If there's anything we all want; it's a better version of our core, right? The media seems to tell us that it's important for everything we do – from fitness to fashion to heart health and beyond. But based on our conversations with folks at BASE everyone seems to have a different idea of what the "core" actually is. So before we jump into our "ab day" workouts, we should understand the core and its purpose. So what do you think it is? Try to answer the questions below:
Having a great "core" means:
a) Having a six-pack set of abs that's visible
b) Being able to plank for at least 2 minutes
c) Fluid balance and activation of the back, abdominals, diaphragm and pelvic floor
d) The ability to maintain a rigid midsection no matter the intensity of the external force
Surprisingly to many, it's not about the washboard abs. In fact, we've treated lots of folks here at BASE who have great looking abs – but terrible core strength, leaving them with back pain. What we want you to take away from this quiz is that core strength isn't just about one thing – it's a balance across a system that includes muscular control, breathing and continence . Think of it as an enclosure around your spine. The diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor at the bottom, the abdominals in front and the back muscles in the well... back.
All of these systems work together to
1) Protect your back
2) Give your limbs a stable base to work from.
Lets take a closer look at the muscles involved. The core muscles can be split up into 2 categories: Deep muscles that stabilize your spine (e.g. transversus abdominus, multifidus) and Superficial muscles that create torque (e.g. rectus abdominus, obliques. erector spinae).
Both types of muscle are important, as they both contribute the stability of the spine, but there are a number of problems with only doing traditional core exercises like sit-ups and crunches.
1. They only target the superficial muscle. This ignores all the muscles that create stability by attaching from one vertebrae to the next i.e. your fine control
2. Repetitive flexion (bending forward) movement is actually a risk factor for disc injury in the low back
3. Yes, these exercises target the large abdominal muscles, but not in the way they're designed to work i.e. it's not functional
It's important that the exercises you do work all the muscles involved in core stability and do so in a way that reflects the timing and patterning these muscles use in real life movements.
Why is core strength important?
You use your core in everything you do, from sitting to standing to running. When you're sitting (correctly), those deep muscles are humming along, working at a low intensity to keep your spine in good alignment. When you walk, your deep and superficial muscles work in a perfect rhythm to stabilize your spine and keep you moving (think of the rotation that happens around your trunk when you swing your arms). When you run, things really kick into high gear. While running, your core is crucial for absorbing shock, transferring the load throughout the body and minimizing energy loss. A strong core ensures that the force you create in one part of your body transfers to where you need it. Consider the way energy created by the legs and hips transfers to the shoulder, arm and wrist during a tennis serve. In other words, having a robust core can make you a smoother, faster runner, give you a more powerful tennis serve, or just keep you from having back pain after a long day at work.
How do you know if you have strong deep muscles?
There's a simple exercise you can do to start to evaluate this.
1) Lie down on the floor, on your back, with your knees bent. Make sure you are relaxed – this means you're not arching your low back and you're not pressing your low back down to the floor
2) Slowly bring both knees toward you and lower them back down to the floor.
3) Breathe normally – don't hold your breath
Evaluate: Were you able to keep your low back stable? Or did your back arch with the effort of moving your knees up and down? Or did you have to press your back down to the floor to keep it stable? Can you maintain normal breathing throughout the process?
If you were able to keep your back stable, great! If you arched your back or pressed it in to the ground – you have some work to do. You should also be able to do this easily without having to hold your breath.
What should a well-rounded core program look like?
Your core workout should incorporate exercises that target both the deep and superficial muscles. The good news is that almost any free weight, cable or kettlebell exercise targets your entire core. So with a bit of planning you can target your core while working almost any other part of your body.
Here are some ideas that will help activate the entire system rather than just one muscle group at a time:
1) Any seated exercise where you have to maintain a natural curve in your low back
• Sit tall on a stability ball and do a shoulder press
• Sit tall on a stability ball and use the cables to do a row
For each of these exercises, can you sit tall (without letting your trunk lean from side to side) while maintaining a natural curve in your back?
2) Squat – any kind of squat.
3) Bird Dog
• Can you lift your opposite arm and leg without letting your weight shift? You should feel your core take up the load of the elevated arm and leg.
4) Cable work
• You can use the cable to pull in any direction, or even resist movement. Make sure you use your trunk, not your arms to power the movement.
5) Introduce an unstable surface
• The less stable you are, the harder your core has to work.
• You can add a ball or unstable platform like an exercise ball or a Bosu ball to planks, bridges or simple balance exercises
6) Add movement to your planks
• Alternate between a plank and a pike position
• Start in a plank and slowly move your hips in a circle or a figure 8 pattern
• Start in a plank, lift your right hand to the ceiling, then rotate and lift your left hand to the ceiling
Ultimately, core strength is more than about a rippling set of abs. It's a whole system of muscles in your trunk that protects your spine, generates and transmits force and creates a base for your limbs to work from. When your core is strong and balanced, it's a perfect system that not only keeps you pain-free, but can also improve performance tremendously. So the next time you work on your core strength, try incorporating some of the exercise ideas above to get a more comprehensive and effective workout for you core.
We hope that gives you a better understanding of what the core actually is and how to keep it strong!
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