Your core comprises so much more than a six-pack of abs. Dynamic core stability requires coordination between multiple muscles, from your traps all the way down to your pelvic floor and glutes. Even your diaphragm can be considered a core muscle. Therefore, simply walking, standing, and breathing are all “core” exercises.
However, when people talk about core training, they tend to focus on the following muscles:
- Rectus abdominis – the visible, six-pack part
- Erector spinae – muscles that run along your spine
- Obliques – the muscles along the side of your stomach
- Transverse abdominis – wraps around your core like a corset
- Multifidus – deep, lower back muscle
In this article, we dive in to training each of those muscles for a well-balanced core. But first, what are the benefits of a strong core?
Benefits of a strong core
The core’s first priority is to protect your spine and stabilize movement. Which is great, as we’d fall over or get hurt otherwise. But the benefits of a strong core don’t stop there.
Having a strong core will enhance the rest of your workouts. Your core provides the base for weight lifting. It keeps you upright during cardio, controls power during interval training, and provides coordination and control during athletics.
Since your core activates prior to initiating movement, a weak core leaves your body to rely on other muscles. Therefore, the stronger your core, the more weight your other muscles can move, and the more power you can produce.
Developing a strong core can also prevent injury, as your entire body is connected along a kinetic chain. Studies show that poor core strength correlates with upper and lower extremity injuries. By asking our shoulders, hips, and neck muscles, to do work they’re not built for, they can get strained.
Research also shows that core stability exercises can manage lower back pain. As you’ll remember, the first job of core musculature is to stabilize the spine. By training your core strength, you keep your spine in a safe position through movement. A weak core forces your lower back to take on the load, resulting in chronic low back pain.
Mirror selfies, beach bodies, and pant sizes
First and foremost, all body types should be celebrated, and visible abs are by no means the definition of beauty.
But we can’t ignore the real reason most of us want a strong core – for looks. Even if mirror selfies aren’t your thing, developing your core can still result in visible abs. If you want a six-pack, you should train your core (and eat well, but that’s another story).
How to Develop a Strong Core
Your trunk moves through four planes of motion – flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion. Because of your core’s primary role as a stabilizer, it also resists movement in these planes. Great core exercises rely on both resisting movement and creating it. For example, a plank resists extension as you fight gravity’s attempt to arch your back, while a traditional crunch utilizes active flexion.
Below are five great core workouts to challenge all planes of motion, leaving you with a well-rounded, truly strong core.
RKC plank (click for video)
Anti-extension and deep stability
This is not your grandmother’s plank. (Unless your grandmother is a super strong athlete, then I stand corrected). The RKC plank starts with a variation of the traditional plank position, with fingers interlocked and pelvic tucked. Throughout the entire plank, you’re actively squeezing your glutes, your abs, and your lats, as if you’re trying to bend the floor in half with your body.
From the outside, it looks like your everyday plank. But on the inside, it’s very intense. Squeeze as hard as you can for 15-20 seconds to really feel the burn.
Anti-rotation and rotation
Attach a band around an anchor or set a cable at belly button height. Stand at a 90 degree angle to the anchor, hold the band in your two hands, and punch straight away. The cable should be pulling you into rotation, while you use your core to resist. At full arm extension, pause for a second, and then rotate away from the anchor. This way, you’ll be using your core to actively rotate against the band.
You’ve probably heard of glute bridges as a butt builder. But did you know they can improve your core as well?
To set up for glute marches, lie on your back, bend your knees at 90 degrees, and press through your heels. Try to lift one vertebrae off of the floor at the time to control the pillar that makes up your core. At the top, stop and fully squeeze your glutes, with no arch in your back. We don’t want to go in to hyperextension.
Keeping one heel firmly planted on the floor, lift one foot off the ground and bring your knee toward your chest. Your body will try to tilt towards the unstable side, but don’t let it! Keep squeezing your planted glute to stay in extension, and tighten your core to resist rotation.
After a brief pause, slowly return your leg to the ground and switch sides. Do 8-12 reps total to start, and work your way up as you get stronger.
Lay on your side with your elbow underneath you. Keeping your body in a straight line, lift up so you’re supported on your forearm and the lateral part of your foot. Start with feet stacked, but if that’s too uncomfortable, you can place one foot in front of the other.
Just a side plank in itself is difficult, but we’re going to add a little spice. At the top, keep your shoulders stacked on top of each other in line with your hips and feet. Slowly drop your hips to tap the floor, and immediately return to the start position. That’s one rep. Repeat 10-15 reps per side.
Hip and trunk flexion
One of my issues with traditional active flexion exercises is the stress on your spine. The biggest culprit – the crunch – is butchered all of the time. People tend to use their hip flexors more than abs, and the unsupported spine is left vulnerable to compressive injury.
The hanging knee raise actively decompresses your spine while still training flexion. The movement involves hanging from a pull up bar, bringing your knees toward your chest, and slowly lowering them to the start position. Think about pulling your knees up past 90 degrees with your abs rather than using your legs.
Be very careful to avoid arching your back at the bottom or swinging into the movement. To do so, execute each rep with focused tempo. Take two or three seconds to raise and lower your knees. Not only does this increase the difficulty, but it also protects your back. Start with 5-6 slow, controlled reps until you are confident you can safely add more.
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