Let’s Get Hard Core
Ali Othman, CPT
For years now, fitness professionals have impressed upon us the importance of core training. We’ve been told that a strong core will enhance our ability to perform our activities of daily life, reduce the occurrence of lower back pain, improve our reaction time to external stimuli, and even make it easier to load and empty the dishwasher. It would seem that this magical muscle group deserves all the attention it receives; but in order to achieve optimal performance from our core we must first understand its form and function.
The American Council on Exercise defines the core as, “The major muscles that move, support, and stabilize your spine” (Acefitness.org). The core muscles house and protect our spinal cord, the information superhighway stretching between the brain and the rest of the body. They surround and support our vital internal organs, and they cross over the hip joint and give us the ability to flex, extend, and rotate our torso and legs. Take for example the movements involved in reaching down to pick up a pencil, returning to the upright position, then reaching up and twisting your body to put the pencil onto a shelf. This simple action requires the activation of most of the muscles which make up our core. While this activation is largely involuntary, deliberate training of these muscles will allow us to more easily twist, turn, and hold our bodies upright.
For optimal results you can personalize your core training to provide you with benefits specific to your needs. Boxers need to be nimble enough to dodge punches and dynamic enough to return them in the blink of an eye. Golfers need to be able to twist and rotate while remaining accurate enough to strike the ball. Office workers sit at their desks all day, hunched over a keyboard; extended periods of improper posture in this position can result in debilitating back pain. New parents and expecting mothers carry their children in positions which add stress to the lumbar region and can result in long-term soreness and discomfort. There is a reason for all of us to take an interest in strengthening our core, but how and where do we start?
A light anatomy lesson can lead us in the direction of working smarter instead of harder. Our upper bodies are quite heavy, and the spine is the structural support that allows us to stand and walk on two feet instead of all-fours like the overwhelming majority of other living beings. Since our torso doesn’t contain much bone, we rely on our core muscles to wrap around our ribs, spine, and pelvis to keep our spine from compressing and our upper bodies from hunching and falling over. The erector spinae runs parallel along the length of each side of the spine. It straightens our back and helps with side-to-side rotation. The rectus abdominus is a muscle that extends vertically on the front of the body from the pubic bone to the sternum. Many of us know this muscle well, and refer to it as the “6 pack.” When flexed, this muscle allows us bend forward, the action we see during a sit-up or a crunch. The erector spinae works as its antagonist muscle to slow and stop the forward bend, and when flexed it brings us back to the upright position. The internal and external oblique muscles run diagonally up and down both sides of the torso and help to flex and rotate the trunk. Also included in the core are the latissimus dorsi and the trapezius muscles, which make up a massive portion of the outer muscles of the back. These muscles control a huge number of functions in the neck, arms, and shoulders. Below the waist we have the glutes and hamstrings. The glutes are regarded as the strongest muscle in the body, facilitate movement in our hips and legs, and keep your pants from falling to the ground. A well-rounded core training routine should include movements which address each group of core muscles allowing the entire unit to strengthen equally.
Since the core is a group of muscles designed to work together harmoniously, training these muscles most efficiently is best done using a combination of exercises employing two techniques. First, through movements which encourage a synergistic action of motion, or antagonist muscles pulling with equal force in opposite directions causing fluid motion at a joint. Movements like these ensure that the muscles around a joint are equally stressed and do not cause misalignment (Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 2010 Volume: 40, Issue: 2, Pages: 82–94). The second technique uses isometric exercises which require several of your core muscles to contract simultaneously and remain contracted for an extended period. Dr. Edward Laskowski defines isometric exercises as, “Contraction of a particular muscle or group of muscles. The muscle doesn’t noticeably change length and the affected joint doesn’t move” (mayoclinic.org). Squeeze the desired muscles to bring your body into position, and force the muscles to remain contracted to keep your body from moving. The forearm plank and any of its variations are great examples of this type of exercise, and are a great starting point for beginners at the onset of a core training program.
