We all have dreams of a tight midsection: slender and slim, maybe a 6-pack, but what do we have to do to get it? Do we have to take thousands of pills, eat barely anything or tasteless foods, endless amounts of crunches? What can we do to train our midsections to truly be the most beneficial for our goals? The answer is simple: core training!
Unlike many goals, this one should be the same for everyone. No matter what your overall goals are in the health and fitness part of your life, one of your most important ‘sub-goals’ should be to have a strong, healthy core. Having a strong core has more benefits than just looking sexy (as we are about to get into in this article). Like with all of my articles, I want you to come away with a better understanding of the material and also learn ways to truly apply it into your own fitness routines without being overwhelmed by terms, concepts, and overly complicated programs like many trainers are so fond of using. The best system to use is K.I.S.S. or keep it simple, stupid; often, simple is what truly leads to great results. So, are you ready to dive into core training? First, let’s find out what exactly the core of our body is.
The core is the center of our bodies-it is literally the center of gravity and is the point of origin for every major movement that we do throughout the day. You may not realize it, but it is your core that is responsible for shifts in movement, balance, speed, agility, literally everything you do is in some way, shape, or form related to your core. Our bodies are designed in such a way that it is built to work at its best when standing upright, reacting and resisting the forces of gravity which are constantly pressing down upon us. It’s our core that allows us to stand upright and walk around on two feet even though the forces of gravity are constantly trying to pull us down; it’s our core that helps to control our movements, transfer energy, shift our body weight, and allow us to move in any direction at will. It is a strong core that also helps to protect our back by distributing the stresses of weight bearing activities.
When we refer to your core, we are not just referring to your abs; we are referring to all of the muscles that stabilize your spine and pelvis and run the entire length of your torso. These muscles include your abdominals, back (to keep it simple), obliques, and even your shoulders to name a few of the more popular areas. When these muscles contract at various points throughout our movements, they stabilize the spine and also give us a solid base of support which is, obviously, very important for everything that we do. There is also controversy among fitness experts and professionals in regards to core strength versus core stability. Proper core training, which is done through a comprehensive program, will address both issues of strength and stability simultaneously while also working on your core power as well. If this is what your core actually is, can you start to see why it’s so important to not neglect this area when it comes to your training? If not, then we are about to get into a whole number of reasons why core training is important to you and your overall health and wellness.
The number one reason to train your core is to look hot and sexy during all the summer fun at the beach, correct? Wrong! While that is one bonus reason to work out your core, it is pretty low on the list of important reasons to do so. Let’s start with the average day in the life of many, not most, but many people now days: Many have office jobs where they are required to sit for eight to nine hours, get in their cars and drive to and from work, and then they come home and sit down in front of the television until they go to bed. The next day? More of the same! Modern society has allowed the majority of humans to be lazy, and because of this, health problems are through the roof!
So, what is the effect on the core? To put it simply, prolonged sitting with minimal exercise or physical activity weakens the muscles of our core that will, in turn, lead to injuries and also an ineffective way of moving (though you may not realize it). Training your core muscles helps to correct these postural imbalances that can lead to injuries. When we work on our core, we are increasing our functional fitness- the type of fitness that is essential for living our daily lives. We don’t realize it until we injure ourselves, but our core is essential for everyday activities from something as simple as picking a pencil up off the floor to playing football with our friends.
The muscles in the trunk, or torso, area stabilize the spine from the pelvis up to the neck, and also transfer power to the arms and legs for various movements. All powerful movements (dead lifts, power cleans, throwing a baseball, jumping a hurdle, etc.) originate from our center of gravity (or core) and move outwards into the limbs. Before any of these powerful muscle contractions can occur in the extremities involved, the spine must be stabilized. The more stable the core is, the easier it is to stabilize the spine and with that will come more powerful contractions in the needed extremities. Even if you have the strongest arms and legs around, you will not have enough power to perform whatever movements you need if your core is weak; you need to have a strong core to match your strong arms and legs to fully perform at your best potential. Needless to say, by strengthening your core you are better equipping yourself to better utilize your extremities on whatever you need while also reducing your risk for injury.
One final reason to work on your core? Lower back pain! Often we are led to falsely assume that our abdominals protect the back and are the foundation of strength within the core itself. As we discussed earlier, your abdominals only make up a small portion of your core; it is a weak and imbalanced core, not just abdominals, which lead to lower back pain in some cases. Weak core muscles can result in a loss of the natural, appropriate lumbar curve (curvature of the spine) while balanced, strong core muscles can correct improper posture, and can reduce the strain on your spine which can help to alleviate that lower back ache. Starting to seem like a smart idea to train your core? Well let’s look at how you can go about strengthening, and with some diet discipline, get that summer six pack too!
