Getting to the Core of the Ab Issue
The core has gotten a lot of hype over the last 5-10 years in the athletic world. Sit-ups used to be all you needed to do (cuz that 6-pack). Now it seems like if you’re not doing 10 different “core” or “stablility” exercises you’re in danger of blowing your back out.
The pendulum swings, and like a lot of things, it swings to both extremes. What exactly should we be focusing on with the core if the goal is efficiency and effectiveness?
First, we should define the core. I’ve heard a lot of different definitions. I’ve heard the core is just the abs, and I’ve heard the core is everything from the knees to the shoulders. I think the answer is somewhere between. The core is the center of the body (hence core).
An easy way to define the core would be to say any muscle that supports the spine. So basically, anything that surrounds the abdominal area would be part of the core. I would even argue that the hip flexors would also be part of the core, as it connects to and supports the lower spine (hang out with me enough and you’ll find I argue an awful lot).
The really nice way of thinking of the core in this way is that there is no grey area about the function of the core (abs do more than look good at the beach). The core muscles support the spine and keep you upright.
We now know what the core is and what the core does. But how should we train the core? Do we just do crunches until our stomach feels like it’s going to blow up? Or should we just lift really heavy things and just keep our back solid and call it good?
While both of these things will work some of the core musculature, there should be a little more to it than that. Not only that, but while crunch and sit-up movements are good for hypertrophy (getting bigger) in the 6-pack muscles, doing too much of them can cause low back pain. The low back is designed for very little movement, so doing too much movement in the low back can make it cranky.
The core musculature is designed to support the spine and keep it solid, so that is how we should train the core.
Now some trainers may say that training big, heavy movements (such as squats and deadlifts) will be enough to work the core. I will argue that while yes, while you absolutely are working the core muscles, it doesn’t work them enough.
If you think about it, the spine moves in 3 different ways. It moves forward and backward (flexion/extension), side to side (lateral flexion) and it rotates.
The big movements mostly train the core to keep the spine solid through flexion/extension (you must keep your low back flat when you squat or deadlift). Front planks and "supermans" also work well for training flexion/extension.
But you still have 2 different movements to train.
In order to train the core to avoid lateral flexion, we can put a weight in one hand and not the other. The core will be forced to work to stay upright while the weight is pulling to one side. Side planks also do really well in this case.
In order to avoid rotation, we can hold a band or cable that is anchored out to the side of the body, and instead of letting the weight turn the body, we fight to stay solid. We call these pallof presses, chops, and lifts. They are literally referred to as anti-rotational movements.
To sum up, the core is all the muscles that surround the spine and keep the spine solid, and that is how we should train these muscles. The more we train the core to avoid movement, the more specific we are going to be. There are 3 main ways the spine can potentially move, and so there are 3 main ways we should train the core (flexion/extension, lateral flexion, and rotation). Train all 3 throughout your training week and you will be better equipped to avoid movement in 3 different directions.