Training the core
Get strength, endurance and definition in your abs the RIGHT way!
One of the top goals for many people in their fitness programs is to have a slimmer waist with defined abs. Fitness magazines, websites, supplement providers and gym equipment/device retailers all advertise various techniques and contraptions to help you get the look that you desire. It’s completely understandable that this is a goal for many people, but it should not be the only reason why you strengthen your core. The core musculature plays a vital role in keeping us healthy and injury/pain free. It acts as a support system to our back, distributing, absorbing and dampening forces that act on our spine. Ask anyone who has dealt with low back pain, it is debilitating, it takes a long time to heal, and it can costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars in lost wages, anti-inflammatories/painkillers and treatment. Developing strength and endurance in this musculature can help keep your back healthy, and it can also give you the look you want!
To properly understand how to train the core musculature it is helpful to know the individual muscles, their function and location.
This is the muscle we most associate with “abs” and “six packs” it is located on the front of the body overtop our stomach. It’s function when isolated is spinal flexion, lateral flexion and rotation. When the body is moving it helps resist spinal extension, lateral flexion and rotation. This muscle plays a vital role in stabilizing both the lower back and hips.
It is the outer most muscle on the sides of the body and originates from the outer surface of ribs 4 through 12. When contracted the external obliques can flex the spine to the front/sides and creates contralateral (opposite side) rotation. When looking at its role in human movement it helps us resist spinal extension, lateral flexion and rotation. The external obliques also provide stability to the lower back and hips (lumbo-pelvic-hip complex).
The internal oblique is located on the side of the body originating from the front of the hips and lower back. It connects to ribs 9-12 and when contracted creates bilateral spinal flexion, lateral flexion and ipsilateral (same side) rotation. It is responsible for helping to prevent spinal extension, rotation and lateral flexion, providing stability to the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.
This is a particularly important muscle as having an underactive transverse abdominis may place you at risk for developing lower back pain. The muscle when contracted increases intra-abdominal pressure and works together with the internal oblique, multifidus, and deep erector spinae to stabilize the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.
So how do I develop my core muscles?
For years it has been drilled into us by magazines, old school fitness coaches, and websites that doing 100’s upon thousands of crunches or sit-ups were the path to a well defined core. The truth of the matter is this is poor advice that can lead to people developing low back pain.
Over the years studies into low back pain have repeatedly found that the main injury mechanism in many back injuries is a combination of uncontrolled flexion and rotation. The word uncontrolled is very important, because in essence this is what our core musculature is meant to prevent. The core musculature is meant to resist flexion and resist rotation. Think about it, how many times during a day do you contract your abs and try to curl your upper body towards your legs, outside of the gym? Not very often. But how many times do you pick something up either in front of the body, beside the body in your hands, or carry a back pack? Probably quite a bit. So what keeps your body from bending in the direction of the weight you are carrying? YOUR CORE! So if this is what we need the core to be able to do, why then would we try to train it using movements that we never use in everyday life? The answer is we shouldn’t.
Instead of training the muscles in a way that is at best is of little use to us, we should be training them in a way that replicates our needs. This spares the spine of un-needed stress associated with repeated flexion, provides functional training and allows us to develop strength and definition in the same muscle groups.
So which exercises should you do?
The exercises below are examples of how to train the core musculature in a functional way, sparing the spine from repeated flexion.