Many people today carry symptoms that may be a result of a weak core, and that can present several problems—from minor discomfort today to serious injury or chronic pain down the line.
A weak core is often the result of a sedentary lifestyle that may include sitting or lying for most of the day. Even some who perform regular cardio exercise but do not perform resistance training may suffer from underdeveloped core muscles.
What is the Core?
The most common symptom of a weak core is a sore lower back. However, because the core supports positive posture, weakness in this area can spread symptoms along the kinetic chain to elsewhere in the body. As a result, pains in the knee and neck areas may also stem from under-activated cores due to altered gaits and how we carry our weight relative to our centre of mass.
The most common association of “core” is our rectus abdominis, the so-called “Six Pack.” While abs are most certainly part of our core, they are but one component of much more complex machinery.
Our “side abs,” the obliques, also play an important role. Other muscles intimately connected to the core and its essential functions include our glutes, our lower back, and our hip flexors. For an effective and balanced core, all of these muscles must be trained.
According to dictionary Merriam-Webster, the word “core” is defined as “a central and often foundational part usually distinct from the enveloping part by a difference in nature.” It’s obvious that our core is indeed a central and also foundational part of our total system. But is it distinct, too? Aren’t they just more muscles?
The core should not be viewed as a Prime Mover, which many of our common muscles are. Instead, the role of the core is to act as a stabilizer and force transfer center, according to fitness coach Jeff Kuhland. He notes that the primary core muscles work in tandem to provide three-dimensional depth, which means we can move functionally in all three planes of motion. Many of the muscles of the core lurk beneath the exterior musculature—the abs—such as the transverse abdominals and diaphragm, but are just as important to achieving rock-solid core stability.
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Ultimately, core stability is an umbrella term for the multiple actions our core muscles are able to perform. In “Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models,” kinesiology researcher Andy Waldhem breaks down five different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function. Indeed, according to Waldhem, the term “core stability” did not become popular in scientific literature until late in the 20th century, alongside a rise in popularity of core stability exercise programs.
BENEFITS OF A STRONG CORE
There are several significant benefits to building a strong core. Here we list some of them.
- Protection of our spine, preventing debilitating injuries
- Less discomfort in lower back, hip/knee joints, etc.
- Improved posture while sitting, standing, and walking
- Increased athleticism: running, jumping, pivoting
- Enhanced ability to perform heavy weightlifting safely
Remember that our core is a central and foundational part of our body. To move athletically in our youth and safely in old age, our system rightly demands a functional centre.
RECOMMENDED CORE EXERCISES
The core has many nuanced functions, aiding other departments of our system in constant and crucial ways. It is not difficult to activate, or exhaust, and as a result there are many viable exercise options to train the core.
NO EQUIPMENT NECESSARY
With as little as a comfortable spot to lie down on, you can perform these three simple core exercises.
- The Side Plank is an excellent way to test your obliques.
- The Bicycle Crunch will scorch your abs and elevate your heart rate.
- Climbers can be performed to target the abs or obliques, depending on which elbow you crunch your knee to.
STABILITY BALL UPGRADES
The stability ball, judging by name alone, is a great core training companion. Typically you’ll want a medium-sized one that is not maximally inflated. There are dozens of possible ways to train your core using a stability ball; here are three to start with.
- The Stability Ball Dead Bug is an improved version of the traditional Dead Bug because it forces constant and additional tension of the core. This exercise also helps with coordination.
- The Stability Ball Plank is an upgrade of the classic Plank because it challenges our core in the same fashion except from all directions. The unpredictable joltiness of the ball, which you can dial up or down with movement, will torch your midsection in seconds.
- The Stability Ball Ab Roll-Up is an improvement upon the iconic Crunch exercise because it allows for increased tension applied through force into the ball as we reach upward.
It should be noted that building a strong core will not come from bodyweight exercises alone (an exception being advanced calisthenics). All elite athletes perform some level of resistance training, typically in the form of compound movements. There is ample reason for that.
These complex movement patterns, such as the Deadlift and Squat, demand a full-body tension and extraordinary collaboration of musculature that the core—honest to its ever-central role—must be present for at all times, especially at higher loads. Thus, heavy compound movements are in fact core exercises. Indeed, because the core is so integral to such exercises, we recommend performing any heavy compound movements prior to isolating core work, and to do so only when your core is fully recovered from your last training session.
We suggest training the core one to three times per week. The Academy recommends placing a majority of core work toward the end of sessions, so that core muscles are able to properly stabilize and support other movements while fresh. Finally, be sure to train all areas of the core region—including lower back and glutes—equally.