The Best Way to Train Your Core (It's Not What You Think)

The Best Core Workout

Pop culture and infomercials have turned  “core” training into the most popular and most misunderstood musculature in the body. We are told that if you flex your trunk in high repetitions and a small range of motion, your waist will slim and your abs will strengthen. 

First, let's get our definition clear: your “core” is not solely your rectus abdominus (the six pack abs that are so often sought after), it is 360 degrees of musculature that include your abdominals, gluteals, hip flexors, obliques, and spinal erectors. Said otherwise, it is the muscular circumference from your nipples to your knees.  Your core has the important role of keeping you standing upright and stable. 

The idea of performing high rep crunches to “tighten and tone” your abs is marketing at its finest, but to me the deception is discouraging. All the popular propaganda promising to use a “secret abdominal exercise routine” to shape your midriff and eliminate fat deposits around the waist is very misleading. While sit ups may increase the local muscular endurance of your abdominals, without a sensible nutrition plan, no core routine will change your body composition. 

It is a popular request by clients to ask their coaches to “train their abs,” which is usually met by an over application by trainers who prescribe some form of sit up. Don’t fall for this trap. It is all too common to want to train what we can see in the mirror. That is, people have the tendency to want to train all the muscles in the front of their body, while neglecting the muscles that are going to keep you walking upright for the rest of your life: your posterior chain. The ratio of what you train in the front relative to the back of your body has to stay in balance. 

The Important Role of Our Core

A common misconception is that you must do movement to train you abs. The role of the “core” is not solely trunk flexion (think sit ups), but to isometrically stabilize the pelvis and trunk. The abdominals are interesting in that they can cause movement through trunk flexion, but perhaps more importantly, they stabilize and prevent movement. This is the ability to brace under load, prevent rotation and in the grad scheme, protect your back. To have a strong “core” you need to be able to maintain a stationary position before adding movement. 

The ability to brace plays a vital role in lifting weights as well as playing sports. If you can brace your trunk, energy transfers better. For example, if you squat with a weak trunk, you risk rounding forward and getting pinned under the bar. The same holds true if you are tackling an opponent, setting a screen on the basketball court, or hitting a baseball.  If your “core” is flimsy, energy will not transfer. You can think of it as the difference between baseball bat or a pool noodle. One is solid and nearly unbreakable and the other flimsy like spaghetti. Which would you rather be?  

Here is a great test I learned from Matt Wenning that you can try at home: put your elbows and forearms on a chair, a couch, or your bed at home with your feet on the ground. Hold your body in a straight line from your shoulders to your feet and your shoulders directly above your elbows. Hold for two minutes. Did you make it? If not, I can assure you a lack of crunches is not the missing piece to your core training. This simple 45 degree plank can be made more difficult by adding movement or changing the angle of your body.  This is a great way to assess static abdominal strength while having the potential to test at different angles.

This is not to say that sit ups are dangerous and that they do not have their place in training. It is to illustrate that we all need to understand the physical qualities we are trying to improve while keeping in mind the application and purpose of the exercise selection. 

A Few Takeaways

  • Your core includes 360 degrees of muscles and in order to prevent injury, balance needs to be maintained. This includes the muscles on the back and sides (spinal erectors, obliques, etc.).

  • Changes in body composition come from your nutritional plan, not “core” work.

  • Abdominals can both move and stabilize your trunk. Your exercise selection should reflect this to build strength in both qualities. 

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