For some reason when we think of core work everyone automatically assumes lying flat on their back and doing endless amounts of crunches, bicycles, leg lifts and all kinds of other exercises. While these exercises are good to an extent, they are not the best way to reach your goals in most cases.
To truly train the core in a manner that it was meant to work, we need to get off the floor and train them from a standing or hanging position or in some other form that allows us to not be lying on our backs(such as TRX or certain positions like the Superman) so that they learn to work and stabilize against gravitational pull. While these exercises are beneficial, the most effective core training exercises are those that require integration of the hips, trunk and shoulders to effectively distribute the forces of gravity and ground reaction (your body’s reaction to contact with the floor) caused by upright movements.
When training to strengthen your core, exercises that allow the torso to work as a solid unit and also allow both the front and back muscles to contract at the same time(multi joint movements) are performed and you (or a trainer) are able to monitor stabilization of your spine. Traditional methods of training the core, for many years, have included isolated, absolute strength training in isolated muscles and only in one plane of motion at a time. To truly train the core, we need to train them in multiple planes and require the use of deceleration, dynamic stabilization and acceleration. To that end, there are many exercises that will strengthen your core and while a large number of exercises can be done in your home or gym with no equipment, there are a few that require some. (I will provide a list of exercises at the end of this article; feel free to look up how to perform them on YouTube).
If you still feel like crunches are your personal best option, then my recommendation is this: use a stability ball to allow for greater range of motion and also to cushion your lower spine. Do these “stability ball crunches” as an active recovery in between your more challenging core exercises.
The best way to train your core, as we have discussed in depth, is to get up off the floor and really train all the muscles in your core simultaneously. When you are considering starting a new core training routine or your trainer is devising one for you, my personal recommendation is to work on core stability first, then strength, then power. Like a pyramid, your core stability is the foundation upon which all other movements are based upon; get your core stable and over time begin to work the other pieces of strength and power.
Add in core work three to four times a week to your sessions and you will begin to look and feel better with all your other activities, no matter how mundane they are. The benefits of a strong core far outweigh the inconvenience of a couple more minutes in the gym. Still going for that six pack look for summer? Then while working your core is very important, you will also need a good, clean, healthy diet. The best way to a six pack is to eat clean and train your core in multiple planes like we discussed earlier- if you do those two things, you will come away looking and feeling better than ever!
I personally recommend training your core first thing into your workout or in between sets of another exercise (for example a set of bench then a set of stability ball crunches); that way you don’t neglect your core and you are always active even though you are resting from set to set. This will help to ensure maximum calorie expenditure throughout your workout and also is a way to shorten the time of your overall workout.
For your personal use, below are a number of exercises broken down by stability, strength and power (everyone has their own names for these); there are many more out there as well. I hope that you find these useful and remember to look for the proper technique online on YouTube. Many of these you may already know or have seen before. Enjoy and remember that your core is the center where all your other movements begin- build up a strong core and you will build a stronger body in all areas.
Side crunches/side v-ups
Quadruped opposite arm/opposite leg
Stability ball crunch
Reverse crunch with rotation
Knee ups with rotation
Ball hamstring curl
Figure 8 with medicine ball
Medicine ball throw and catch
Medicine ball chest press
Medicine ball chest press with rotation
Medicine ball oblique throw
Side oblique throw
Medicine ball soccer throw
Back extension throw
Example way to set up core training:
Stabilization Phase One: 2-4 exercises done for 1-3 sets of 12-20 reps OR 1-3 sets for 15-20 seconds. Should be done 3-4 times a week.
Stabilization Phase Two: 1-2 exercises done for 2-3 sets of 12-20 reps OR 2-3 sets for 20-30 seconds. Do this 2-3 times a week. Do 2 strength exercises for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps the other 1 or 2 days each week.
Strength Training: 2-4 exercises for 2-3 sets of 6-15 reps. This should be done 2-4 times per week.
Power Phase One: 1-2 exercises from power group and 1-2 exercises from strength group for 3-4 sets of 5-10 reps. This should be done 2-3 days per week.
Power Phase Two: 3-5 exercises for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps (rest longer between sets during this phase: 90 to 180 seconds). Do this 2 times per week.
When transitioning between phases, it is important to remember to push yourself but to monitor your progress. It is better for something to be a little easy than to perform something unsafely and risk injury or not be able to complete the prescribed number of sets or reps. You can also cycle through the various phases as many times as you want and can combine them (for you advanced trainees out there!)
****Before starting any kind of exercise program, remember: it is always recommended that you check with your physician beforehand****