A common complaint I hear from new clients is that they have a "weak core." It seems to be a primary focus for them, only to be increasingly emphasized by what we see on television, magazine ads...ok, pretty much everywhere. I sometimes almost cringe when I hear "core" because I know there is likely a solid misunderstanding of what it is and how to train it. You don't need to do 100 crunches a day or buy that sweet new machine that does sit-ups for you. I might even blow your mind and tell you that sit-ups could even be removed from your plan altogether. What? Blasphemy!
I'd like to boil down some information to clear the air and hopefully shed some light on how all of us can improve this vital component of fitness and function in everyday life.
What is the core?
Just like that of an apple, think of a column running through the middle of your torso and expanding outward. Your organs are at the center of it, but there are tissues, muscles and bones wrapping around this column to protect your vital parts. Your pelvic floor, abdominals, obliques, erectors, diaphragm and more are components of your core. It is not just your abs. The core is three-dimensional.
These muscles help us with stability, along with expressing force transfer (think of the olympic lifts or even throwing a baseball). They are not a primary "mover" for us, but rather the middle-man between the upper and lower appendages. Don't down grade the middle-man's importance, though, because he deserves his due. You better pay up.
How to train it.
The core can be trained in a couple different manners: static or dynamic. Static would be your holds, i.e. planks, dead bugs, hollow holds. Dynamic would be something like hanging knees raises/toes-to-bar, v-ups, etc.
Static movements and basic dynamic efforts are the best way to build your base. I am a big fan of planks. Spend a few minutes at home doing center planks, side planks, even mixing in some hollow holds if you really want to accelerate the burn. In my opinion, everyone should be able to hold a plank for a full minute. Not there yet? Get to practicing every day.
Your homework (look them up): planks, hollow holds, superman (arch) holds, dead bugs. Simply doing sit-ups isn't going to be enough. While training the abs has value, sit-ups and crunches aren't doing your low back any favors.
Breathing and Bracing
This is where I'm going to blow your mind. Ready? Barbell movements are incredibly effective in developing the core strength. They are not the ONLY means by which to get stronger and should still be supplemented by movements that don't involve iron. However, knowing HOW to engage your core muscles properly during lifting will not only make your core stronger, but your lifts will go up as a result.
The use of your diaphragm is essential to proper bracing when lifting. Read Nicole's article about the diaphragm and how to use it.
Let's use the example of the back squat. You have what could be significantly heavy weight loaded directly on top of your spinal column and will need your legs to move that weight up and down. Your core is smack-dab in the middle of all this and needs to work just right to keep you safe and get the most benefit from the lift. By adding stability to your body, you are able to produce maximal force through your legs. All the while, your core is presented with the opportunity to get stronger by resisting the compression from the loaded barbell on your back.
The same could be said for overhead presses and dead lifts, among other movements. Try being loose in your mid-section when doing those...it won't be pretty.
My point is that focusing on really activating those muscle groups while lifting will yield great benefits in strengthening your core. It's also an effective practice to avoid injury.
Now that you are more educated on how to improve your core strength, get to practicing! Getting stronger is a skill and knowing how to use your body properly will always yield the best results. If you ever need some one-on-one coaching or want to be part of challenging group classes, give us a shout. We help guide people on their fitness journey every day!
Take advantage of our free trial today.
-Taylor Race, trainer and co-owner at St. Pete Strength and Conditioning / SPSC CrossFit