Core Training – What Really Works

By Jonathan Grossman; Certified Personal Trainer at Colorado Athletic Club – Inverness
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When most exercisers think of core training, they think of a few exercises.  Sit ups and crunches first, then maybe planks and “that machine that works your abs.” Why? Well first of all they are the most recognizable, easiest to learn (or to learn incorrectly), and are supposed to give you a six-pack.  Do they actually work? Sure, but how they’re incorporated into a resistance training program makes all the difference. 

Before we start talking how to incorporate and what other exercises to do, let’s talk a little anatomy and what the core actually is.  When I think core, I think the trunk; or the shoulders to the hips.  Somewhere in this area is our center of gravity and most of our balance, coordination, and muscular control comes from the core.  So how do crunches help all those things improve? By themselves they don’t.  Remember, training is always domain specific.  Loads of sit ups will make you fantastic at sit ups.  An all-around training regimen will help get you all the benefits of core work.  All around core training means moving in multiple plains of motion as well as flexion and extension.  Working five different ways is the best idea for an all-around strong core.

Training our deep muscles first is the best way to develop a strong base and prevent back injury.  Our transverse abdominal muscle is our most deep core muscle, acting as a natural weight lifting belt.  The TA is responsible for compressing and supporting the abdomen and you can activate it by drawing the belly button into the spine.  The best exercise to train the TA is a plank, however you should be trying to activate it with every exercise you do.  I often tell my clients, that someone who does a ton of abs work will have strong abs, but someone who does a ton of squats will have strong legs, a strong back, and strong abs.  So practice activating the transverse abdominus with every exercise you do and you’ll be stronger, more balanced, and safer in all those exercises.

The next step to an ultra-strong core is trunk extension (if you’re lying on your stomach, extension would be lifting your chest off the ground). Our muscles work in an agonist, antagonist relationship around our joints (for instance our biceps flex our elbow while our triceps extend it), so if you’re only focusing on forward bending movements like sit ups, you will always be bending forward and eventually injure your lower back (from constantly being stretched).  So trunk extension is a key movement to protect our backs, improve posture, and make all the hard work on the abs pay off aesthetically (if you’re always bending forward no one can see your abs).  The erector spinae muscles are the primary muscles responsible for extension throughout the entire back and they also assist in side bending and rotation.  If you have a healthy back the best way to train these muscles is in their primary movement pattern, extension of the trunk.  The most common way to train the erector spinae is back hyperextensions on the roman chair (the machine that anchors the feet and allows you to bend your head to the ground), however if your back isn’t already strong I would recommend starting from the ground.  Start by laying on your stomach on a mat, place your hands (palms up) by your sides and have your feet and knees on the ground (keep the feet and knees on the ground the entire exercise).  Start by tightening your transverse abdominus, gluteus (butt muscles), and pinching your shoulder blades together. Then slowly and controlled, lift your chest a few inches off the ground, hold for one second, and then slowly return to your starting position.  You should feel the lower back muscles working, but they shouldn’t feel any pain.

Now we’ll get into the more common type core exercises.  Our bodies move in three planes of motion; sagittal (bending front and back), transverse (rotational), and frontal (side bending).  We need to train in all three planes to ensure balance and strength.  Let’s start with sagittal plane motion.  This is our sit ups/crunches plane.  When we work in the sagittal plane the main muscle working is our rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle).  The rectus abdominus is responsible for trunk flexion so it’s the antagonist to the erector spinae.  A sit up is the best exercise to train the rectus abdominus because it works through a full range of motion.  A crunch is a reduced range of motion exercise and is actually the first movement performed when doing a full, correct sit up.  To make sure you’re sitting up correctly you should be trying to bring the bottom of your ribs to your hips, flexing almost right through your belly button.  All too often the sit up is performed by flexing the hips meaning the trunk stays flat and the abs get no work.  Always work on exercising through a full range of motion, especially in the core.  There is no such thing as the upper or lower abs so smaller core movements lead to smaller results. 

The next plane of motion is the transverse plane or our rotational plane.  An exercise that falls into this category is anything that twists from the hips and shoulders, think swinging a baseball bat or a golf club. Transverse plane exercises are performed by a plethora of muscles, but the most commonly known muscle are the obliques.  The erector spinae also aids in twisting, so if your back isn’t strong enough to work in extension yet, try starting out with rotational movements. Using pulleys, resistance bands, or medicine balls are great ways to add resistance to any rotational movement.  Rotational movement is also important to staying flexible and functional.  Many everyday movements require a combination of flexion/extension and rotation, and are how the back if often injured.  Stay strong in your transverse plane and the chances of hurting your back drops significantly.

The last plane is our frontal or side bending plane.  The same muscles responsible for rotation are also responsible for side bending but it’s important to keep flexible by training in both planes.   Any movement where you bend laterally away from the midline of your body is a frontal plane movement. As with rotation, training in this plane keeps you functional and reduces the likelihood of back injury.  Side planks are a fantastic way to train this movement pattern. 

Those are the five ways that you should be moving to effectively train the core.  Remember, when training the core always protect the back by engaging the transverse abdominus and always move in a complete range of motion.  The best athletes (or people with the best abs in this case) always train in a multitude of ways, so I would recommend a comprehensive resistance training, cardiovascular, and flexibility program to really have a strong core (and to be strong everywhere else).  When you’re in the gym, always talk to the trainers to get other ideas on how to train, or to put these ideas into full effect.  Always consult your physician before starting any type of exercise program.