in the movement of the hips and back which are required for swimming and running. Frankly, these are the most difficult for me, I think because of my relatively weak hip muscles. However, I typically do 2 sets on each side holding the plank for 1 minute per set. If you are new to this exercise, try starting with 15 seconds per side per set and increase the time as you are able. Remember, once you are no longer able to maintain proper form, stop.
This is how to do the side plank, which you will do on each side.
Lie on one side in a straight line between your head and feet. Rest your weight on your forearm and place the foot of the top leg on top of the foot of the leg on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles and lift your hips off the floor maintaining a straight line between your shoulder and your feet. At the same time, keep your neck, spine, and legs in line on the backside of your plank.
Your other hand can be on your hip with the elbow pointed upward or can lay along your leg – it just cannot be used for support against the floor.
Remember to keep breathing in and out. You get no points for holding your breath.
Leg lifts help to develop the lower abdominal muscles and lower back.
This is how to do this leg lifts. Remember to breathe in and out on each of the cycles.
Lie on your back with your legs on the floor and arms at your sides, palms down. Contract your abdominal muscles and slowly lift your legs to 90 degrees to the floor, keeping your legs straight and not bending your knees. Slowly return your legs to the floor. This is one repetition. Complete as many as possible while remaining good form. Try to complete 25.
This exercise derives its name from its appearance when properly done – like that of Superman flying through the sky. It is great for strengthening the lower back.
Start by lying face down on your mat or towel with your legs and arms fully extended. Contract the muscles of your lower back and together, raise your arms, chest, and legs off the floor and hold this for a count of ‘one thousand one, one thousand two’.
Slowly, lower your arms, chest, and legs to the floor. This is one repetition.
Repeat 10 (or whatever number you are able to do) to 25 times, focusing on good form and breathing.
Side Lying Leg Lift
This is the exercise that I have been doing to strengthen my hips and glutes. In the process, this exercise is also strengthening the oblique muscles.
For this exercise, lie down on one side with the corresponding arm and leg extended in opposite directions. Place the opposite leg on top of the bottom leg and place the opposite hand on the floor near your mid-section for stability.
Slowly raise your top leg as high as possible, hold for a moment, and slowly return the leg to the top of the other leg, just barely bringing the two feet into contact. This is one repetition.
Complete 25 repetitions on each side, remembering to maintain your neck, spine, and legs in a straight line and, of course, to breathe.
Repeat the set on the other side with the other leg.
Progress may, at times, appear slow but keep doing these core strengthening exercises and you will soon see the difference in your performance and movements.
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