I can say with confidence that a high percentage of people headed to the gym today are going to do a few ab exercises. But instead of “abs”, sometimes you will often hear it phrased “core work”. To set the record straight, there’s a difference between doing a little tummy tightening and actual “core work”. And you SHOULD be doing “core work” as opposed to just abdominal strengthening.
If I sampled 100 people in a crowded gym and asked them to list their top three training goals, how many would say “flat stomach” or “nice abs”? What are your three? Chances are, the stomach area is included. Besides “losing weight” or “gaining muscle”, the midsection/belly area is one of the most important points of focus in training. There’s a reason workout tapes like “P90x” and “Insanity” have you perform a billion different ab exercises. They want you to feel soreness in areas you want to rave about the workout. They know what they’re doing.
A nice set of abs to show off on Spring Break is nice, but should get more out of this crucial area of our body if we aim to be fit and athletic again. We want to be fit, strong, and healthy. We want to jump higher, run faster, and feel better.
A brief look at the core musculature
It’s important to note that the term “core” not only includes the rectus abdominis (middle six pack muscles), but several different layers of muscles. The grey areas in the picture above on the show that in combination with the six-pack muscles are the obliques (external, internal) and the transverse abdominis. The grey areas also wrap around to the lower back for muscles groups like the erector spinae and the quadratus lumborum (QL) that aid in the process of bracing and protecting the spine as well as extension.
Your diaphragm and some lesser known muscles like the ones that sit deep in your glutes or attach from your hip bone also aid in core function. All this to say, there is a lot more to “core work” than just training the muscles that show up at the beach. If you want a healthy body and a happy spine running at full function, we need to talk about better exercises than just doing crunches and situps.
The function of the core
In order to train any muscle or muscle group properly, we need to look at what it’s function actually is. The core muscles are our center, our midpoint in the body that aids in literally everything we do from running, jumping, and lifting. When you go to pick up your groceries, you are going to use your core muscles to some extent. When you pick up your baby to put on your shoulder, you are definitely going to be using it. So, understanding how it works it vital to prescribe training.
In the typical crunch exercise, for example, the core helps us flex the spine forward and bring the upper body closer to the ceiling. In a typical twisting or rotation movement like a baseball or golf swing, the core helps us rotate our spine. Our erector muscles and QL (quadratus lumborum) of the back help to stabilize and extend our spine, like when we pick up groceries off of the ground to standing. So far, I count the ability to flex, extend, stabilize and rotate. That means in basically every movement, the core is aiding to some capacity making it the most important area we can focus on. However, one of those functions in particular takes priority.
The ability to brace and stabilize the pelvis and spine is by far the greatest function of the “core”.
Flexing, extending, and rotating can be performed by certain layers of your core independently, but the ability to brace and stabilize requires all the musculature to work together as one unit. A crunch is not necessarily “core” work because it’s just isolating certain layers of the abs to do flexion. A russian twist is not necessarily either, unless you are pairing it with other work. It can definitely improve the strength of a single layer, but as we talked about already the core is responsible for doing much more than just flexing for the gram.
I’ve stressed the importance of bracing and stabilizing because it can keep your spine healthy and lead to greater improvements in performance. For example, by learning to brace properly before a deadlift or squat, you can immediately improve movement quality as well increase your strength and power. Health in the spine is no small feat either. I don’t know about you, but I want to keep my spine happy and stay away from any disc issues in the future for as long as possible. Training your core as a strong group of muscles working together can help you do so. This is why some folks with very defined, strong looking six packs still have back issues. We want to do loaded exercises like barbell back squats or heavy deadlifting, but without improving our ability to create stiffness in the core musculature we end up distributing the load improperly.
Breathing and bracing
Creating core stiffness is the first step to our improvement plan. We can do so by learning how to breathe and brace properly. That’s right, I said learning to breathe right. Believe me, that is something I never thought I would have to teach someone or work on myself. It’s such a funny concept that we are living (and obviously breathing), yet need to work on our breath. Although it comes off cooky initially, it is something I’ve found to be extremely helpful for anyone including high level athletes. The fact is, we sit more than we stand these days. The posture we get put into does not allow for full breathing function of the diaphragm and as a result we start breathing at lower capacity and develop compensations. I’ve actually had to take high level athletes and re-pattern their breathing. If someone in professional sports needs it, chances are you can use it too.
Let’s start with a breathing test.
