Core strength and function is greatly misunderstood. Many people believe that core strength refers to six pack abs and shredded midriffs.
This is not the case. Your core is like a cylinder that wraps around the middle of your body. It consists of the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transversus abdominis, quadratus lumborum, and the gluteals.
Core Strength Done Wrong
Core strength, like previously mentioned, is not about a “six pack”. In fact, training the rectus abdominus (the muscles that form the six pack) and ignoring the rest of your core, is not only inefficient, it can be dangerous.
It is important to realize that in order to have a properly functioning and mobile body, we need to train using movement patterns that our bodies perform in a natural setting on a regular basis.
In other words, movements that we use to complete daily tasks. I can tell you right now that crunching endlessly isn’t one of those movements. And you could be doing more harm than good.
Aside from vanity, the main reason to train your core muscles is to prevent back injury and other injuries. The core protects the spine and provides it with stability and mobility in order to move safely and pain free.
Improper core training, including focusing only on the rectus abdominus muslces, can cause muscle imbalances that create dysfunction and pain. The opposite of what most active, health seeking people are hoping to accomplish.
Core Strength Done Right
Core strength is most important for stability.
Core stability is multifaceted but basically if you can effectively stiffen your core, you improve athleticism. Your core forms the base for all other activities, from bending, hinging, throwing, reaching, etc. If you can stiffen and brace your core effectively, you can more athletically and safely perform these movements in the gym and your daily life.
Another duty your core performs is to protect your spine. Your spine is a stack of bones that are flexible. Since your muscles allow you to move around to perform functional tasks, you need to have flexibility. However, it is not enough to just have flexibility because we also need to be able to bear loads (lift, carry, push, press). Loads can be weight lifted at the gym, but also our children, groceries, moving boxes, and pets!
The problem with this, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that if you want to bear load, you typically want to have it on a strong, stable, sturdy base. Typically, if you were to design something like this, you would not create it with flexible stacks but with something immovable.
Since our spines are flexible but also need to be sturdy, our core muscles are required to provide this stability. The front, back, and sides of our body need to be stiff and stable or your spine can buckle.
Pain can also result from micro-movements in the joints of the spine when our discs have become flattened due to injury or age. Creating stiffness in the core can help to tame this pain and work to heal from it.
How to Train for Core Strength and Stability
Core strength training should focus on allowing the core muscles to do what they are meant to do — transmit and resist force.
They are not meant to produce force and completing a lot of bending forward movements can cause pain in the low back. Using your core the way it is supposed to — to unite the upper and lower body in it’s movements — will help you create not only a strong core, but a stable and functional one as well.
So how do we do that?
- Plank positions (anti-flexion): when you perform planks properly, you are preventing your low back from arching and your tummy from sagging down. You are resisting the force of gravity and engaging your core.
- Rotations (anti-rotation): when you perform rotation exercises such as wood chops, paloff press, landmine windshield wipers, your core is forced to resist the motion of side-to-side force order to perform a controlled movement.
- Contralaterals (anti-lateral flexion): any unbalanced loads or lateral loads will force the opposite side of your core to engage in order to keep yourself upright and resist the lateral force. Examples are side planks, load carries with one side loaded, kettle bell windmills or standing side bends.
Below is a core strength circuit that I’ve put together using these movement patterns. In this circuit, you will train the glutes and core as one unit for functional strength and mobility.
If you are unaccustomed to any of these movements, look them up on YouTube or have a personal trainer show you them in person.
Please note that if you have had children (as I have), you should check for diastasis recti before performing these movements.