Core Strength is a big buzzword of late. Everywhere you look, there are flashy You Tube sites and Facebook Memes aimed at “giving you six pack abs” or helping you to “strengthen your core”.
But what exactly is your core, and why should you care about strengthening it?
Merriam Webster defines it as a “central part of a body, mass or part”.
Wikipedia’s website defines it as this:
“In anatomy, the core refers, in its most general of definitions, to the body minus the legs and arms. Functional movements are highly dependent on the core, and lack of core development can result in a predisposition to injury. The major muscles of the core reside in the area of the belly and the mid and lower back (not the shoulders), and peripherally include the hips, the shoulders and the neck.
Major muscles included are the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae (sacrospinalis) especially the longissimus thoracis, and the diaphragm. Minor core muscles include the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius..
The core is used to stabilize the thorax and the pelvis during dynamic movement and it also provides internal pressure to expel substances (vomit, feces, carbon-laden air, etc.).”
Since Wikipedia is open source and an often cited resource, (and it can be corrected and edited ad nauseum), let’s assume their definition is generally agreed upon for our purposes. Essentially, the core is everything but the arms and legs, and let’s also exclude the head. We’ll include the neck, lats and trapezius as minor core muscles as mentioned above, and although the glutes play a role in the stabilization of the pelvis and helping to maintain upright posture, we’ll not consider them as part of the trunk/core either for the purpose of this article.
The skeletal structures of the core protect some of the most precious human organs (heart, digestive system and lungs), but it also protects the bulk of our central command system—that is to say the spine, our central nervous system circuitry emanating from the brain.
It’s no accident then, that maintaining strength and stability (another buzz word) is paramount to not only optimal day to day living, but especially so for athletes. Athletes ask more from their bodies that the general everyday Joe, so it is with that in mind (as our clients are either burgeoning athletes or wanting to be athletic) that we focus on doing whatever it takes to enable the broadest ranges of motion for them as well as the most optimal ways to build their strength and conditioning.
Since 97% of our clients are either over 30, out of shape, or used-to-be-athletes when they enter our gym, they begin via our Fundamentals Course then segue into our beginner group, which we call Function (yes, we have been influenced by OPEX and James Fitzgerald). This is where we take great pains to ensure we hit their core with a wide variety of exercises designed to strengthen and balance and build a base for a generally weaker starting clientele.
Isometric holds are our general starting point, with planks, side planks, dead bugs and clam side planks being some of our favorite exercises. From there we branch off to variations like band side planks, side planks with top leg raised and lowered, plank position pelvic tilts, leg lowering variations, dead bugs with leg extension, siren style superman holds and one-arm planks with zero tolerance for pelvic tilt.
However, we also add some movement to the mix with exercises like Pallof Presses, Hanging Straight Leg Raises, Knee Raises, Plate Twists, Sandbag Half Moons, even Seated Medicine Balls Balanced Side to Sides.
If a client shows adequate propensity in the above, we also start out beginners with lighter weighted elements like goblet squats, tempo back squats for sets of 10, dumbbell crossover RDLs, farmer’s carries, even overhead squats with a PVC for starters.
As athletes progress through these variations, they are ultimately trained to squat gradually heavier, do more ballistic movements like toes to bar, progress to heavier RDL’s, even train deadlifts.
That being said, even for our most advanced athletes, we never drop out many of the basic exercises to keep in varied core training.
Progression is critical in training, be it for strength, power, speed or endurance. Assuming that a lifter’s trunk will develop stability solely by squatting may be right, but it also may be wrong for that lifter, and we don’t think it’s worth the risk to find that out. Even if a lifter is strong, is employing a stellar vasalva maneuver and is tightening his mid-section with all he’s got, one mishap of accidental over flexion, or extension and he can be out with a back injury for weeks. Holding a heavy bar while squatting only trains the isometric capacities of an athlete’s trunk. It is our belief that by also training his core musculature in flexion and extension, that we can extend that accident prevention that much further. And despite the important organs protected by the trunk, protecting the spine is the most critical from our training perspective. (Training the heart and lungs are also critical, but trunk/core strength is clearly not the main way to protect those and will be taken up in another article.)
It has been said that all injuries come from imbalances. In basic strength training, much of this can be controlled. However, when we throw more ballistic movements into the mix, minor pelvic rotations can occur, accidental hyper-extensions can happen, thoracic rotation can occur and there is a greater chance for the unknown to interfere. Greater control of the musculature from which these ballistic movements emanate seems a likely starting place to emphasize then. Ask anyone who stops doing something how quickly that particular ability deteriorates, and we think you’ll understand our viewpoint on continually rotating a broad range of core strengthening exercises with the belief that if we hit key areas frequently and from different angles/purposes, we have a greater change of maintaining strength and flexibility in movement in those areas when we most need them.
Strengthening the musculature of the larger core musculature along with the smaller more internal less cited ones is but a starting point in handling the issues that can occur with athletic training. Dealing with the tight, overworked muscles that develop and bind up when we train is the second side of this coin.
Delving deep into the Iliacus with a lacrosse ball is one way to loosen up one of the deeper muscles that tends to get tight, the Mermaid stretch is another tool we regularly employ to loosen-up tight obliques. Delving into the erectors with a double-tied pair of lacrosse balls is a good starting point tool to loosen erectors.
That being said, we absolutely cannot under-emphasize the effect the hips and shoulder girdle have on the core structure—especially in the way that tight hips and glutes affect the ability or inability of the spine to flex or extend when needed or the way stuck scapula can inhibit thoracic rotation, which also wreaks spinal havoc down the chain. Dealing with the core then, can only be a starting point, as like it or not, we are not bodies without limbs only named Bob, but working complex structures with full complexities.
We’ll address those issues in another blog post.
- “Merriam Webster, “Core” definition, copyright Merriam Webster, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/core
- “Wikipedia, Core Anatomy,” last modified on 23 December 2014, at 11:17., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Core_%28anatomy%29