Here we are talking about your core again like it might be important or something. Well, it is! That’s because your core goes beyond the 6-pack abs that a few “lucky” people have the luxury of owning. It serves some important functions including spinal and pelvic stabilization as well as respiration (breathing). Before we jump into how to train and strengthen your core, let’s review what structures make up this fine area of yours in the first place.
We like to discuss the core musculature as creating a canister and it is made up of the following parts:
- Diaphragm – The roof
- Pelvic Floor – The floor. You can also think of the pelvic floor as a second diaphragm
- Multifidi – The back wall. These are small muscles of the back that act as spinal stabilizers. NOT the big thick back muscles.
- Abdominals – The side and front walls. ALL OF THE ABDOMINALS. Not just the ones in the front. Including rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques and transverse abdominis.
Check back here to see how the core functions.
Now that we’ve reviewed the anatomy and actions of the core, let’s talk about how to and how not to train it.
How not to train your core: Sit-ups. Let’s just get this one out of the way right now…sit-ups suck. But why?
- Well, if we simply look at it from an anatomical perspective, we see that all we really work in a sit-up is the rectus abdominis. We completely ignore all the other muscles. By over developing the RA and ignoring the other structures, we create imbalance and ultimately degrade the core’s ability to create stabilization.
- Sit-ups involve repetitive flexion (forward bending) of the lumbar spine (low back) under pressure, which is a nice little recipe for back pain, especially discogenic back pain. The more sit-ups you do, the more likely you are to develop back issues. Ideally, we would be training our core to stabilize and protect our low back. Therefore, we do not want to do exercises that are responsible for creating back pain.
- Although sitting up is a movement necessary for activities of daily living, it is not the primary function of the core. Sit-ups simply ignore the overall function of the core which is stabilization and respiration. For this reason, we prefer using exercises that properly engage the core and improve its overall functional capacity.
- Multi-joint exercises: squats, deadlifts, pull-ups. When done correctly, these exercises and demand stabilization. With your core properly engaged, you now have a solid anchor point for the muscles of the extremities to attach to. You now have much better muscle balance around joints and additionally, can create more power. Muscle EMG studies looking at muscle activity have shown that sit-ups use the least amount of core musculature, planks and other static holds are somewhere in the middle and multi-joint exercises like the ones listed above require the highest amount of core musculature activity.
- Loaded Carries – Pick up heavy objects such as kettlebells or dumbbells and carry them around. It really is that simple. We are big fans of loaded carries at Elite Spine & Sport for several reasons. First, depending on how you carry the weights (one arm, two arms, hanging at your sides, up on your shoulders, overhead, etc.) will create different stability demands on your core. Second, loaded carries are safe for just about anybody to perform. We can work with high level athletes as well as a deconditioned person suffering from back pain and train their core using carries. Lastly, loaded carries are a great way to keep the core muscles under tension (working) for longer time periods.
- Chops/Lifts (anti-rotation exercises) – Another favorite at Elite Spine & Sport. Chops and lifts are very safe exercises which makes them great in a physical rehabilitation setting, but also allow for lots of variety in movements and difficulty. With such great scalability everybody from couch potatoes to Olympians can benefit from chops and lifts.
The previously listed exercises are by no means exhaustive. There is lots of room for creativity. If you’re looking to properly train your core, we suggest using these 3 criteria to determine if an exercise is worth doing:
- Respects the actual functions of the core.
- Uses as many of the muscles as possible.
- Does not increase injury risk.
With our next post we will breakdown a few of our favorite corrective core exercises and how we use them in the chiropractic and physical rehabilitation setting. If you are suffering from back pain, shoulder pain, or just about any other pain, you won’t want to miss this one. Until then, let’s continue to move better and then move often.