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By Andy McCloy
Over the past few years core training has become very popular. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know that you should “train your core” whether you are a competitive athlete, a weekend warrior, or just someone with a basic and general interest in fitness. With that said, there is a lot of confusion centered around this topic, and that confusion could be something that has you spending more time with a physical therapist fixing your spine, than in the gym working on your “core”.
Let’s start with a working definition of the core. I define the core as everything from the hips to sternum. I am willing to bet that definition is in contrast to what you have heard in the past. You see the core works in conjunction with the entire body. It is certainly not just your “abs”. The core also has two “units” – an “inner unit” and an “outer unit.”
The Inner unit is made up of: transverse Abdominis (TVA), Multifidis, deep pelvic floor muscles, the diaphragm, and the obliques internus (posterior fibers). The main job of the inner core is to provide segmental stabilization and support for the spine but create little to no movement. The muscle should contract reflexively before the initiation of any movement.
The outer core is made up of: Rectus Abdominis (6 pack muscles), obliquus internus, obliquus externus, the gluteus muscle groups, the latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, and quadtratus lumborum, as well parts of the adductors and hamstrings. The outer unit certainly works with the inner system to create more stability, but also controls movement and range of motion.
Now that we have a working definition of your core and a brief description of its job, lets get into the good stuff. Below I plan to tell you what NOT to do first, then give you three exercises that will ensure you are on your way to developing a bulletproof core.
Crunches are bad for you
Let’s get this out of the way first. Crunches and sit ups are not the ideal way to strengthen your core or develop a lean and toned mid section. You cant spot reduce fat so the idea of doing endless crunches to obtain a 6 pack is about as flawed as it gets.
The key to having visible abs is to have a solid nutrition plan! Also research has shown that crunches can actually contribute to back pain.
Most people have very dysfunctional “inner core” function and this leads to instability and tons of friction at the lumbar spine. Not to mention we live in a very “flexion” based world and that’s the last thing we need more of! Too much Spinal flexion, especially in the lumbar spine (low back) will cause back pain. So let go of the crunches!
Bulletproof core training
When you train your core you want to think about creating “stability” before movement. Your core training needs to be simple but progressive. If you start too advanced you have nowhere to go and can create more dysfunction.
Everyone always wants to jump to the most difficult version of an exercise! I encourage you to do the opposite.
At Body Creations Sports Performance we have our big 3 core exercises that all of our athletes begin with. It takes months to create the level of mastery we expect from our clients. The following three exercises can be progressed in many ways but for the sake of this article we will discuss only our level 1 progression.
Planks have become very popular, but quite frankly I’d say 80-90% of people I see performing them do them incorrectly. Our level 1 progression is on your “knees and elbows”. Elbow should be directly under the shoulder, and you should be able to draw a straight line from hip to knee. When standing above the trainee you can place a dowel rod or stick on his back. If the trainee is in the correct position (neutral spine) the stick should have 3 points of contact: The back of your head, between your shoulder blades, and sacrum (area right above the glutes). I’d recommend 2-3 sets of 30sec-1min
Lay flat on your back with arms straight above your chest. Start with legs bent and do a “pelvic tilt” which will flatten your low back to the ground. Think about bringing your pelvis and rib cage closer together. By locking the pelvis down and the rib cage you are insuring that you are “zipped up”. This is a term we use that means your core is locked in and you will be utilizing all of the muscles correctly. Once you are locked in bring the knees up to a 90 degree position. We want 90 degrees of flexion at the ankle, knee, and hip. Our level 1 progression is simply holding this position and combining it with diaphragmatic breathing. Breathe in through your nose for 4 sec, hold it briefly, then exhale in 6 seconds, hold briefly again before repeating this process.
As you inhale your stomach should rise, NOT your chest! A cue that works well for us is to think about breathing through your belly not your chest. We recommend 2-3 sets of 30sec-1min.
Swiss Ball Roll-outs
All you need is a 55cm Swiss ball to perform this exercise. Start in a “tall kneeling position” with your arms extended and fingers touching the ball. We cue our clients to “zip up” by squeezing their glutes and locking the rib cage down. From here slowly reach your arms forward. As you “roll out” more and more of your hand, the forearm will come in contact with the ball. You must maintain a neutral spine position and only “roll out” as far as you can while staying “zipped up”. If the low back concaves or you bend at the waist you have gone too far.
Some people will use a very short range of motion while others will roll all the way out until the elbows are touching the ball. At this point you reverse the motion and return to the starting position. 2-3 sets of 1min.
If you follow this advice and exercises described above you will be well on your way to developing a bullet proof core. The exercises above can be progressed in many different ways. However, you should focus on mastery.
Perform the above exercises three times a week to bullet proof your core and improve the form and execution of all other lifts.
Learn more about strength training and performance enhancement services with Andy McCloy and Body Creations, Inc (BCI)