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Core Training … It’s Not About Your Six-Pack

Why Everyone Needs to Focus on Their Core, and How to Do So


If you’re looking for the answer to a summer six-pack, you’re not going to find it here. Why? First, it doesn’t’ matter (at least, not as much as you think it does). Second, we’ll deal with that issue in an upcoming article … so stay tuned.

For the last several years there has been considerable focus on the “core” and its development. Look at the group exercise classes available at any health club, the services offered by personal trainers, or the exercise books on the Barnes and Nobles shelf and there’s bound to be something related to it. But ask 10 different people what it is, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Everybody knows you’re supposed to do it but nobody knows how or what in the world it is!

Chris Ecklund

So what is it? What does the core do? Why do we need to train it?

Core, as its name implies, refers to the center. In this case, we’re speaking about the anatomy of the human body. Specifically we are discussing the hip/pelvic girdle, abdominal region, and spinal musculature. Take a look at the average 20- to 40-year-old individual. How many of your friends (athlete or not) in that age bracket have some sort of a “back problem” or issue? Generally the numbers are fairly significant. And we’re talking about an age that is generally considered young. Yet the numbers are there — people are struggling with all types of back dysfunction, oftentimes merely aggravating, but sometimes debilitating.

As you know, the spine houses an extremely important part of our anatomy: the spinal column or cord. It is from that neurological highway where messages are sent both to and from our muscles, organs, tissues, and so forth. While the vertebrae provide a solid protective housing, there are some issues that come along with daily living (poor posture, sitting too much, etc.) that create problems for the spine and the tissues around the spine. When dysfunction arises here, the spinal cord cannot transmit or receive messages as effectively nor can the body move efficiently.

Santa Barbara physical therapist Brook Phillips explains the situation in more detail. “The ‘deep’ or ‘true’ core musculature includes the transverse abdominis, multifidi, posterior/deep psoas, pelvic floor and medial quadratus lumborum,” he said. “Essentially, the muscles that attach the most medial and deep to the spine are considered to be the ‘true’ core. Their primary job is to provide rigidity to the spine to resist segmental shear and torsional forces versus trunk motion. Since these muscles perform isometrically, they must be trained the same way. Training should emphasize isometric contraction of these muscles while performing static and/or dynamic trunk exercises such as front/side/back planks.”

Simply stated, if the muscles deep in your body can’t keep the stuff that’s not supposed to move from moving, you’ll either have pain or loss of function coming soon. What’s more, if you can keep what should be still still, then you won’t be able to move what should move well either. Here’s an illustration: What happens if you try to shoot a cannon if it’s sitting on a surfboard? The cannon explodes and the surfboard goes sailing. Why? It’s not stable. The cannon can’t effectively fire unless on stable ground. Get the picture? If your core isn’t strong, your body has nothing stable from which to create movement.

I’m not an athlete, though,” you think, “so what’s the big deal?” Pain and loss of function. That’s the deal. It’s the old “use it or lose it” concept. The transverse abdominals and multifidi muscles (which both help stabilize the spine) lose their ability to hold the spine and the hips in proper alignment. And years of this type of chronic malalignment or poor posture leads to aches and pains in the back, muscle strains, or even worse, like disc herniations or ruptures.

Those who are athletes even have more to worry about, because poor biomechanics can lead to decreased force production, which can also lead to overuse injuries over the long term. Even if your posture is good, it is likely that you do not have the core strength to maintain that position under the stresses and strains of your respective sport. Ultimately, you will lose strength, power, and have a higher injury risk. If you do have the core strength, it means a stronger forehand for tennis, a harder hit for an outside hitter in volleyball, a quicker first step and increased vertical for the basketball player, better bat speed for the baseball player, and a quicker cut for the football running back. Why? All power and speed either begins or must be translated through the core. It’s like an electrical circuit. If the circuit breaker shuts off because too much electricity is being demanded — no power. Think of your core as the circuit breaker. If it breaks down, you can’t jump as high.

So core training is really beneficial to all. Here are some easy ways to start.

1) Draw Ins for Transverse Abdominal Work: Perform by pulling your belly button into your spine as much as possible.

2) Kegel Contractions for Pelvic Floor and Multifidus Work: Performed by contracting your lower abdominals in the same manner as you would to stop urinating and hold in gas. These contractions can be performed during any of the other three exercises.

3) Bridges/Planks for Both Gluteus Medius/Tensor Fascia Latae (Hip Stabilizers) and Multifidus/Paraspinals (Spine Stabilizers): Perform in various positions (prone, supine, on side) attempting to hold the body in perfectly straight line from head to heel.

4) Quadruped work to minimize spinal rotation under stress: Perform on hands and knees (hand under shoulders/knees under hips), extend arms toward wall one at a time or alternating, extend legs toward wall one at a time or alternating, extend opposite arms and legs.

All of these exercises should be performed with a maintained “Draw In,” a neutral spine, a perfect postural alignment, and slow controlled movements.

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Chris Ecklund, MA, CSCS, USAW is a strength & performance coach, adjunct faculty at Westmont College and University of California Santa Barbara and speaks and writes nationally as a fitness and performance expert.

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