Stop doing crunches and sit-ups. You may be causing more harm than good. And besides, they’re not the best core strengthening exercises anyway.
The general population typically views the core as the “six-pack abs” that they all need. Truth be told, those muscles that are on display aren’t the most important.
–> RELATED READING: All About Core Training
The Most Important Core Muscle You Don’t Know About
Let me introduce you to the Transverse Abdominis (TrA) muscle. Or, the “money-maker.” If you can properly engage this area before performing exercises and during exercises, you’ll have a much healthier spine and lower back moving forward. (Yes, your “six-pack abs” will reap some benefits as well.)
The important part about this muscle is that it acts to protect your spine. It’s beneath the superficial “six-pack abs“ (i.e., rectus abdominis), so it often goes overlooked. However, its role is superior to all other muscles within your core.
Most people have a tough time properly engaging this area. Here’s a simple way to think about it:
- Lie on a flat surface such as your bed or the floor.
- Now, you want to imagine pulling your belly button up and into your spine. If you need a visual cue or some assistance, I suggest you either use your finger (gently) or an object such as a hockey puck to understand it better.
- The key here is to not hold your breath. You should be able to carry a conversation while engaging this muscle.
- For starters, I’d engage this muscle and hold it for 5 seconds. Repeat that for a total of 20 repetitions to get the “feel” of it initiated and properly ingrained into your system.
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Train the Function of Your Core; Not the Anatomy
So, you still do “crunches” and “sit-ups” and wonder why your client’s lower back still hurts?
Think about it: when you perform biceps curls, you can literally see your biceps muscle contract and shorten. The next day, you’re used to that sore feeling of the muscle being worked the previous day. Your biceps muscle is also slightly shortened and prefers this position as opposed to being stretched or elongated.
Why wouldn’t your core muscles on the anterior portion of your body act the same way? Muscles are muscles. They stretch and shorten. They “react.” That’s it. It’s that simple.
My point is that by performing crunches and sit-ups, you’re only making it worse for your body, not better. The work done by Dr. Stuart McGill proves this. By performing core training exercises that force your trunk and spine into excessive flexion (i.e., crunches and sit-ups), the facet joints and vertebral discs within your vertebral column take a beating. The same can be said for excessive extension.
What’s The Purpose of Your Core?
All the muscles in your core and lumbopelvic hip complex work in tandem to provide protection for your spine, specifically at the lumbar segments in your vertebral column. Most notably, these areas protect your spine during movements in the form of: anti-rotation, anti-flexion and anti-extension.
Of course, we don’t want to avoid moving into rotation, flexion and extension at all costs during our daily lives. That’s not my point. For training purposes though, we should think about our core this way to get a better understanding of what’s truly going on at our spine.
First, you’ll want to organize your spine and find a posture that feels best for your body. These two areas are very important if your goal is to achieve a strong core that functions well.
Next, your goal should be to achieve proper core stability. If you can stabilize the muscles in your core in the presence of change (i.e., movement), than you’ll achieve a greater level of health and a happier lower back.
After that, it’s the right time to emphasize strengthening your core by adding forms of external resistance (i.e., medicine ball, resistance band, cable column, Valslides, etc.). When you have a good foundation of all of these elements, you can begin to add power and explosive movement patterns into your core training routines.
This progression is quite important, as it will help to bulletproof your spine for long-term health.
How does this all make sense?
Well, let’s think about basic level core strengthening exercises, such as the Plank Hold. During this exercise, your job is to brace your core muscles, create full-body tension and to hold a static position, while gravity and your body-weight try to tell you otherwise.
–> READ MORE: Planks: The Magic Sauce to Fix Hip Tightness
On a higher level, you’re performing an anti-extension exercise, where you’re deliberately trying to avoid spinal extension, specifically in the lumbar spine. Basically, you don’t want to let your hips dip down toward the floor.
In order for you to be able to properly perform all of this at the same time, it’s necessary for you to have core stability. That’s the key. That’s also why I believe it is imperative to learn how to stabilize your core before adding elements of strength and power.
Progressions in Core Strengthening Exercises
I specifically selected core strengthening exercises in each progression, from basic to advanced, that would be challenging while also properly enforcing the key concepts and functions of the core.
I recommend mastering the exercises in each section before moving forward along the progression line.
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Basic Level Core Strengthening Exercises
Here is a list of the three core exercises in this section followed by the video demonstrations of each:
- Plank Hold
- Hips Don’t Dance Mountain Climber
Intermediate Level Core Strengthening Exercises
Once you’ve mastered the basic level section, check out this list of the four core strengthening exercises with a corresponding video demonstration of each one:
- Perfect Posture Rotating Plank
- Half-Kneeling Chop
- Anti-Rotation “Pallof” Press and Overhead Raise
- Plank Body-Saw with Valslides
Advanced Level Core Strengthening Exercises
Finally, you’re ready to tackle the advanced section. Here is the list of the three core strengthening exercises with a corresponding video demonstration of each movement:
- Side Plank Hold to Row with Hip Flexion
- Half-Kneeling Medicine Ball Wall Toss
- Farmer’s Carry Variation: Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Waiter’s Hold with Dumbbell Suitcase Hold
Remember: the primary goal when training your core is to train the function, and not the anatomy. By doing so, you’ll find it easier to achieve optimal levels of performance and health, while preventing injury along the way.
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