What is the core? And where is it?

We hear the word a lot today – “Activate your core!”; “Core strengthening routine”; “Core blaster”. But do you really know what the core is or where it is? If you said “Abs” and pointed towards your tummy, you have it wrong!

To a lot of us “the core” is synonymous with the abdominal muscles or abs. But is that all the core is? Yes and no. Let me explain.

The core signifies the muscles of our body that form the basis of all movement i.e. the core of all movement. So, yes, the abs are a part of the core but, no, the core is not just about abs.

Major muscles included are the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae (sacrospinalis) especially the longissimus thoracis, and the diaphragm. Minor core muscles include the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius.

That is, muscles in the abdominal region, low back area, along the spine and, to a lesser degree, around the hips and shoulder. See the image below to understand better.

 core-muscles_phacctive.files_.wordpress_image

(Image – bephaactive.net)

We all know that all these muscles are used for different functions. But all these muscles come together for one common function – to stabilise. That is, these are the muscles that keep us erect and stable. If the muscles of your core didn’t work at all, you’d literally collapse and fall on the floor.

So, when you’re asked to activate your core on a move like the plank or the squat, the point is to activate ALL of these muscles, and not just your abs. Why? Because all these muscles come together to keep your body mobile, strong and safe. And why is that important? Because your body is one unit and everything needs to work for something to work.

Rarely do we do any activity that requires only one set of muscles and very rarely do we do anything that doesn’t utilise our core. And that’s exactly why it’s called “the core” – you need them for pretty much everything you do. Let’s say you’re doing a bicep curl. Obviously you are using the muscles of your upper arm (biceps) to curl the weight up. But what’s happening in the core region? Well, a lot actually – all the muscles of the core are actually working hard. Doing what? Keeping you standing and upright. As mentioned above, if the muscles of your core didn’t work at all, you’d literally collapse and fall on the floor.

Now let’s look at a move that is meant to train the core – the plank.

PLANKANATOMY

(I have no idea where this image is from or what it says, but it shows you what muscles are worked when you do a simple elbow plank)

What’s happening here? As you can see, there is no movement happening. If that’s true, why is it hard to hold that position for more than a couple of minutes? Because the muscles of your core are working really hard to keep you from falling on the floor. If you can activate all these muscles well, you can hold a plank for longer than someone who can only activate a few of these muscles. And by consistently working these muscles, you end up with a strong core that helps you in pretty much every human movement in life.

In summary,

  • The core is not just the abs but comprises of the following muscles.
  • Strengthening the core means strengthening all these muscles and that’s done by using compound moves that demand stability.

So, the next time you hear the word core, don’t think just abs. Think about your body from the knee till your shoulder. And don’t just think about them, work on actively using them during every second of the rep. This is hard, very hard. But if you can do this diligently you’ll end up with a super strong core, no back issues and, with good nutrition, a smoking hot body too.

Weight loss – A continuous process

Most of us like breaking up our lives into days. We do this because of the 24 hour cycle we’re subject to. But our bodies don’t wait till the end of the day to tally up calories in and out and produce weight loss or gain. It happens instantly and constantly.

We are dynamic living beings. We consume and burn every moment. How much we weigh is basically a measure of how much we are. We are water, muscle, fat, bone and other tissue. Except water, all these other things live, do and die every moment. And water – it keeps things alive but it also goes in and out of our bodies and hence contributes to the weight fluctuation . The rough summation of this is what we call bodyweight and it will never be the same at any given moment.

Very frankly, you weigh more or less now than you did last year or last month or last week or yesterday or even the last second. Why? Because during every living moment our bodies are working to keep us alive and functioning. This is done by burning calories that are stored in the form of glycogen, fat or muscle. A good analogy here is that we are like cars that are always on. Even when idling (i.e when the car isn’t running but has the engine on), fuel is used because work needs to be done even just to keep things on (i.e to stay alive). The more work you make the car do (more speed, more distance etc) the more fuel you’ll use. Similarly the more work you do, the more energy your body will need.

If I have to say it all in one line – Everything you do either uses calories or adds calories.

And this addition or subtraction of calories (energy) makes us weigh more or less every moment of every day. So if you have any aesthetic goals whatsoever – fat loss, weight loss, muscle gain, toning, shaping, sculpting or whatever term you like to use to describe having less fat and more muscle – here is something that is very critical to your success –

Every little thing you do matters and it matters right away.

Every step, every bite, every rep, every minute of sleep, every bit of stress and every smile affects your results instantly. If you do equal amounts of positive and negative actions, then your progress will be zero, which is called maintenance. If you do more positive than negative, you will move ahead and if you do more negative than positive, you will fall behind. That’s the simple truth.

If you want to make a clean start, that’s great. But don’t wait for the next day, week or month. The next moment is as clean a slate as you need to make a positive change to your life.

Fitness hacks: What if you are too busy to be fit?

