While 6 pack abs are a nice, I believe most people are asking this question as the result of an injury. Either past, present, or future…
In other words,
someone told you a strong core will help you avoid injury, or any further pain.
And they’re right!
The problem isn’t the theory that core strength will reduce risk of injury. The problem is:
1 – no one seems to be able to define what the core is
2 – traditional “core” training is completely missing the mark
There are plenty of people walking around with aesthetically pleasing mid-sections that deal with a great amount of musculoskeletal pain, that ultimately stems from a complete lack of core stiffness and endurance.
In this article, I will break down:
1 – what constitutes “the core,”
2 – what our approach needs to be with training the core,
3 – and what exercises count as a “core exercise” with examples…
Let’s tuck in…
When people ask me how to strengthen their core, usually the first thing they mention is that they know they need to lose their spare tire first (belly fat).
My response is always the same – why?
I’m not sure who is out there telling you that you can’t have a strong core just because of your gut, but your body fat has little to no bearing on how strong your core is – as a matter of fact some of the strongest cores in the world are on rather large people. (google any picture of a power lifter)
I would actually argue that if losing weight is something you hope to achieve, then core stability is a non-negotiable first step (on the fitness side of things).
Otherwise you’re risking, or may already be experiencing, repetitive nagging injuries that seem to keep you down!
All of the muscles from our spine and trunk, and even those larger muscles that cross multiple joints (i.e., lats, hip flexors, glutes) are all considered to be “core muscles.”
These muscles create a “guy-wire” system in every direction around the spine, stabilizing it and allowing it to withstand loading (internal forces on the spine).
Many people assume that the “core” is in reference to the abdominal muscles; however, the abdominals are just one part of a much bigger system.
Think if this guy-wire system as you might the wires surrounding a tent pole.
If you want your tent to stay upright, you don’t simply drive 2 poles into the ground and drape a tarp over them. Instead, you fasten several wires into the ground surrounding the poles, to make sure they remain steady and erect.
We rely on our core to provide us with “proximal stiffness” (i.e., core stiffness).
A stiff core provides the firm foundation from which you can perform any number of movements, from day-to-day activities such as walking, to more athletic movements like the golf club swing.
Gray Cook says it best when he says: “you wouldn’t fire a cannon out of a canoe, would you?”
In other words, a stiff core (foundation) is essential to safe/proper movement. Anyone trying to move without a stiff core, especially those who are moving explosively (running/jumping/swinging) will likely end up in trouble!
Which leads us to the 2nd subject I would like to cover in this article: what our approach needs to be with core training (and why).
First, I would like to propose that we discard this old notion of “core strength” and start thinking of it as “core stability and motor control.”
The muscles in the body must coordinate with each other much like the different parts of an orchestra.
If any one group in the orchestra is off on their timing, playing too quietly, or playing too loudly, the entire production is noticeably off.
Your body is very similar.
Think of the golf swing…
Swing as hard as you can, and nothing good happens. The ball goes anywhere but straight, and gets practically no distance.
Swing too softly, and the ball hardly leaves the ground.
It’s the golfer who can “pulse” his muscles at the perfect times, who hits the ball the furthest and straightest.
This coordination between “contracting” and “relaxing” the muscles is how we perform all movements, from sitting, standing, walking, running….you get the picture.
As of this writing, there are 2 subsets of “traditional” core drills that in my opinion need to be eliminated.
One, involves trying to “hollow” the belly in an attempt to isolate one of your abdominal muscles called the transverse abdominus.
Not only has research shown that it is impossible to isolate only one muscle, further research has shown that this hollowing significantly weakens the core’s ability to stiffen.1
we should be attempting to “brace” our core, by activating all of our abdominal muscles (as well as the remaining muscles in the “guy-wire” system).
The 2nd subset of core training is trying to perform “core strengthening” drills that bend the spine. Let me explain:
Traditional, hypertrophy driven exercise looks to make the muscles “pop” by isolating certain muscle groups and shortening/lengthening them under load (think of the biceps curl).
While this style of training is safe (albeit not very functional) for most of the joints in your arms and legs, it is not at all safe for your spine.
Exercises that take the spine through its full range of motion and then loading it throughout these ranges are dangerous, and are the cause of SO MANY of our problems in the gym.
Exercises like sit ups, crunches, supermans, and Russian twists might give you that wonderful “burn” everyone is looking for in the gym, but they have consistently been shown to place unacceptably high loads on the spine in non-neutral positions.
Believe me when I say that if you’re doing these exercises and you haven’t developed back pain yet, chances are you will.
The spine handles loads the best in a neutral position. Period.
