Let’s talk core. How often do you hear someone at the gym say, “I’m doing abs today” or, “today is cardio and core”? Because I have heard it many times before! Sadly, I watch as many people’s core routines consist of doing sit ups or crunches, in hopes of building a toned stomach or chiseled six pack. Unfortunately, many of those exercises are limited to training only one aspect of the core. This article will give you the knowledge to choose the right exercises to train your whole core effectively.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association accurately describes the core as: “The surrounding muscles that support your spine, provide stability, and help generate power during athletic movements. They consist of not just a specific muscle group, but a multitude of muscles that work together to provide optimal support and function.”
Outside of the common rectus abdominus (6 pack muscles)
and the internal and external obliques, the core consists of
other important muscles such as the transverse abdominus,
erector spinae, the pelvic floor musculature, diaphragm,
multifidus, and even the glutes, lats, and trapezius. They
are all of the muscles that surround and support the spine.
The primary purpose of the core is to act as a stabilizer.
Core stability is the ability of the core musculature to resist
an unwanted movement, such as flexion or rotation through
the spine by activating the core as a whole. When training
for and performing core stability exercises, there is no
movement through the spine.
The problem arises when core musculature is only trained in isolation or as a "prime mover", typically working in one range of motion. These are considered core strength exercises, which allow motion to occur through the spine. Core strength is the amount of force the core can produce to perform a specific movement. Common core strength exercises training muscles as prime movers include crunches (forward flexion), back extensions (lumbar extension) and side bends (lateral flexion).
Now don't get me wrong, these aren't necessarily bad exercises if they are performed correctly and they can be beneficial in developing core strength or that 6 pack you want to show off this summer! But 90% of the time, our core functions to stabilize the spine in a neutral position, especially during functional movements like squats, deadlifts, pushups, running etc. to keep us from getting injured. By only training the strength aspect of the core, you miss out on it's major stabilizing function, as well as developing more efficient movement patterns, increasing strength gains, and can predisposing yourself to injury.
So how do we train our core to properly stabilize?
First, it is important to know how how to engage your core. The best way to do this is to start by lying on the ground on your back. From this position, try to draw your navel down towards the floor, pressing your low back into the ground and squeezing your glutes. The hardest part is learning how to continually breathe while keeping the core engaged. While maintaining that engagement, take a 5 second breath in, a 5 second breath out, then allow your muscles to relax.
This takes practice! It may be hard the first time, so keep practicing until you get it down, and then add arm and leg movement to the breaths, such as extending a leg out or arm overhead to further challenge your core stability while breathing. If you still aren't quite sure how to do this, you can watch this video to see core engagement and breathing properly demonstrated.
With this goal in mind, we need to force our core musculature to stabilize the spine in a neutral position, which means there will be no movement through the spine when it comes to stabilization exercises. Anti-rotation and anti-flexion/extension exercises are one of the best ways to train core stability. With these exercises, by engaging your core properly, you resist physical forces that would otherwise pull you into a flexed, extended or rotated position. Click here for some great anti-rotation/flexion/extension exercises.
The plank is one of the most basic core stability exercises, yet most people aren’t performing it as effectively as they could be. When setting up for the plank, and most other core stability exercise, it is important to engage the glutes (and by engaging your glutes, I'm simply saying squeeze your butt and maintain it through the movement!). This will stabilize the pelvis and spine in the oh-so-important neutral position. Perform on forearms or with arms extended, knees bent or lifted, but always make sure that you can maintain core engagement and breathing patterns. If you can't, choose an easier position. By adding movement of the arms and legs or increasing their distance from the body, you increase the stability challenge for the core as well. You can do this by lifting an arm or leg or moving the hands farther away from the body. Hold as long as you can while maintaining proper form.
Here is a 10 Minute core workout you can do that combines both core stability and core strength exercises: