Everyone seems to want a strong ‘core’ (or the 6 pack abs that are often associated with it…). In a commercial gym you are likely to see crunches in every corner. People abusing the Glute Ham Raise, using it as a ‘side-crunch’ machine (whatever that is). And don’t forget the ‘hold a heavy plate and bend over sideways until it touches the ground’ exercise.
Now while these exercises are anatomically correct, in that some of the muscles of the trunk do actually produce those movements. They may not be the most safe or effective way to train the core musculature.
It has been demonstrated (by people much smarter than myself…) that repeated flexion and extension of the lumbar spine (like that seen in crunches and their variations) can result in a significantly greater risk of degradation of the lumbar spine, disc herniation, and non-specific low back pain.
Which is bad…
Additionally, while the abdominals and obliques do actually produce those movements, it isn’t how they work in ‘real life’.
Anatomy of the ‘core’
Our core is a seriously complex system of many different muscles that play a number of different roles and functions dependant on the context and scenario they are placed in. They can act as either a static or dynamic stabiliser during movement, they help us transfer force from one limb to another (think hip to arm during throwing motions), and can even initiate movement!
The core can be broken down into two categories. The inner unit, and the outer unit.
The inner unit consists of the deep spinal stabilisers of the core. These include the Transverse Abdominus, Multifidus, the Diaphragm, and the pelvic floor. These muscles are considered tonic, or postural muscles. This means that they are almost always switched on, and as such are under constant tension. This is important as their role is to provide stability to each individual segment of the spine, as such we want them working all the time to reduce risk of spinal injury.
The outer unit consists of the more superficial muscles of the trunk. These muscles are known as phasic muscles, which means they produce and resist movement when required, rather than being ‘switched on’ all the time. The outer unit consists of the Obliques (internal and external), Rectus Abdominus, Erector Spinae, and Quadratus Lumborum. These muscles play an integral role in stabilising the spine when the body is under load or producing high speed movements. These muscles can also produce trunk movement, and are key in providing stability to the trunk during movement.
Now, we want both the inner and outer unit working synergistically to stabilise the spine during movement. This ensures spinal health and safety.
How the muscles of the core work
As mentioned above it is the role of these core muscles to stabilise the spine, rather than produce movement. By stabilising the spine, we reduce risk of spinal injury, and promote greater mobility and strength at the hip and shoulder. This applies for most real world settings, as well as some sport specific movements as well (with the exception of fighters, wrestlers, and other athletes of a similar vein).
For example, when we pick something heavy off the floor, we load through the hips while keeping a nice straight spine. During this, the muscles of the core are working hard to make sure the spine doesn’t flex or extend under load, minimising risk of injury and maximising the force production at the hips.
Similarly, during running, while some lumbar movement does occur, most of the torso rotation occurs through the thoracic spine, with force being produced at the hips. The trunk maintains a nice neutral and stable position, which ensures that the hips can move freely to produce force, while the thoracic spine can rotate smoothly, allowing smooth shoulder movement, conserving momentum and energy.
You see, in real world (dare I say it… ‘Functional’) settings, the role of the core is to stabilise the spine rather than produce movement.
So how do we train the core then?
If the cores role is to stabilise the spine against load, then we should train it that way. And the most effective way to do that, is anti-movement exercises.
Anti-extension exercises are a great way to train the core to resist extension (hence the name anti-extension… genius).
The most common of these is the plank, which is a fantastic exercise to strengthen the muscles of the trunk while teaching them to stabilise the spine. With these the spine should not move from neutral (straight line from neck to butt) - as soon as it looks like there is too much extension in the lumbar spine it is time to stop.
The glutes should be squeezed tight, the head should be in line with the spine and there should be no sagging at the hips or through the lumbar spine. It has been suggested that holding a plank for 120 seconds is an acceptable benchmark for the maintenance of low back health,.
Deadbugs are another awesome anti-extension exercise that crush the muscles of the trunk. The trick with these is to keep it slow and controlled and really focus on keeping the ‘core’ muscles as tight as humanly possible. Again, the spine should remain flat throughout the duration of the exercise. If the lumber spine extends as movement of the limbs occurs, it is time to stop. You should be focusing on keeping the distance between your pelvis and your sternum constant - that distance does NOT CHANGE.
Anti lateral flexion exercises are exactly what they sounds like - resisting the lateral flexion of the spine.
The most common anti lateral flexion exercise is the side plank, which is a great exercise to train the muscles of the trunk to resist the lateral flexion of the spine. With the side plank, the elbow should be directly under the shoulder, and the spine should create a straight line from the top of the head right through to the hips. The hip should not sag down.
Suitcase carries are a great exercise that train the muscles of the trunk to resist lateral flexion. The look extremely simple, and in theory they are. Pretty simply, you pick up something heavy (think a dumbbell or kettlebell) in one hand, and walk with it. There are a few key points that we need to focus on to make this as effective as possible. There should be ZERO lateral flexion of the trunk. This means you should be able to remain nice and upright with your shoulders locked down and back, with NO leaning through the torso. It is common for people to go wayyy to heavy with these. When this happens they tend to walk quickly, and look a little unbalanced. Like most core exercises, it should be nice and controlled. Each step should be under your complete control, and should be nice and steady.
Anti-rotation exercises are exactly what they sounds like. They are exercises that resist the twisting motion of the trunk.
The Pallof press is a fantastic way to train the muscles of the core to stabilise against rotation, and is a super simple exercises to perform. The trick here is to make sure you maintain a nice neutral spine and focus on keeping your core as tight as possible. These can be done with both cables and resistance bands. Again, the glutes should also be kept contracted to avoid excessive lumbar extension.
Single arm cable presses are an easy way to incorporate anti rotation into your workout in a more real life manner. With this the trunk is resisting rotation and providing a stable base for the shoulder to produce force. Again the trunk should be kept tight, with zero movement through the lumbar spine. The glutes should be contracted hard, and the movement of the arm should be slow and controlled.
Single arm dumbbell presses are another great way to build your anti-rotation strength while also getting in some essential (dem pecs right…) upper body work. The setup is the same as a traditional dumbbell bench press, but with only one dumbbell. Your head, upper back and glutes flat should be flat on the bench, and both feet should be on the floor. Make sure your shoulder blades are kept back and down – this will provide a nice stable base for the shoulder to produce force on. The dumbbell should be kept at approximately 45 degrees, allowing the elbow to tuck next to the body rather than flaring out. Keep your glutes and trunk tight. There should be no rotation through the spine – if there is then the dumbbell is too heavy!
These exercises all train the core to stabilise against movement. This is important in day to day activities, or in sport performance.
I recommended programming them into your workouts as part of a superset with your assistance work (after you have completed your core lifts). This way you don’t fatigue the muscles of the trunk for your core lifts, which can impair performance on those core lifts slightly.
If your not sure where to start, get in contact today!