WHAT IS YOUR CORE AND HOW YOU SHOULD TRAIN IT
crunches are so 10 years ago. Here is why, and what to do about it.
Walk into any gym anywhere, and I guarantee you will see people doing crunches for their entire core routine with the hopes of one day walking out of that gym rocking some rock solid abs.
For a lot of people and unfortunately even some trainers, this ab exercise still seems to hold the glare of the spotlight, and while I cannot control what they do, I am here to push YOU out from under that misunderstood light.
In the past 15 years there has been a ton of research done on what it means to work and strengthen your core musculature, and it has been proven that there is so much more out there, and so many more beneficial and effective exercises you can do for your abdominals than the ever so popular “crunch.”
So while the crunch is not useless, there are so many more useful exercises we can do to develop a strong and powerful core.
What the heck even is a core?
First thing is first. Even if you do all these exercises we will talk about, it does not guarantee you a six pack. Having visible abs comes down to having a low body fat percentage-which at the end of the day comes down to nutrition and eating in a caloric deficit-see issue 003.
But! Lucky for us all, having a strong core is about so much more than abs. Having a strong core is about being able to maintain upright posture in both everyday life and in your lifts. It is about avoiding lower back pain, fatigue, and injury. It is being able to move well, powerfully, and aging with a strong base inside you.
To better understand how we should be training our abs, we must first better understand our core muscles and how they function.
Your core serves four main functions.
To flex your spine-like when you bend over.
To resist spinal extension-so you do not bend over backwards.
The help you stay upright.
To help you rotate or avoid rotation.
Your core muscles are made up of the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques.
All three play the role of creating intra abdominal pressure for a strong “pillar,” breathing, stability, and keeping your internal organs in place.
The Transverse Abdominus is the innermost layer of all the abdominal muscles, located underneath your RA, the TA runs horizontally and is recruited almost any time a limb moves, aiding the body through safe movement of the extremities. Thought of as the “corset” muscle the TA works to compress your ribs and essentially keep your abdomen from protruding.
The best way to start working and understanding the TA is through diaphragmatic breathing. If you come to Ladies who Lift or have a personal training session with me, you know by now that you are not going anywhere or doing anything until you give me 8-10 diaphragmatic breaths. This is a non negotiable in my book.
We do this diaphragmatic breathing or a few reasons.
Connects us to our transverse abdominus and pelvic floor.
These aren’t our showy core muscles, but they are our deep core muscles. The TA helps to stabilize the low back and pelvis before movement of the arms and legs-literally what we mean when we talk about engaging your core.
The pelvic floor supports internal organs, control over our bladder, and healthy sexual function.
Reinforce good breathing patterns for our lifts.
It is good to perform this type of breathing and engagement even outside of the gym (and you should, everyday) but it is especially important for lifting. Like I mentioned, these deep diaphragmatic breaths are really what we mean when we talk about engaging your core.Engaging your core is not holding your breath, puffing your stomach, or god forbid, sucking in your stomach. It is finding proper alignment, along with building and creating tension and pressure 360 degrees from your shoulders down to your hips. When we do this, we are protecting our spine, our backs, our shoulders, our necks, and our entire bodies from crumbling under a heavy weight, and in turn, turning every exercise into a “core” exercise.
Activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is our fight or flight response and prepares the body for intense physical activity. Our parasympathetic nervous system does the exact opposite. It keeps us calm, slows us down, and relaxes you. It might sound counterintuative to instruct you to calm down before a workout, but truly it is not. As soon as we are past our breathing exercises and into our dynamic movements, your sympathetic nervous system is going to kick in. But I want you going into those movements calm, focused, and ready to work. My first activating your parasympathetic nervous system with some deep breaths, we are helping you to forget about what came before your workout, what is coming after, and hone all your attention away from the outside world and into your body.
Here are a few videos that I find do a good job of explaining diaphragmatic breathing and pelvic floor connection
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mM0AsGmm_NA (i know this one is aimed toward pregnant women but it is applicable for everyone!)
The Rectus Abdominis are the muscles you might “see” when people have a 6 pack. The RA is an important postural muscle, and comes into play when flexing the lumbar spine. You get these muscles working in any type of movement where you are bringing your rib cage to your pelvis, like our ever-so popular traditional crunch, or where you bring your pelvis to your ribcage, like in a leg raise.
The Obliques are located on the sides of the abdomen, running from the hips to the ribcage. The obliques help the body to rotate and bend, which is why most people think of training the obliques directly, through exercises such as side bends and russian twists. But the obliques should really be trained for the same functions as the rest of our core, for stability, bracing, and more specifically for this muscle, through explosive rotational movements. Unlike the unnatural twisting of a russian twist, explosive rotational movements will teach you how to actually rotate, using your core and your hips in tandem, bracing the obliques to transfer power from your legs and hips to upper body.
What I do not recommend.
Side bends emphasize bending of the lumbar spine, which is not something you would want to do on purpose repeatedly. And if you are turning to this movement for its waist slimming effects, well...don’t. Doing repeated side bends will drive hypertrophy through these muscles, causing your waist to actually get larger. Remember-spot training does not work.
Like oblique training, repeated twisting will add wear and tear to the lumbar spine. A no no. If you already have back pain and are looking for a strong core and spine to help it, this will do the opposite.
-A whole day put aside for core training.
It just isn’t necessary. Put aside 10 minutes at the end of your workout to complete some movements, or superset them with your other accessory work.
What I do recommend.
I know, a big surprise coming from me. But lifting heavy will train your core to brace and transfer force to protect your spine like none other.
-Practicing your diaphragmatic breathing
-focus on exercises that center around bracing.
-Practice resisting forces while arms are extended.
The further away from your body your arms are, the more your core is forced to brace and create spinal stability.
-Add explosive rotational movements
To create power through movement.
-Add anti rotational movements.
For safety and injury prevention.