What comes to mind when you hear the word "core"?
If you say the word “core” to any recreational gymgoer, chances are they picture a strong, lean set of 6-pack abs. Though they’re not entirely wrong, there’s more to the story.
Learning more will help you understand and appreciate how much of a central powerhouse the core really is.
The Core Includes The Lower Back!
Instead of just focusing on the abdominal muscles, it’s important to realize that what’s referred to as the “core” actually comprises all of the muscles on its rear side too. In addition to the rectus abdominus, obliques, and TVA, the Quadratus lumborum, erector spinae and even lower lats should all be included in what makes a balanced, properly functioning mid-section.
Moreover, the core doesn’t only function when it’s isolated. Its strength is the make-or-break factor when it comes to compound movements – that’s multi joint movements that involve effort from the whole body.
The Abs' Effect On The Spine
The important thing to know about the muscle groups listed above is that most of them have insertions on the pelvis, meaning they directly act on its movement when they shorten. The abdominals posteriorly tilt the pelvis (or tuck the butt under) when they contract.
Think about lying flat on your back and flexing your abs. Naturally, the arch in your back that’s creating space between the floor and your lower back will disappear once you flex. Because of this action on the pelvis, the lower spine needs to correspond to this, and it too goes into flexion if the pelvic tilt is substantial enough.
Now, let's talk about the low back's effect on the spine. As you probably guessed, the lower back’s job is to extend the spine (think of a cobra stretch). As a result, and due to their attachment points, the lower back works to anteriorly tilt the pelvis (and pronounce back arch).
The Power Struggle
Of course, I only named two of several muscle groups that attach to the same central point – the pelvis. Having the proper strength balances among these muscles directly affects what will happen to the spine and pelvis.
Weak abdominals and a strong, tight lower back can lead to a back overarch and an unwanted anterior pelvic tilt. It also encourages the hip flexors on the front side to shorten and tighten, which can make a bad situation worse.
Alternatively, a loose, weak lower back can encourage short, tight hamstrings, inactive gluteus muscles and a posterior pelvic tilt and rounded low spine. This is a recipe for injury in load-bearing lifts. In both cases, it’s far from the neutrality we should be looking to achieve.
The Core in Action: Lifting Heavy Things
When forces occur on the spine – especially during a vertical push or pull movement, it’s easy for weakness to present itself by way of compromise to a stable trunk, spine and pelvic positioning.
The deadlift is a good example where core strength matters, bigtime. A properly executed pull will allow both sides of the core to have control of the pelvis at different points during the lift. In the first half, the ideal “slight back arch” often cued demonstrates that your low back has control in the pelvis, tilting it forward as you assume ready position.
As the lift progresses, a proper hip drive and hinge pattern asks the abdominals (in harmony with the glutes, of course) to take control of the pelvis and posteriorly tilt it to ensure their involvement. Failing to do this will result in unwanted forces through the spine and zero gluteal activity. It's basically a back injury waiting to happen.
The same holds true with a strict press. Avoiding the overarch gets more and more difficult as the weight lifted becomes heavier. It involves constant contraction of the abdominals and glutes to maintain a neutral spine position. Having a slight spine arch is fine, and can be expected, but a pronounced and severe back arch while overhead pressing can be injurious.
Where You're Going Wrong
You may be getting into the gym and making the time to train the “core” hard in your workouts. You may even be devoting an entire day to core training! But what matters the most is the movements you decide to choose.
As we’ve learned, the core’s primary function is to provide stability to the spine. Sit ups, twisting crunches, and V-Sits don’t do much to improve that capacity – plus they don’t include the back in the quest for strength. The result will be exacerbating the current imbalances you’ve got existing in your body. As a by-product, the big lifts that matter most won’t get any stronger.
Instead, use these exercises to get started on the right foot.
Best Core Strength Exercises
1. Plate Transfer Plank
I like this exercise because it forces the body to stay centered with fewer bases of support for short bursts of time. That improves anti-rotational stability of the spine using the abs, obliques, and lower back muscles for about as long as a typical weightlifting set would take.
Stack 4 or 5 light plates (2.5 or 5lbs work well) in a pile and move them from one side of the mat to the other. What you see in the video below is ONE rep. Perform sets of 3 reps while maintaining good form. Avoid leaning to one side when the other arm is off the ground.
All over the fitness world, people revere the idea of being able to hold a lengthy plank – but the truth is, doing so doesn’t help much of anything. If your spine posture slips during a 20 second loaded exercise, the ability to hold a 3 minute plank holds no value. Better to focus on using perfect form for shorter, more intense durations.
2. Hanging Leg Raises
I chose to include this exercise because it’s a smarter way to train the lower abs than crunches or sit ups. In those exercises, the ribcage lowers itself to the hip region and promotes a kyphotic posture. Compressive forces also act on the back. While hanging off a pull up bar, compression is kept to a minimum and the thoracic spine never goes into flexion. Simply put, it’s a safer alternative.
Be sure to get the feet up as high as possible – even above chest level. Visualize showing the bottoms of your shoes to someone standing in front of you, and control the negative rep to return to your start position. Focus on sets of 6-10 reps.
3. Ab Wheel Rollouts
To resist back overarch in the big lifts like overhead press, deadlifts, and squats, an effective anti-extension exercise is necessary. Doing rollouts with an ab wheel requires a neutral spine setup and a braced core through the entire movement.
The lower back’s overextension is the limiting factor to determine how far away from your body you can roll with the wheel. The lower back will feel plenty of stress-bearing loads with the arms outstretched if it does so in an arched position. It’s the job of the abdominals to prevent this from happening.
4. Loaded Carries
There’s nothing more directly applicable to functional core strength than doing loaded carries.
Whether they’re performed overhead, at chest level, or with arms by the sides, loaded carries require a stable torso in light of plenty of weight being lifted and the dynamic movement of the rest of the body. Even standard farmer’s walks do plenty to encourage proper spine posture and activate the surrounding muscles.
For a stronger body, you need to start with a strong foundation. Bad trainers would teach a client to jump before teaching them to squat, or teach them to sprint before teaching them to properly walk and run.
We all have muscle imbalances, and hastily going into explosive “core” exercises, or choosing moves that do nothing but perpetuate the existing imbalance, is a recipe for no added strength when it comes to the big stuff – and possibly injuries down the road.
We all know that seeing your abdominals comes from a proper diet, but it’s important to know that you can’t diet your way to a strong core.
That comes from doing the right things in the gym. Train smart!