Situation 

You’re busy. You have long hours at work or an unruly child or are an internet addiction. There never seems to be enough time. Not just for exercise but for anything. How do you stay fit? 

Guardian guide to running - GPS watches - video

Solution 

The long term solution is, of course, to smartly rearrange your day and make time for things that matter i.e. getting your priorities right. But what about the short term? 

Option 1 

Wear your shoes, carry a watch and get out of the house. Set a 20-30 minute timer. Start walking or running based on your capability. Every 2-4 minutes stop and do a few pushups or burpees. Yes, people will stare. At the 10-15 minute mark, turn around. Make it back on time. Don’t worry. The mess at home will wait for you.

Option 2 

Do 100 burpees. Pick a version of the burpee based on your capabilities – Beginner burpees or with pushups or with pushups and pullups. Do 100. It should take you anywhere from 6 to 20 minutes based on your fitness level and the kind of burpee you’ve chosen.

Option 3 

Set a 10 minute timer. Do as many burpees as possible. Push as hard as you can on that day. Some days you’ll get 50 and some days you’ll get 150. Doesn’t matter. Just work as hard and safely as you can for 10 straight minutes.

Option 4 

Set a 20 minute timer and do as many rounds as possible of  (7 squats, 5 pushups, 3 pullups) or (3 squats, 2 pushups and 1 pullup) if you can’t do too many pullups at once.

Option 5 

Find a building with 3 to 5 floors. Run from the ground level to the terrace as fast as safely possible. Walk back down slowly. Repeat for a total of 6 to 10 rounds.

Truth is, you don’t need a gym or 2 undisturbed hours everyday or the latest and greatest equipment to get fit. All you need is the will to be fit and you will find a way to get there and stay there!

When in doubt, keep it simple.

The best kept secrets to muscle building!

 The word “muscle” to men is as exciting as chocolate to kids. We can’t enough of it. We love muscle and everything that is associated with it. Gaining muscle, working muscles, looking muscular, sore muscles and being muscle bound are all terms that will make any guy take a second look.  But not everyone is able to gain muscle and very few men actually end up looking muscular. Why? What are the secrets behind building slabs of muscle? What is that special training program one needs? What supplements should you take? Let’s find out.

JasonStatham1

You see, building muscle is a very slow and painful physiological process. In all honesty, losing 5 kilos of fat is so much more easy than gaining 5 kilos of muscle. To be specific, it is very possible to lose 5 kilos is 5 weeks for most people but gaining 5 kilos of muscle  is a task that could take anywhere from 5 months to 3 years depending on the trainees current status, genetic make-up, training intensity, nutrition and other lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress. 

Though incredibly hard, muscle gain is a simple process and the “lift heavy, eat big and sleep plenty” is a mantra that always works. To be more specific, in order to gain muscle you will need to lift heavy loads and there is no way around it. Now, the load you lift could be barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, your own bodyweight or even unconventional objects like stones and rice sacks. The tools don’t matter much, at least not as much as the resistance they provide and the intensity you lift with do. Irrespective of what tools you use, you will need to work in the 6 to 12 repetition range and you will need to work the right movements. More on that later, but let’s get to the point here.

How fast you grow and how much muscle you build will depend on many aspects of yourself and your training self. 

Your training age 

Beginners tend to gain muscle much faster than advanced athletes who already have a significant amount of muscle on their frame. As a complete beginner one can expect to gain a good 10-12 kilos of muscle, albeit along with a very noticeable amount of fat, with a year a consistent, diligent, linear progression based training. But if you’ve been training consistently and legitimately for 2 years or more, expect to gain 1 to 3 kilos of muscle per year and not much more. As your training age increases, the rate of muscle gain will decrease and there’s nothing (natural) you can do about that. So be smart and work on getting stronger and gaining muscle right from the early days of your fitness journey.

Your training program 

Big lifts are critical for muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) mainly because they activate the most muscle fibers and hence cause the greatest testosterone and growth hormone secretion. So make sure your training program is dominated by squats, pushups, bench presses, overhead military presses, pullups, rows, deadlifts and/or heavy kettlebell swings. Biceps and tricep exercises can be included as supplementary moves but they have very little benefit since every pull you do (pullups, rows etc.,) work your biceps more than any curl can and every push (pushups, presses, bench presses etc.,) burns your triceps more than any isolation exercise (tricep extensions, for example) will.

Your lifestyle 

When gaining muscle and size is the main goal, you’ll need to make some changes to your lifestyle. In general, you will need to sleep more, stress less and move less. To be more specific, get at least 49 hours of sleep per week, keep a log to check how often you get stressed or lose your temper and limit that to twice a week and remove all forms unnecessary movement that causes energy (calorie) usage. Sports, cardio, running, cycling, swimming etc., need to be restricted to 30 to 40 minutes a week and strictly only at an enjoyable intensity. The higher the intensity in such activities, the more calories you’ll burn and that, in your case, will mean wasting calories that could potentially be used to help you recover from you previous strength training session and to promote hypertrophy.

Your nutrition 

The most important rule for gaining muscle is to eat above satiety i.e. you will need to eat more food that your body needs. Let’s say you need 2000 calories per day in order to maintain your current body composition. You will then need to eat anywhere from 2200 to 2700 calories per day in order to even expect muscle growth. Now this doesn’t mean you go about counting every morsel you eat. Generally, if you (60 to 80 kilos) eat wholesome real food which is partitioned fairly well with enough protein (~ 100 to 150 grams), good fat (~ 80 to 120 grams) and starch (200 to 300 grams) along with a reasonably well planned and intense strength training routine, you will grow and there is no denying that. But to hit these numbers without counting you will need to eat wholesome protein rich foods above satiation i.e. till you feel full and also add a handful of nuts and dried fruit as an extra snack. And just so we’re clear, junk food is a NO. Though your goal is to gain weight, junk food and gluttony will not help one bit and only result in gaining fat.

 Your supplements 

Now realize that there is absolutely no supplement that will help you if you bypass the steps mentioned above. Supplements are meant to supplement your training and nutrition and nothing more. For the common man looking to gain some muscle and look awesome, a multi-vitamin pill, some whey protein, ZMA (zinc + magnesium) and maybe, creatine is all you need.

There you have it. The most well kept secrets of muscle building are not complicated and new but simple and archaic. Drop the mass gainers and steroids and pick up a fork and some heavy iron.

Peace out.

PS: I originally wrote this article for The Week’s SmartLife health magazine. This is the unedited version.

All about daal

And by daal I mean lentils, legumes and beans. We love ‘em, don’t we? They’re such a significant part of the Indian cuisine that you can’t ever find someone who isn’t fond of them. And rightly so, from the nutritional standpoint. Wonderful micronutrient balance, extremely rich in folate and molybdenum, scarily high in fiber, excellent source of low GI carbs and a decent source of vegetarian protein! What’s not to love for a carb loving vegetarian society?

chana-pindi-recipe

(This amazing photo was shot by the author of this really cool recipe –  www.vegrecipesofindia.com/pindi-chana/)

Anyways. Let’s keep the love and pride going but let’s be careful to not get carried away because these little pods of nutrition aren’t entirely harmless.

Phytate alert 

Now, lentils contain something known as ‘phytates’. We wouldn’t worry much about these little guys if they behaved well. But they don’t. They inhibit and/or slow down absorption of nutrients from healthful foods that work so hard to consume. So in order to reduce phytate content, our ancestors traditionally soaked all lentils, legumes and beans before cooking and consuming them. If anything that changed since then, it is the fact that we consume much lesser nutrients today and it becomes even more important to ensure their absorption is not inhibited.

Carb alert 

Also, remember that lentils are only a decent source of protein but they are a great source of carbohydrates. Depending on the type, each cooked cup will contains 12-20 grams of protein and 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrates. So the ratio between protein and carbohydrates will be ~ 1:3. Now that’s not too bad for most of us.

But the problem is when we combine it with a starch like rice or roti. Since the rice or roti is basically all carbohydrate, the ratio drifts more towards carbohydrates and ends up at ~ 1:6. Which is, well, bad especially considering most of us eat way too much carbohydrate rich foods all day everyday.

Fat alert 

And who eats a plate of lentils just steamed or cooked? We like some tadka on it or we like to maakhni it up or just add some all powerful ghee to it. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating fat, be sure to not overdo it. You don’t want too much tadka or ghee on your daal or beans. And if you’re eating daal maakhni or any preparation of lentils that is rich, you want to remember that it’s not just a harmless bowl of lentils but a dish is dominated by fat and carbohydrates.

Stupid alert 

1 cup means 1 standard cup which is 240 ml. Yes, that coffee tumbler you have at home. No, not the rice bowl you’re pointing at.

Enough alerts. Time for fixes.  

But it’s OK. Not everything is lost. I have some fixes that will help you continue the lentil love saga without having to loosen your trousers.

  1. Soak lentils, legumes, beans and even grains for a few hours before cooking.
  2. Keep the starchy foods to a minimum when you’re going lentil crazy. Yup. No roti or rice. Sucks. But you got yourself into this mess.
  3. Save the rich and creamy lentil dishes for a day of indulgence, which, I’m sure we’ll all agree, isn’t too rare these days.

Cool? Now, if you’d like to understand more, here are some links for further reading.

  1. Stephan Guyenet explains why lentils are real food and how to prepare and consume them for optimal nutrient absorption.
  2.  The fine folks at the Weston A. Price Foundation take it a step further and discuss phytates in detail.
  3. And finally, the in-depth nutritional profile of lentils on WHFoods.com.

Now, you tell me. Was this helpful? Did you learn a thing or two you could use in daily life? Do you have related questions? The more you talk, the more I talk. So share your thoughts here and share the knowledge for your health conscious friends on social media.

Always remember – when in doubt,  keep it simple.

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