Done with proper form, the forearm plank strengthens the muscles of your deep inner core. The multifidus, transverse abdominus, diaphragm, and the pelvic floor function together as one entity and make up the deep inner core (The Effects of Deep Abdominal Muscle Strengthening Exercises on Respiratory Function and Lumbar Stability; Kim, Eunyoung PhD and Lee, Hanyong PhD). These are muscles you don’t see when looking in the mirror, but strengthening this group of core musculature provides us with better posture, increased capacity to intake oxygen, prevents degeneration of the spinal column by holding the vertebrae in place, and even helps to prevent the onset of age-related urinary incontinence.
To perform the forearm plank, start on all fours on the ground with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Step one foot back at a time until you are in a high plank on your hands and toes with your feet together. Squeeze your glutes and abdominals and lower your arms one at a time until you are resting on your forearms with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders and your palms flat on the ground. Hold in this position for about twenty seconds, rest for another thirty seconds, and repeat for three to four sets. Similar to all exercises, strive for quality rather than quantity. As this becomes easier you can increase your plank time and decrease your rest periods. In order to keep your spine in a neutral position, focus your eyes on the ground in front of your palms. Your goal is to keep your body as straight as possible. If you feel your back starting to dip, squeeze your glutes, retighten your abdominals, and of course remember to breathe (Shape.com).
A great exercise to work your lower core and improve both power and posture is the bridge. This exercise works the hamstrings, glutes, and muscles of the lower back; and just like the plank it can be done anywhere without any equipment. Atrophy in these muscles is a common culprit of hip and lower back pain. To perform the bridge lie on your back, knees bent, feet and palms flat on the ground, and arms stretched down your sides. Tighten your glutes and abdominals and lift your hips off the ground creating a straight line, or a bridge between your knees and your shoulders. Try holding this position for thirty seconds per set, performing three to four sets (Verwellfit.com).
The erector spinae is a muscle that commonly degenerates due to age and inactivity. Its primary function is extension of the back, which causes the chest to push forward and out, putting us in an upright postural position. Well-trained, these muscles can aid in achieving proper spinal alignment. For those of us who spend a major part of the day at a desk, the opposite may be true. There is a simple exercise that can be done anytime, anywhere with a clean floor. To perform the superman, lie face down with your legs straight, and arms stretched forward. Squeeze the muscles of the back and glutes, and raise your torso and legs off the ground. Done correctly, only the hips and the lower stomach will be touching the floor (Livestrong.com). Focus on slowly controlling the movement rather than jerking up and down. Hold at the top of the exercise for a second or two, and then come down slowly keeping your arms and lower legs off the floor throughout the exercise. Do this exercise three to four days a week going for four sets of ten repetitions.
Many exercises can be done at home without any equipment, but if you want to take it to the next level, the cable machine at your local gym is a great place to get a well-rounded core strengthening session. Cable machines allow you to perform a variety of exercises in an almost unlimited number of positions. They also allow for multiple joint movements such as flexion at the shoulders and hips. To perform the cable double-crunch, place the pulley at the lowest setting and lie flat on your back with your head about two feet in front of the machine. Reach behind your head, grab the handle, and lift your feet slightly off the ground; this is your starting position. As you pull the cable down the midline of your body, lift your legs and concentrate on the contraction of your rectus abdominus. Focus on using your core to bring your arms down over your body instead of letting your shoulders do the work.
There is no across-the-board formula for how often you should be working the core muscles. Ideally you should strive for at least three days per week, however each of us is built differently and the intensity of our workouts will differ based on many factors. One person may require more time to recover than another, and one workout might call for more recuperation time than the next. Self-assessment is a key tool in your belt; and as you pay attention to your body’s response to exercise you will gather information about the capacity of your muscles and their necessary recovery time. Design your core exercise program with your own personal goals in mind; change your routine before allowing it to get stale, and before you know it you will be basking in your glorious results.
The information in this article is meant to educate and help you make informed decisions about your fitness health; it is not a substitute for advice from your healthcare professional. Always consult your physician before the onset of any exercise program or change in your diet.
Ali Othman has been an NSCA certified personal trainer for the past 13 years with specialization in weight loss, functional training, muscular hypertrophy, and human nutrition. He also works in the Technical Department at IFANCA and manages IFANCA business activities in South Korea.