Fitness professionals and strength coaches have been incorporating core training for injury prevention, rehabilitation and performance enhancement. The goal is to develop a strong group of core muscles that can provide a solid foundation for the movement of the arms and legs.
These muscles can act as an isometric or dynamic stabilizer for movement, transfer force from one extremity to another or initiate movement itself.
What the core is?
First off, let’s start by defining what the core actually is.
If you were to ask most frequent gym-goers what their core is you might get a response such as “it’s your abs“. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Goodman, 2004), the core musculature are all the muscles that are responsible for creating and controlling movement of the axial skeleton in the thoracic spine and lumbopelvic region.
Our core has three-dimensional depth and functional movement in all three planes of motion.
Different experts include different muscles in this list, but in general, the muscles of the core run the length of the trunk and torso. The following list includes the most commonly identified core muscles as well as the lesser known groups.
- Rectus Abdominis – Located along the front of the abdomen, this is the most well-known abdominal muscle and is often referred to as the “six-pack” due to its appearance in fit and thin individuals.
- Erector Spinae- This group of three muscles runs along your neck to your lower back.
- Multifidus – Located under the erector spinae along the vertebral column, these muscles extend and rotate the spine.
- External Obliques – located on the side and front of the abdomen
- Internal Obliques – located under the external obliques, running in the opposite direction
- Transverse Abdominis (TVA) – Located under the obliques, it is the deepest of the abdominal muscles (muscles of your waist) and wraps around your spine for protection and stability.
- Hip Flexors – located in front of the pelvis and upper thigh. The muscles that make up the hip flexors include: psoas major,illiacus, rectus femoris, pectineus, sartorius
- Gluteus medius and minimus – located at the side of the hip
- Gluteus maximus, hamstring group, piriformis – located in the back of the hip and upper thigh leg
- Hip adductors – located at medial thigh
So now that you know what the core muscles are, what really defines a functional core musculature? Again if you ask your friend who frequents the gym, they might say having a “six-pack” means you have a functional core. But let us look back at what the core musculature does, it creates, and controls movement of the axial skeleton. There are plenty of people out there who have a “six-pack” but they cannot functionally brace their spine or lumbopelvic region.
The reason being that when most people train what they think is the core, they do it with the training goal of increasing the aesthetics of their abdominal musculature. Being that a lot of these people train in the most familiar form of training in the gym, which is isolation of muscles to create hypertrophy in a desired area, they never utilize the muscles of the core in a way that can transfer to actual day to day activities outside the gym, that is what defines true functional training (Willardson, 2007).
Your core most often acts as a stabilizer and force transfer center rather than a prime mover. Yet consistently people focus on training their core as a prime mover and in isolation. This would be doing crunches or back extensions versus functional movements like deadlifts, overhead squats, and pushups, among many other functional closed chain exercises.1 By training that way, not only are you missing out on a major function of the core, but also better strength gains, more efficient movement, and longevity of health.
We must look at core strength as the ability to produce force with respect to core stability, which is the ability to control the force we produce. According to Andy Waldhem in his Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models, there are “five different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function”.2 Without motor control and function, the other three components are useless, like a fish flopping out of water no matter how strong you are or how much endurance you have.
It is important to first achieve core stability to protect the spine and surrounding musculature from injury in static and then dynamic movements. Second, we want to effectively and efficiently transfer and produce force during dynamic movements while maintaining core stability. This can include running, performing Olympic lifts, or picking up the gallon of milk far back in the fridge while keeping your back safe. Research has shown that athletes with higher core stability have a lower risk of injury. This is proven perhaps most effectively by the Functional Movement Screen.
Benefits of good core strength
- A Strong Core Reduces Back Pain
Abdominals get all the credit for protecting the back and the foundation of strength, but they are only a small part of what makes up the core. In fact, it is weak and unbalanced core muscles that are linked to low back pain. Weak core muscles result in a loss of the appropriate lumbar curve and a swayback posture. Stronger, balanced core muscles help maintain appropriate posture and reduce strain on the spine.
- A Strong Core Improves Athletic Performance
Because the muscles of the trunk and torso stabilize the spine from the pelvis to the neck and shoulder, they allow the transfer of power to the arms and legs. All powerful movements originate from the center of the body out, and never from the limbs alone. Before any powerful, rapid muscle contractions can occur in the extremities, the spine must be solid and stable and the more stable the core, the most powerful the extremities can contract.
