Core Training 101

Author: Dave Emond, BSc Hon., PTS

We hear the term core so often in the gym setting. Many of us prioritize training this area of the body, however there is a lack of knowledge on how to do so efficiently. In terms of functionality, your muscles that make up your core are primarily stabilizers for your spine. This includes superficial muscles such as your rectus abdominis (abs), your oblique muscles, your erector spinae (back extensors) as well as deeper muscles such as your transverse abdominis, psoas and quadratus lumborum.

Spinal stability is key

Some of these muscles act as support wires for your spine and must therefore have an equal amount of force in any direction. Otherwise, this structure will be much less stable. With instability comes danger of injury coupled with the dreaded words low back pain. This is why having a stable core is much more beneficial than a stronger core. Dynamic movements can make you look like the beach king or queen you've always wanted to be, but they will also impede your ability to create symmetrical stiffness.

Stability and power

A stiffer torso is not only safer, but also allows for greater mobility and power generation at your hips and shoulders. Would you feel stable lifting a heavy object or performing a task standing in a canoe, or would you feel more comfortable doing this same task on a flat slab of pavement? Likely the latter. Your shoulders and hips work along the same basis. A stiff solid base allows for better control of your arms and legs. If you can't create symmetrical core stiffness, your other lifts, sports or activities will take a hit in performance.

Training the core musculature

So how do we get a stable core? There are movements and techniques we should and shouldn't do.

The Do's

It is always good to begin with proper posture. Starting with a neutral spine by squaring up the ribcage and the hips is the optimal position. Stiffen up in a neutral standing position, and then maintain that stiffness while going to the position of your activity/exercise.

Exercises that focus on the stiffening of the torso such as plank variations, anti-extension or anti-flexion movements and anti-rotational movements should be your main focus while doing core specific training. The exercises should be brief but well controlled. Holding a plank for multiple sets of 10 second bursts is much more beneficial than holding a plank for 30-60 seconds with poor form.

Here are a few simple exercises that can help with increasing core stiffness:

  • Anti-rotational buttress planks/stop-twist planks/Paloff presses
  • Plank variations (normal, side, flexor-moment)
  • Bird Dog variations
  • Rollouts (anti-extension)

The Don'ts

Dynamic movements will not help you attain a stiffer torso. These movements result in a more mobile torso. Weigh the pros vs. the cons: do you want to live/perform better, or do you want great looking abs paired with the risk of back pain or other issues? The following movements should be avoided when possible:

  • Spinal flexion (sit-ups, crunches, or knee tucks, squats or deadlifts at a range of motion larger than the hips allow)
  • Lateral spinal flexion (sideways v-ups, weighted side bends, other lateral bending motions)
  • Over-extension of the spine (repetitive back extensions or exaggerated follow-throughs with deadlifts)
  • Axial rotation about the spine (medicine ball twists, any loaded or repetitive twisting motion that creates deviation of the hips from the shoulders)

Remember that all the movements above result in greater mobility in the spine as opposed to stiffness of the torso. Performing these movements also target one specific group, and can lead to muscular imbalances in the core musculature. Movements that require all the groups to function together are much more efficient at creating stability and stiffness through the torso.

The takeaway:

  • Your core musculature is meant to stabilize (stiffen) your torso
  • Performing movements with good posture will increase core strength
  • A stiffer torso will result in greater mobility and power generation at your shoulders and hips
  • Performing poor movement patterns such as spinal flexion, extension and rotation can result in muscular imbalances and injury such as spinal disk herniation

Whether you are trying to become an elite athlete or you are just trying to live a healthy and efficient lifestyle, remember the purpose of your core musculature and how you should approach increasing performance in those muscles.

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