What is “Core Strength” Really?

When talking with people about their favorite kind of workouts, the single most common topic that is brought up is “core training.” (Every now and then you get one or two weirdoes who try to convince me that their favorite workouts are leg day.) But it is interesting to me that nobody can really ever put their finger on what it means to have a strong core. Is it having the ripped 6-pack abs that you see in the magazines? Or is a strong core simply not having any more back pain? For most general fitness clients, they will be happy with getting rid of that lingering back pain that’s been bothering them for a few months. As for my athletes, building a stronger core can lead to more explosiveness and the difference in a couple hundredths of a second in the 100m dash. In the brief description that follows, I am going to provide a very basic concept of what muscle groups actually compose this “core” that everybody is raging about, the three functions it is responsible for, and suggest a new core exercise for you to try.

Contrary to what most people think, your core is not just those six muscles you want to see in the mirror! It is actually a group of muscles branching from you glutes and hamstrings, to your hip flexors, and muscle layers deep beneath your rectus abdominis that are responsible for transferring force from the ground up. If you stop and notice how the muscles are oriented on the trunk of the body, we see that the vast majority of them are either diagonally or horizontally oriented. (I will come back to why this is significant below.)

Typically I hear most people doing some variation of crunches, sit-ups, or Russian twists for their core exercises. Don’t get me wrong; these are not bad exercises to do. There are just better exercises that you could be doing. Let’s take a look at the three functions of the core and how those principles can be used in your workouts. The first function is to protect and stabilize the spine by stiffening. Now take a look back at the rectus abdominis and see the similarity it has to a windowpane. This is because we can flex our core musculature to maintain a strong neutral position to brace our spine, as opposed to flexing and extending it as seen in crunches or sit-ups! Second is anti-extension (this means not allowing your back to arch). And lastly it is responsible for initiating any rotation and counterbalancing movements from our lower body to our upper body. An example of this would be most easily seen in a runner; when their right leg comes forward, their left arm follows suit to counterbalance the weight distribution and allow for us to move in a forward motion. Our body moves naturally in this type of X pattern. The exercise we will cover today also follows that same principle.

My favorite core activation exercise is called “Dead Bugs.” This is a great exercise to begin with because it teaches us how to maintain a strong bracing position that will transfer into many other exercises and it incorporates an asymmetrical pattern that many people are not used to for their exercises. Begin by laying on your back with your arms reaching straight up towards the ceiling and your knees bent at 90 degrees. Next, think about pushing your belly button into the ground so your entire back is in contact with the floor. This is the single most important part of this exercise (remember anti-extension here!) Once in position, you will extend one leg straight and the opposite arm towards the ground as low as you can without letting your lower back start to arch up off the floor and then return to the top position. It is completely okay if you are unable to go all the way to the ground at first; you will get stronger and stronger through this new range of motion with a bit of practice!

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