- A Strong Core Improves Postural Imbalances
Training the muscles of the core helps correct postural imbalances that can lead to injuries. The biggest benefit of core training is to develop functional fitness; the type of fitness that is essential to daily living and regular activities.
Core strengthening exercises are most effective when the torso works as a solid unit and both front and back muscles contract at the same time, multi-joint movements are performed and stabilization of the spine is monitored. Abdominal bracing is a basic technique used during core exercise training. To correctly brace, you should attempt to pull your navel back in toward your spine. This action primarily recruits transverse abdominus. You should be able to breathe evenly while bracing and no hold your breath.
There are many exercises that will strengthen the core. A large number of core strengthening exercises can be done at home with no equipment while some require the use of equipment and gadgets.
To build a strong functional core, you need to train more diverse than just doing crunches. Crunches only work the core in one plane of motion (transverse plane of motion). Focus on flexion, rotation, lateral flexion and the posterior core to address all three planes of motion.
Do not just condition your core lying down. Bridges, planks, knee tucks, rollouts and leg raises will help you to functionally strengthen the core in all three planes of motion. Core exercises performed in the upright position, target balance, stability and core strength. These exercises provide sport-specific core conditioning and have an excellent carry-over to daily activities.
It is also important to understand that many functional exercises strengthen the core muscles without isolating them. Push-ups, inverse rows, the chop and lift exercises, the Olympic lifts, the various single-leg deadlift variations require adequate core strength and stability to perform the exercise with proper form.
Isolated vs integrated
The classic philosophy of training in the gym is to isolate the muscle groups to maximize fatigue and stimulate growth. This is a highly effective way to create more muscle tissue, hence the classic way of training for bodybuilding (Schoenfeld, 2010). Weighted sit ups, dumbbell side bends, and leg raises are classic resistance training exercises that work the core. There are a few problems with this style of training though. When these types of isolated exercises are done, they don’t really resemble anything that someone would do in the real world. In other words, there are very few movements that resemble a sit up or side bend in any other context outside of training in the gym.
Another problem with the isolationist style of training the core musculature is that many of the crucial muscles that are necessary to properly brace and move your core are neglected, such as the transverse abdominus, the spinal erectors, and the upper back muscles. In addition, such moves as the classic sit up and leg raise stress the low back due to improper bracing strategies. This is pretty common, as the mindset for training the core that has been past down from generation of gym-goer to gym-goer is the same as that for training most other muscles, and that is isolate and work to failure (although it is safe to argue that no muscle should be exclusively trained in isolation). This can also be dangerous as when the muscles in the core reach fatigue, they cannot brace the spine properly, predisposing you to injury. Indeed, to achieve a truly strong core you must train functionally.
Functional core training has become more prevalent nowadays, but to the average person, they will probably have little to no idea what it is. To start, functional core training will put emphasis on most, if not all, of the muscles surrounding the core: the abdominals, the obliques, the spinal erectors, the rhomboids and traps, and the gluteals. In addition, the exercises you perform are much more relevant to activities and movement you will perform outside of the gym. That is because, as stated earlier, it is necessary to train all the core muscles to control, create, and stabilize the movements of the core (Willardson, 2007). This is necessary so that actions we perform and the movement we create will be efficient and keep us free from injury.
What are the best core exercises?
Core exercises are most effective when they engage many muscles throughout the torso that cross several joints and work together to coordinate stability. Core muscles need to work as a unit, contract at the same time, across joints in order to stabilize the spine. Some of the best core exercises are simple bodyweight exercises, including the following.
- Dragon Flag Advanced Core Exercise. Credited to martial arts master, Bruce Lee. The Dragon Flag is arguably one of the most advanced bodyweight exercises you can do.
- The Quick Core Workout
If you want a simple, effect core workout, this routine doesn’t take much time or equipment but covers all the basic core muscles.
- Plank Exercise:
- Side Plank Exercise:
- The Basic Push Up
- Push Ups
- Back Bridge
- Hip Lift
- Oblique Twist
- Plank on a Balance Ball
- Lunge With Twist
By combining some of the best core exercises performed one after another, you will get an effective core workout that is also great as a part of your warm ups and cool downs.
Keep in mind that ab exercise alone isn’t enough for an athlete. Combining these core exercises with sport-specific training will help you develop the endurance, skill and coordination to excel at your sport while reducing fatigue and injury.
For some examples of the advanced core exercises check our video clip: