Core Training Overview
Updated: Oct 15, 2018
Abdominal (or abs) training is one of the most misunderstood areas of training. Workouts of all kinds are finished with 'abs blasts', 'core scorchers' and any number of other similarly named routines which promise to strengthen the core and provide six-pack abs.
Most of these routines feature high-repetition-flexion-based abs exercises that offer little in the way of athletic performance development or functional strength and fitness.
Additionally, many of the exercises exacerbate poor posture, tighten up the hips and contribute to (if not cause) lower back pain.
Despite this, many people still dedicate 20 minutes, and sometimes entire sessions, to high-repetition flexion-based abdominal exercises under the false impression that they are strengthening their core.
It's important to understand the role of your core so it can be trained safely and effectively. Your core is not just the abdominals you see on the front page of fitness
magazines and its primary role is not for selfies and hash tagging chicken and spinach!
What is the Core?
Your rectus abdominis (ab muscles you see in the mirror), transverse abdominis and internal and external obliques are the muscles commonly referred to as the core.
However, the core can be thought of as all of the muscles from just below your chest to just below your hips.
The core is often referred to as a cylinder of muscles as it is made up of muscles on both the front and back of the body, as well as muscles that wrap around the spine. Some of the core muscles can be seen in the mirror (the superficial muscles) and others can't be seen because they are deeper lying.
What Does the Core Do?
The core’s role is to stabilise the spine – a strong core keeps you rigid, stable and safe in the face of evil forces that could potentially cause damage to your spine.
The core resists flexion, extension and rotation – i.e. stops you being twisted, pulled and forced into positions your spine doesn’t want to be in. When something causes rounding, extending and twisting to argue about who gets first dibs on causing the spine pain, the core’s job is to ensure your spine is protected.
How does the Core Protect Your Spine?
As mentioned previously, the muscles of the core are almost like a 'cylinder' around the spine that contract to tighten and stabilise your spine as well as preventing it from flexing, extending or rotating.
Basically, your mid-section muscles rally around your spine so the spine can stay neutral, stable and safe.
When your trunk is rigid and stable it’s easier and quicker for force to be transmitted through it from the working muscles to the task that requires the force.
For example, during a squat force is transmitted from the legs, through the core and to the barbell in order to prevent it from crushing you.
People tell me I’m working my core when I squat and deadlift, how so?
Squatting and deadlifting requires you to stabilise your spine by contracting the muscles of your core (bracing) and remain in this braced position throughout the duration of a set. 'Bracing' activates the muscles of the core and requires them to work hard.
When performing compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and overhead presses it's important to maintain a neutral spine. When a bar is placed on your back — as in a back squat — there are compressive forces being placed on your skeletal system.
These forces are caused by the weight of the barbell and gravity pulling the barbell towards the ground. Your spine is between the ground and the barbell and although gravity sees that your spine is in the way, it doesn’t care (very inconsiderate) so if you don’t brace properly then gravity’s act of pulling the barbell towards the floor will crush your back... Bad...
In order to avoid your discs being crushed, your body has to create a stiff and rigid torso to withstand the compressive forces. Doing so activates the muscles in your core a whole lot more than any 'ab crunchie' could. It also results in all of your muscles working in tandem (as opposed to isolating just one) and also keeps you in a strong posture.
Exercises to Avoid
Avoid high-rep-flexion-based abs exercises such as 'ab crunchies, ab curls, sit-ups, bicycles' and their variations. Those exercises which require you to adopt a hunched over position are bad for posture, hips and the lower back and offer next to nothing in the way of functional enhancement.
Exercises to Train the Core (and abs!)
Compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and overhead presses will provide most people with plenty of core training.
For those who want to do a little extra, start off with basic exercises like planks and side planks before moving to more advanced exercises such as birddogs and anti-motion core strength exercises.
Medicine ball throws can train the rotary core and loaded carries are also one of my favourite 'core' exercises to do with clients.
Be smart when training your core or 'abs.'
Think about the positions an exercise is placing you in and whether it will offer any improvements in functional strength or muscle.
Avoid high-rep-flexion-based abs exercises and try to train the core in a functional way by using compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, medicine ball throws and loaded carries.
Help others improve their core training by sharing this article! Thanks, Jon