You can check your breathing by laying on your back with your eyes looking at the ceiling and hands at your hips. Feet can be flat and knees slightly bent, they won’t be playing a role yet so just leave them where you’re comfortable. I want you to do three total breaths, with the inhalation part lasting five seconds and the exhalation part also lasting five seconds. Make a “C” with your hands and cup the sides of your stomach with your index finger running parallel to your front hip bone and the inside of the thumb running across the top part of your glutes just above the back side of the hip. Once you take your first breath, notice if your hands were being pushed out by your breath. Did you feel any expansion? If the answer is no, you are probably not breathing with the correct sequence. As you exhale, did you feel your hands sinking in like your sides were deflating? If not, we need to get to work.
Re-patterning your breathing
In order to make improvements, we have to follow a proper teaching progression.
Crocodile breaths and 90/90 breathing
This is the first step in learning to brace and breath right. Here are two ways that I’ve learned and used to improve and re-pattern the way to sequence it. These two drills allow us to practice in a low demanding position either on our back or on our belly. With the position easy for everyone, it allows the focus to be put on our breath. Most people, with correct cueing, will pick this up within an hour. This portion makes the light bulb go off, but then is rarely practiced again. Remember to come back to this again even when you are advanced because it is something easy you can do watching tv at night or before you go to bed.
Dead what? Bird what?
Progression: Breathing —-> Deadbug/Bird Dog
Going from the 90/90 breathing position right into a dead bug is a great way to progress. It’s the same position, but now you get to practice and test if you can breathe and brace while moving limbs. Don’t let the names fool you, these are excellent core exercises. Both exercises allow you to practice bracing while moving limbs which, in sports, happens almost all the time. Whether it’s throwing, jumping, or swinging the more core stiffness you can create the more stable your body will be. Stability in the trunk and core allows for power and strength to be expressed and this is what we’re looking for. You will be surprised to see that if you are strict on quality the exercises will highlight your compensations.
What to look for: While performing the bird dog or dead bug, you can easily fly through the movement and say, “man that’s easy”. Be strict and really focus on maintaining your bracing while you move your limbs. Get a strong brace and breath, then perform the drill. If your low back doesn’t stay put, you need to keep working on it. Chances are, if your back moves during these that you are not staying very stable once you put 225 pounds on your back.
Progression: Breathing —-> Deadbug/Bird Dog —-> Bridges and Planks
Following the progression, we go from low level breathing on our back and belly, to on your back with movement, to a greater demanding position. Planks require no movement, but are a challenging drill or exercise to practice maintaining stiffness in the core. Bridges and planks are prevalent in every niche of fitness. Yoga, pilates, strength & conditioning, group classes, bootcamps all incorporate a type of bridging or planking. At a glance, it doesn’t look all that challenging. But when you throw them into a tough circuit and focus on really contracting your midsection, they’re tough. This is also an easy exercise to throw into programs whether it’s in the warm-up, intra-workout, or post-workout.
What to look for: Within the plank or bridge, keep a flat back and watch for the low back to start dipping. If you don’t feel challenged, squeeze your midsection hard and pull from the elbows to the toes. Shaking will ensue.
Band Iso Holds
Progression: 90/90 breathing —> Deadbug/Bird Dog —–> Planks —-> Iso Hold
Banded isometric holds can be very helpful depending on how you use them and when you use them. Getting yourself into the right position to start is key. I suggest started from a half kneeling position and performing a few sets of band holds for 10-15 seconds. Progress to longer durations and then eventually add sets. Once you have demonstrated the ability to hold for 20-25 seconds and have done the proper technique, switch to a standing band hold.
Applying this to the big lifts
Progression: Breathing —->Deadbug/BirdDog —-> Plank —-> Iso Hold —-> Athletic Movements
This is our final stop on the core progression. By this point, you should have learned to breath and brace, shown the ability to maintain this bracing with limb movements (dead bug/bird dog), for long duration (planking), and in different athletic positions (iso holds). Now you need to check the bracing is kept with dynamic movement.
Once you have progressed this far, you should have a feeling of strength in your midsection. Instead of just flexing your abs, you should feel like your entire midsection is fully protecting yourself. Now, you can implement these strategies into big movements that give us our greatest performance gains. Squatting, deadlifting, olympic lifts, and bench pressing should all be improved just by mastering this progression. Imagine if you could lift more weight in an exercise like the back squat just from doing core exercises for a month. Doing actual core work has tremendous benefits and should be started right away. You can absolutely do all the crunches and sit-ups you want for aesthetic purposes, but if you want to get serious about your lifting and health it’s time to throw in real core work.
Take home message:
- Core training requires much more than isolated exercises like crunches
- Complete core training treats your midsection as a group of muscles working together to protect the spine and create stiffness in movements.
- Throwing in a proper progression allows you to check if you’ve learned the necessary pre-requisites to move to the next drill.
- Most of this can be learned quickly, but should be repeated and practiced no matter what level you are.
- Learning to breathe and brace properly can add strength and power to big movements like squats and deadlifts.
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