One of the current buzz-words in the fitness community is “core”. Everyone talks about “core work” and devices that “activate your core.” Stay up a bit too late and catch an infomercial and you’re sure to find something that will “shred your core” (for only four easy installments of $19.99) Frankly, I hate the word. It’s another case of a word being overused, misused, and turned into a marketing term like “organic” or “natural”. But I’m going to use it anyway for the sake of simplicity. I’m not using it in the cliche marketing way, just as a simple way to capture this discussion about the abdominals and lower back.
Defining The Core Typically, when the word “core” is used, it is in reference to the six-pack abdominals and lower back. However, thelist of muscles responsible for stabilizationof the body is much more extensive: “pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis (TVA), 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.” So there are lots of muscles at work and we need to make sure we’re moving in ways that involve all of them.
The Role of The Abdominals and Lower Back While the rectus abdominis is the pretty muscle that we see flexed on the cover of so many fitness magazines, it is only a very small piece of the puzzle. It’s role is actually to pull the shoulders towards the hips, obviously not the only role your midsection plays. The easiest word to sum up what the muscles of your core do is “posture.” By that, I mean they are responsible for holding the upper body in the proper posture for whatever it is you’re doing, be that standing at attention, lifting a bag of garbage into the trash can, or spiking a volleyball.
Obviously posture, as in pulling your shoulders back and standing up tall and proud, is an easy one to see. Support is another major role of these muscles. Think of picking up a basket of laundry, squatting 300 pounds, or putting something up over your head. Your core musculature contracts to hold the body rigid while you control an external object. If you don’t tense your muscles in support of the upper body, you will either falter under the weight of the object or look pretty silly trying to put the can of paint on the shelf.
Finally, the core is responsible for efficient movement. Think of walking up an incline (or walking in general) or a running back stopping on a dime to make a sharp change in direction. If the core is not adequately tensed, the upper body is like a rope, sloppy, moving about, and wasting the energy that the hips and legs are transmitting downwards and upwards (think Equal, But Opposite Forces).
Why You Need A Strong Core The takeaway from the last section is that there is really one key role of the musculature wrapping your core: support. This is necessary to prevent injury to the spinal column. The spine is a rather weak set of joints and is quite prone to injury. So on the surface, there’s the ultimate goal of maintaining function throughout life as a reason to keep your abdominals and lower back adequately strong. But for so many of us, there’s a greater goal than just picking up a three-year old. Quite a few of you, and me included, have an interest in pursuing athletics at some level, whether that’s as an amateur or at a high school or collegiate level. So let’s see how the core is involved in sports.
Since I’m the author of this post, I’m going to start with my love, sprinting. Form is of the utmost importance when running or sprinting. Notice that when you fatigue, the first thing to go is form. As your form deteriorates, your body moves less efficiently. There is more wasted motion in trying to move your weight as there is more slack. Let’s look at a great example (for a point/counter-point and because I love watching this race):
Notice how Michael Johnson keeps his torso upright, shoulders back, and head forward the whole way? Coming down the final stretch, I guarantee he’s working his tail off to keep his upper body from slumping. Now notice the guy in the lane to his right…with about 50m to go, his form breaks down, his speed slows, and he gives up what appears to be two places, from second to fourth. Just like that, he went from medaling to not getting on the stand by running out of steam and not being able to maintain form. His arms could no longer help transmit force through his upper body to his hips due to the sloppiness of his torso. Of course, there’s more to it than just fatigue in the core, but you can’t discount that.
Powerlifters understand the necessity of strong muscles around the midsection. Show me a guy with a triple bodyweight deadlift and I’ll show you someone with unbelievably strong abs and lower back. This guy is unlikely to injure himself picking up a couch. In gymnastics, these support muscles are necessary to hold everything from anL-sitto anIron Cross. Slop in the torso means slop in the hold.
Pick any sport. Basketball? Try jumping as high as you can, but leave your core slack. Your legs and hips generate force into a sloppy mess of an upper body. How high did you jump? Football…you can’t make a strong tackle without strong support of your spine. Again, your lower body is generating driving force and without a strong, rigid upper body, the force is absorbed by a flexing of the spine. Baseball…swinging a bat involves a drive from the feet through the hips, up the body, and through the arms to the bat, as does throwing the ball from the outfield to gun down a runner heading home.
Basically, it boils down to this: if your core is weak, your athletic abilities are diminished. You aren’t fast, you aren’t agile, you aren’t strong, and you’re not powerful if these muscles lack the ability to hold the body in the proper position throughout the movement.
How Not To Work Your “Core” With all of that, let’s consider how most people work their abs: crunches. What exactly are crunches? I doubt I need to explain this movement to anyone: lay on your back and contract your shoulders towards your hips. But make sure you don’t go through the full range of motion because to use a muscle and joint through its entire range would be just asinine. The average gym-goer is predominantly working just one of the muscles listed above, the rectus abdominis, and then only through part of its range of motion.
The other craze, which seems to have died out some, but not enough, is to do everything on those huge purple balls known as Swiss balls. Dumbbell bench press? Sure thing. Squats? But of course! Handstands? Ok, I haven’t seen that one yet, but I have no doubt someone has tried. I could probably search YouTube and find an example of Darwin at work.
And then there’s the much neglected lower back. Few people do ANY lower back work to speak of. Couple that with poor stretching that actually reduces the support capabilities of the spinal erectors and you can see why so many people are laid up after something as minor as picking up a box.
Five Better Ways To Work Your “Core” So if not crunches and not Swiss balls, what should you be doing to keep your midsection strong. As with all areas of fitness, I’m not a big fan of exercises that are solely intended to isolate one muscle group. I prefer to work the abs and lower back as part of the system that is the body. Focus on movements that mimic daily living and the muscles will take care of themselves. With that, here are five exercises that I feel are primo to achieving a well-functioning, strong, supportive core.
Overhead Squats- See the girl in the picture above? You can’t do that without seriously flexing everything in your upper body. Here is anarticle by Dan Johnon why the overhead squat is important to athletics and here you cancheck out Becca Borawski with a nice overhead squat. Notice the maintenance of an arch in her lower back. This exercise is also excellent for flexibility.
Deadlift- I wrote once before aboutthe importance of the deadlift. This exercise is as basic as it gets: bend down, lock in your lower back, and pick something up. It’s primal, it’s functional. Here is agood how-to.
Plank- This involves holding the body rigid parallel to the floor, keeping everything from shoulders to ankles in a straight line. Lauren B has a couple of videos here demonstratingseveral plank variations.
L-sit- This one is rough, but really shows how deficient the abs are. The legs are held at 90 degrees to the torso, forming an L, like sitting in a chair except, uhh…without the chair. Here is a nicewalk-through on how to work up to an L-sit.
Reverse Hyper- Want to squat more? Do reverse hypers. Want to heal your injured lower back? Do reverse hypers. This exercise is king for building lower back, gluteal, and hamstring strength. Unfortunately,the device is rather expensiveand most gyms don’t have one. But if you have access to a Reverse Hyper machine, use it! There is some argument about the best way to do these. I tend to agree with Eric Cressey in that themovement should be controlled(likethis), not just a giant swing.
So there they are, five exercises that you should be incorporating into your workouts. Overhead squats and deadlifts are obviously movements that can comprise an entire workout in themselves. The others can and should be used as warm-ups and supplemental exercises. You can’t go wrong by giving your abs and lower back the attention they deserve.
What is your favorite exercise for keeping these all-important muscles up to snuff?