Now, what exactly is the core? The core is the muscles in your entire midsection, surrounding the abs but extending up the entire trunk of your body. Everything except your arms and legs essentially.
The core muscles are involved in any movement that the human body can make. The muscles can act as an isometric or dynamic stabilizer for any type of force transfer. While the abdominal muscles are the more obvious and visible muscles, there are so many more muscles deeper within the body that make up the core section of the body.
According to Andy Waldhem in his Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models, there are “five different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function”. Many people concentrate their training on the first 3, however without motor control and function, the body simply cannot operate. Imagine a fish flapping on the floor. This is your body without proper motor control and function operating to initiate mobilisation.
In 2010 an article entitled The man who wants to kill crunches highlighted Professor Stuart McGills statement that crunches can accelerate spinal damage. Since then, there is a lot of advice and judgements floating around in regard to ab workouts but reasoning behind the arguments is seldom provided nowadays. But the simple basic answer to the question above, is yes, crunches and sit ups are good for the abdominal muscles, but as mentioned above, these are not the only muscles in the core that need to be worked.
Also, even though abdominals sit closer to the surface compared to other core muscles, they may not be defined unless you actively reduce belly fat and body fat percentage. So, if your goal is washboard abs to look good at Coachella, then you may be actually wasting your time with just crunches.
The important thing to remember with any abdominal exercises is to ensure your lower back is supported and you are not at risk of causing injury. The pelvis must be tucked and always remember to relax your neck. A range of exercises that work the lower and upper abdominals as well as the obliques is a great start to building your core foundations.
Many people will flock to assisted pin-loaded ab machines at the gym as they feel they are getting more of an abdominal workout and other areas of the body are supported to prevent injury. This is technically correct, however the issue we face is that whilst isolating the abdominal muscles, we are denying the other muscles related to the core and causing an inconsistency of core strength.
The core is only as strong as its weakest muscles and while you may have rock hard abs, your spin may have no support or strength, which is what leads to common lower back injuries from menial tasks. It is such a common story to hear about people who train 5 times a week but then dislocate a disc in their back when doing something trivial such as hanging the washing on the line.
It is important to remember that the core acts as a stabiliser for force transfer and is not generally a primary mover. What this means is that isolation training of the core should not be our only focus e.g. Just doing sit ups and/or back extensions. Many generic body weight exercises engage the core for stability and connect the muscles in your trunk to your limbs.
Your two basic exercises would be the classics: push ups and squats. Whilst these movements are working other muscle groups, they link directly back to the core for stability and this creates strength in the connection. Even push ups on your knees with your pelvis tucked and your hips locked in place can be an excellent start to building foundations of core strength to not only benefit your upper body exercises but also your general movement and strength.
As your core strength builds and you become aware of core activation you will begin to decrease your focus on your limbs and start initiating movement from your centre to create more speed and power through relaxation of limb muscles.
Planking. Sorry, but it’s true. Completing four one-minute planks each day is the perfect way to quickly improve your static core strength. This can be the basic elbow plank, an extended plank with straight arms or even a reverse plank, lying on your back and lifting your legs and shoulders off the ground. Ideally you would like to increase this to 90 seconds as soon as you are able.
Please remember, that in order for the core muscles to be working effectively your pelvis needs to be tucked, your butt clenched, your quads flexed and your hips in line to create a straight line from your shoulders to your toes. If your backside is in the air or if your pelvis is dipped close to the ground, you are relying too much on your limb muscles to support you and not activating your core.
And before anyone gets too excited, yes, side plank is also highly recommended. Your side plank will never be as strong as your normal plank. Unfortunately, this is just a fact. It may take a few attempts to be able to hold a side plank for one minute on each side, but once you reach the minute mark, it is perfectly acceptable to keep this time frame. Rather than increase the length of your side plank, try moving from elbows to fully extended arm and then finally aim for lifting one leg so you are almost in a star position. You’ll get there. Eventually. But you will.
In summary, the core benefits all movement in our body and to avoid injury and mobility issues later in life, a strong core is highly recommended. The most important thing to remember is you will need to make an obvious effort to activate your core. Other muscles will sense a weakness and try to step in and help, but with each core related workout you will need to highlight your centre and ensure all movement is stemming from your trunk. Once you get an understanding of this it will become a lot easier and you will find your other muscles fatiguing at a much slower rate.
Lastly… keep it slow. Slow controlled movement. Most movements involve a return to original position where you can just release and let gravity bring you back. Try to avoid this as much as possible. Control your movements both up and down.