September Move

What exactly is core strength?  What does it do, and why is it so important?  One of the biggest problems with most traditional strength training programs is that the basis of core strengthening is the crunch or the sit-up, and the latest and greatest in excercise science is showing quite the opposite.  In fact, if you're doing your exercise program correctly, you should be using your core a lot during your workout and you may not even realize you're doing it.  Core strength is the ability to stabilize the spine and pelvis while performing different actions as the basis of all movement starts in the core.

What is the "core"? 
 Most people think of core as only the rectus abdominus.  These are the "six pack ab" muscles everyone goes crazy about, and they controls the forward crunching motion (spinal flexion) of the body.  There are actually many other core muscles that are important in having core strength including the inner and outer oblique muscles, the intrinsic core muscles, and even the lower back muscles (erector spinae).  Enough of the human anatomy stuff, simply put the core wraps all the way around your body at your midsection and does everything from flex the body forward in a crunch, to extend the body backward in a back bend, to twist the body, to acting as a girdle keeping everything tight and drawn in, to tilting the pelvis, and much more.  Not only are crunches not enough for your core strengthening needs, but they may even be bad for you if done too frequently.

Why are crunches bad?
  Spinal flexion puts a great deal of stress on the discs in between the bones of the spinal column, and this stress can cause these discs to break down and lead to all sorts of complications such as bulging discs and herniated discs.  Don't get me wrong, crunches can and should be one component of core strength, but only one out of ten or maybe even more.  

What are some important uses of core strength?
  • Stabilizing the spine - picture doing an overhead press with dumbells.  Without proper core stability your body would wobble  like one of those crazy armed blow up people you see in the used car lot to get your attention as you drive by on the highway.  In order to successfully perform any type of exercise in a standing position the spine needs to be stabilized, and this can happen one of two ways.  First, it can extend as far back as possible until the bones are locked into place.  Again, picture someone doing an overhead press with an extremely arched back.  Although spinal stabilization is achieved, it's not the best position and also misses out on an important benefit of any standing exercise.  The second way the spine can stabilize is by contracting ALL of the muscles around it to hold it in place, and this is what we recommend.  So simply doing any type of standing exercise including overhead press, curls, etc. while maintaining a stable/neutral spine is a form of core training.
  • Stabilizing the pelvis - During a walking or running motion, the legs pull on the pelvis as they perform each stride.  The core in turn should hold the pelvis still so that it's not rocking back and forth with each stride (picture the hips while riding a horse).  Without this type of core strength, the pelvis moves too much and wreaks havoc on surrounding muscles and ligaments due to repetitive and unneccassary movement leading to stress and sometimes injury.  There are many exercises that involve locking the pelvis into a neutral position while flexing and extending at the hips (see below - for an example).
  • Stabilizing against rotational forces - Rarely do you need the strength to twist your body with a lot of force.  More importantly however, is the ability to keep your body still while a force is placed on your body to twist.  Too much emphasis is placed on rotational type exercises that involve moving a lot of weight, but most of the benefit comes not from the initial twist (the concentric form of the exercise), but from returning to the starting point in a slow and controlled manner (the eccentric form of the exercise).
What are some good core exercises? - I've spent a lot of time talking about core strength from the exercise science point of view and how/why the core is important.  All of Pro-Activity's Personal Wellness Experience programs involve these concepts, but here are some things you can add to your personal routines to make sure your core is strong in the correct ways?
  1. Chops - Chops are a great way to work the core.  They consist of moving a weight from the hip on one side of the body, up to just over the shoulder on the opposite side, similar to the motion of chopping wood (hence it's name).  Chops can be done from a number of positions including standing, staggered stance in standing, one leg stance, or sitting, and all are good, but to maximize the effects, an inline kneeling position is best.  Start on one knee with the other leg out in front of you and line everything up in a straight line from the toe of the back leg, to the knee of the back leg, to the heel of the front leg, to the toe of the front leg.  Next, perform the chop while holding this position.  You generally won't feel a "burn" in your stomach during these exercises and most people think this means the core isn't working, but if you're wobbling (or preventing your body from doing so), then the core is working.  Focus on being as still and stable as possible and your core will benefit greatly.
  2. Laying on a stability ball
     - Any exercise done while laying on your back on a stability ball increases core strength.  Roll out on the ball until just your shoulders, neck and head are supported by the ball and get your feet all the way together with your hips high.  You should now be in a "table top" position.  Practice this position before adding any motion to gain stability first.  Once you get the hang of this, any standard exercise done from a laying position can be done.  Keep the weights lighter, and your core will work to keep you from falling off the ball.  Having your feet all the way together is the key to maximizing core activation so don't sacrifice form to do more weight...your arms may be able to handle it, but if you can't keep yourself steady then your core isn't ready yet.
  3. Sitting on a stability ball - same as above but from a 
    sitting position.  Make sure your feet are all the way together and the ball is NOT touching the back of your calves.  Now perform any exercise you'd normally do from a standing or sitting position.  Once again, the key is keeping your body as still and stable as possible while performing any exercise.
  4. 90/90 position - I've touched on this position above, but it is great for training the core to work with a neutral pelvis position.  Lie on your back with your feet off the ground and legs together at 90 degree angles at both the hips and knees.  Do not support your hips by placing your hands under them, this is where the core work comes in.  From here, rotate your hips by trying to press your low back into the ground while maintaining the 90 degree angles.  This is the standard 90/90 position, and a lot of different exercises can be done from here including leg lifts- extend your legs outward and pull them back in, and alternating hip extensions -  lower one leg at a time down toward the ground.  The key to these exercises is trying to maintain a neutral pelvis position by keeping your lower back tight to the ground and as in all the exercises...GO SLOW!
Core strength is an important part of any exercise routine.  Having a strong core will not only help to protect the back from injury, but will allow you to lift more weight in other exercises and perform better no matter what your sport or active lifestyle event.
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