I am a big fan of core work and an even bigger fan of clearing up misconceptions regarding this seemingly elusive and often misused component of the body.
Let’s first acknowledge that the ‘core’ means far more than a six-pack and your spinal stabilizers. Coined by Bob Gajda and Dr. Richard Dominquez in their publication Total Body Training, the core is inclusive of all the muscles that are part of the torso not including the extremities. The chest, shoulders, lats, middle back muscles, and glutes (along with the spinal stabilizers in the lower back and pelvic region, as well as all the abdominal musculature), therefore, are all part of the core complex. Core activation and awareness is also an important concept to understand. You can read about it here.
Many people make the mistake of focusing entirely on the abdominal muscles (abs) to enhance core strength. This is perhaps attributed to ignorance regarding the anatomy and function of the human body. The other extreme of the problem is that many people make the mistake of focusing entirely on compound exercises such as deadlifts, squats, and pushups to strengthen the core (or what they think the core is). This, on the other hand, may be attributed to research that has been widely misconstrued. Studies have concluded that incorporating multi-joint free weight exercises adequately trains core muscles, as opposed to core-specific exercises. These conclusions, however, fail to mention which core muscles were being studied! The conclusion is not incorrect, but it isn’t specific either. Squats and deadlifts do engage the core, but they activate the posterior core far more than they do the anterior musculature. So, that leaves us with the question of how to train the entire core without neglecting any aspect of the muscles that comprise it.
Our core exercise picks for the month include:
Stability Ball Pike Pushup
Start with your body in a horizontal position with your legs propped up on the ball and your arms stabilizing your upper body. Your anterior ankles should be in contact with the ball as opposed to your toes. This is your starting position. Roll in so that your toes are now stabilizing your lower body on the ball and perform a regular pushup. Upon rising from the pushup, continue to tuck in and roll the ball toward your arms, elevating your body into an inverted V-shape. Slowly roll out and return to the starting position. This is a single rep. As you do this, you will notice that your back extensors are working hard to maintain a stable spine, your chest and shoulders are working to keep you propped up and, as you perform a pushup, your anterior core is engaged in moving the ball while maintaining balance.
Stability Ball Plank Stir
Begin by assuming a plank position with your forearms on a stability ball and your feet slightly apart and propped up on your toes.
Balancing by tightening your torso, use your forearms to rotate the ball in a circular motion. Make as many complete circles in one direction as you can for 20 seconds and repeat in the opposite direction for the same amount of time. To progress, you can either increase the number of circles or move your feet closer to each other.
Hanging Knees-to-Chest Raises
Hang on to a pull-up bar properly– this means gripping the bar slightly wider than your shoulders, head and neck upright, and shoulders engaged with arms slightly bent to make sure that your body won’t swing or sway. Starting from a completely stationary posture (i.e. no momentum or swing), lift your knees up and bring them in towards your chest. Try not to swing at all. Slowly lower them and repeat the exercise for a desired number of reps. To make this more challenging, try to get your toes up all the way to the bar itself (again without swinging).
Since the core encapsulates more than just one set of muscles, it is important to acknowledge that there isn’t one magic exercise that you can use to enhance core strength. A well-rounded program will work towards synergy and details regarding all the aspects of core function and anatomy.