Ah, core training. It’s something most of us add to our regimens because we know we should, but with an ever-growing library of core exercises available to choose from, how do you know you’re doing the right stuff?
To really understand how to train your core properly, you might need to expand your definition of what constitutes the core. For most exercisers, their core concept begins and ends with the abs, but speaking from a functional perspective we have to bring the hip and shoulder girdles into the mix. These are the points at which your limbs attach to your body, and proper function in these structures is essential to fully express and develop powerful movement. As many athletic professionals are fond of saying, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.”
My opinion when it comes to training is that systems of muscles are best developed by using them for their intended function, generally speaking. In terms of your core, that function is stability, which is simply the ability to prevent unnecessary or unwanted movement. This is why the core always comes up when talking about low back health; keeping the spine in an optimal position when lifting something requires core stability.
Now the stability thing is probably something you have heard before. After all, you would probably have a hard time finding a decent gym that doesn’t have a few stability balls or a Bosu kicking around. But I want to emphasize that just because you’ve added an element of instability to an exercise doesn’t mean it is going to improve core stability. If you lay back on a stability ball and do a few crunches you are activating the abs, yes, and the instability of the ball might throw you off a bit, but if you are deliberately creating movement in the spine then how are you stabilizing it? It is important to understand that your core is meant to work reactively. Simply working the muscles is not enough; you need to teach them how to respond to the demands they are going to face, so they will do it automatically when the time comes. Training for stability like this will still give you great aesthetic gains, but your core will actually be useful too.
Your core is also responsible for transferring forces through the torso. If you are a martial artist with a striking background or an athlete in a throwing sport, you have probably have had it burned into your memory that “power comes from the hips”. Whether you’re throwing a punch or a ball, you need to produce a powerful rotation with the legs, transfer it through the torso, and manifest it in the upper body. If your core is inefficient at doing this, you’re going to leak a lot of that power before it ever reaches your arm.
So how do you train for core stability? Well, first you want to select exercises that have you in a biomechanically sound posture. This just means that your position is natural and optimal for the human body. Second, you want to impose a demand on this position, something that will try to break your posture. It is important the demand is challenging, but doable. If you can’t maintain the ideal stable position at least most of the time, tone it down to get the best results; vice-versa if it’s too easy. Third, make it unilateral (one-sided). The demands you impose on your core are often going to be biased towards one direction (as when carrying a heavy suitcase or swinging a bat). You need to train your core to deal with these forces spiralling through your body. Unilateral training also will bring to light whether a movement is weaker on one side than the other, and requires some extra work.
I realize I’ve spent this time flooding you with information and haven’t given you a single specific exercise to work on, so allow me to remedy that. In the following video, Gray Cook (a legend in athletic and physiotherapy circles) talks about the importance of training core stability, and how to perform cable chops and lifts. These two simple exercises address the functional ability of your core in a big way and, when done properly, will give you a much better core training experience than crunches or planks in a fraction of the time. Be patient, pay attention to your position, and look for any side-to-side differences.
So there you have it. Take a step back, evaluate your core training, and ask yourself if it’s really useful. Train your core in a functional way, and not only will it help you build a killer midriff, but you’ll actually be able to move heavy stuff, become more resistant to injury, and improve your athleticism at a fundamental level. In Part 2, I’ll touch a bit on the concept of building your strength from the core out.