Everytime I go at the gym I get the impression that the most used exercise equipment are the ab-machines. Some people use them because of the misconception that doing ab-exercises will help them eliminate the extra fat stored in that area (more on this in an upcoming article), others to get their 6-pack pop out.
Truthfully, this used to be me years ago. I used to train my abs literally every time I went at the gym. Crunches, Russian twists, reverse crunches and rotating abs machines. While it felt good at the moment, it wasn’t actually beneficial at all. I was doing it all wrong.
When I decided to become personal trainer and started reading books and articles from other experts in the field, I learned that the ab muscles are only a small part of the core and that there is a better way of training the core muscles (including the abs), which is far more effective and beneficial.
Before I share with which exercises are functionally more beneficial for core training, let’s first see which muscles are constructing the core, along with the abs and what is their function.
The core is far beyond the ab muscles. Different fitness professional define the core different ways. Some even go as far as including the stabilizer muscles of the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, and ankle. To keep it simple and easier to understand, what I will refer to as core in this article is the part of our body between the sternum and pubic bone. The core musculature includes both, the muscles on the front and back that are responsible for maintaining stability of the spine and pelvis and help with the generation and transfer of energy to all the other parts of the body during movement. It consists of superficial or external layer of muscles, and deep or inner layer.
Major Superficial (External) Muscles
When someone mentions “abs,” the first thing that comes to mind is the 6-pack. However, the “6-pack” muscle, or rectus abdominis, is just one of the front superficial muscles of the core, along with the obliques. Their counterparts on the back side are the Latissimus Dorsi and Erector Spinae. These are the muscles which are giving the shape of the core, and which provide postural support during movement of the extremities.
Major Deep (Internal) Muscles
The inner core muscles are directly attached to the spine and are primarily responsible for stability and movement control. The deep layer includes: transverse abdominis, diaphragm, muscles of the pelvic floor, and multifidus. In this group, the transverse abdominis is the biggest muscle, wrapping around the front and back of the core and attaching to the spine. It is the key muscle for providing stabilization of the lumbar (lower back) spine area.
Main functions of the core are:
- Organ protection;
- Postural control;
- Stabilization and balance;
- Movement generation;
- Energy transfer.
Core stability is crucial for efficient function of the body’s musculoskeletal system, especially for providing postural stability, producing movement, and transfer of energy between the extremities. In order for us to be able to perform the most basic movements we need to have functioning inner core. We need to train in a way which is activating and strengthening the muscles of the inner layer, so that they can provide the necessary stability for the primary movers (muscles responsible for performing specific movement) to do their job.
When our inner core muscles are not activated properly during movement, the primary movers take over their stabilizing job, in addition to their primary responsibility. When this happens, the primary movers become overloaded by being forced to do two jobs at the same time (stabilizing and moving). Consequently, this oftentimes results with injuries (one of the most common injuries being lower back pain).
Training the core
Many professionals believe that the function of rectus abdominis (the muscle we train when we do sit-ups and crunches) is to resist trunk extension rather than produce trunk flexion. Which implies that by doing these exercises and training the abs on the ab-equipment in the gym, we are training our core incorrectly. Not only these exercises are not helping us get those hardly desired 6-pack and strengthen our core, they can also be hurting our spine. Now you probably wonder that if by doing these exercise we are not properly training the core, then how do we train the core correctly?
Because the major role of the core is to act as a stabilizer and center for energy transfer, the first thing we need to do is start activating the muscles of the core responsible for these functions. In order to keep the body stable, the core muscles must be able to resist rotation, extension and flexion. Which implies that in our core training we need to include anti-rotation, anti-flexion and anti-extension exercises. Some of the best exercises to start with are Deadbugs, Planks (front and side), Pallof Press. I use these exercises in the warm-up when I train my clients, and myself as well.
- Start by laying on your back.
- Extend your hands towards the ceiling and bring your hips, knees and ankles to 90 degrees angle.
- Bring your ribcage down flatten your back on the floor and tuck your chin.
- Begin the exercise by extending one leg and straightening your hips and knee to bring your leg just above the floor. Exhale while you straighten your leg.
- Maintain your back flat on the floor and keep pushing your pelvis onto the floor to maintain proper form.
- Bring your leg back into the starting position. As you do this, inhale.
- Repeat the same movement on the opposite side, alternating until you can maintain proper form.
- Start with your hands and knees on the floor.
- Bring your elbows underneath your shoulders, and bring your shoulders back and down.
- Extend your legs one by one and stand on your toes.
- Create straight line from your heels to the top of your head. Tuck your tailbone and your chin.
- To add more tension, make fists and push into the floor.
- Stay in this position until you can maintain proper form.
- Loop a resistance band on a rack at shoulder height.
- Take the free end with both hands and and hold it at your chest.
- Step sideways from the rack.
- Position your feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly and tuck your tailbone.
- Slowly extend your arms and push the band away from you until you reach full hand extension. As you do this movement, exhale.
- Then slowly return to the starting position. As you do this movement, inhale.
- Repeat until you are able to maintain proper form.
If you want to move well and be able to train hard and lift heavy weights, having core stability should be your number one priority. Starting with isometric holds (like the exercises above) is the best way to begin building your core stability. Once you feel stable enough and these exercises become easy to perform it’s time to add another stimulus by increasing the time, resistance or adding movement. This is the roadmap to building stronger and more resilient core, becoming stronger, and improving body function overall.