There are plenty of safe ways to load and stress your spine from this neutral position, that will not only teach it stability, but also allow it to move freely with stability through its entire range of motion.
Now that I’ve totally taken the wind out of your sails and made you think you’ve been hurting yourself in the gym your whole life, allow me to make you feel a little better…
Because whether you’re reading this because you’re already in pain and you’re looking for new exercises to help, or you’re someone looking to avoid any injuries as the result of a lack in core stability, understanding what constitutes a “core exercise” is really important – and it just so happens that I have the answers for you right here:
ANYTHING can be a core exercise…
Annoying answer, right!?
I would take things one step further, and suggest that any sort of “core only” exercise should either be in the warm up, cool down, or between sets of a multi-joint, full-body movement.
Here’s the deal,
if you’re doing them correctly, full body movement exercises can, and SHOULD, work on your core.
Gray Cook, co-founder of Functional Movement Systems says it best when he suggests that we need to train movements, not muscles.2
Your mother didn’t post a 12-week calendar on your crib when it was time to learn how to crawl that marked “back and bi’s” every Tuesday with “leg day” on Fridays, did she?
Of course not, that would be ridiculous.
But you developed the core stability and mobility around your arms/legs needed to crawl. You learned to turn your head, roll around, pull yourself up onto all fours, and finally….you started crawling.
I’m not telling you to lay down and roll around for exercise (but I mean hey – let’s not rule anything out), but what I am suggesting is full body movements like squats, deadlifts, push-ups, and pull-ups are ideal because they teach appropriate motor control (stability) while you move freely, usually across several joints.
They provide your body with ample strength and freedom of movement, while also fine-tuning the core so that it hums along with the rest of the body’s “orchestra.”
Oh, and a fun side-effect of training movements – the muscles involved get strong and resilient, and you don’t have to waste time isolating each little one hoping they will just work appropriately because they’re strong (which they won’t).
The muscles are stupid pieces of meat. Movement is controlled by the brain. Assuming bigger muscles are going to function better is like assuming the people with the most muscle will hit the golf ball the farthest.
“Mass moves mass,” right?
Only if you use it correctly, and to do that, your body has to understand how to move correctly –
i.e., train movements, NOT muscles.
Understandably, what makes choosing an appropriate exercise routine difficult is that there are SO MANY options.
And since there is no, single, exercise that exercises every single muscle in the core in every single direction, the basic advise that I will pass to you from Dr. Stuart McGill (world’s leading low back biomechanist) is this:
try to incorporate pushing, pulling, carrying, and lifting work into your exercise routine.3
Incorporating a variety of these drills will help you build muscular endurance of the core. Having muscular endurance is much more important to your body’s health and performance, than is muscular strength (once again why I choose to think of it as “core stability”).
If you’re looking to “master” the core, I highly recommend seeking books by Pavel Tsatsouline, who is credited with bringing the kettlebell to America, but has also published a number of books that focus heavily on core stiffness training. They’re easy to read and understand, and provide a TON of useful training tips.
It’s important to understand that there are of course “levels” to these drills.
if you’re rehabbing a low back, the core stiffening exercises need to be lower loads to mitigate the risk of irritating the issue. But as your spine becomes more resilient, we should begin loading the spine in a multitude of positions and directions.
The final thing you need to understand about core stiffness…
I realize the majority of this post has been surrounding spine-related issues; however, in the absence of core stability, the body usually has 2 choices when it comes to movement.
1 – risk injury and allow you to keep moving through full range of motion, OR
2- recruit other muscles (e.g., hamstrings) to stiffen and help provide extra core stability, thus limiting distal mobility (i.e., mobility in your extremities)
No one ever complains about a “stability and motor control problem.”
We feel the stiffness, assume we need to stretch it, and when that doesn’t work, we essentially feel out of options.
I recommend we stop chasing symptoms, and start tracing the limited distal mobility to the real smoking gun…
The lack of core stability.
Don’t misinterpret this as “all hamstrings are tight because of core instability.”
The simple takeaway should be this: lack of stability and motor control can limit freedom of movement, but can feel exactly the same as tight joints and muscles.
And at the end of the day, a stable core is key for a healthy body.
1 – McGill, Stuart. Introduction to the Issues and Scientific Approach Unique to This Book. In: McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. 3rd ed. Backfitpro; 2016.
2 – Cook, Gray et al. Movement. 11the ed. On Target Publications; 2010.
3 – McGill, Stuart. Next Level Training: Regaining Your Active Lifestyle. In: McGill, Stuart. Back Mechanic: The secrets to a healthy spine your doctor isn’t telling you. 2nd ed. Backfitpro; 2015.
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