A common debate in the fitness community is how frequently the core should be trained. Some say that the core should be trained every day, even multiple times a day, while others say that it should only be trained once a week. A better understanding of the core can help one grapple with this issue.
The stomach consists of two components – an inner and an outer core. The inner core provides stability and strength, while the outer core provides aesthetics. While this analogy is not particularly accurate, in that the “outer” core makes a valuable contribution toward your strength and stability, the analogy is helpful in understanding how to train the core.
The “Inner” Core
Regardless of your goals, be them sports or aesthetically related, your inner core is fundamental. Having a strong inner core will make your body stabilise better, which means better form, and therefore better growth and less injury. If you are playing sports this means your accuracy, balance, stability, and longevity all gain a substantial benefit from a strong inner core. If you are training for aesthetics you will be able to lift with better form, which means better growth, you will be able to lift heavier, which means gains in strength and size, and again, you will be less prone to injuries, which means a longer training lifespan.
To train your “inner” core is quite easy in theory (but in practice challenging!). Exercises focusing on stabilisation, or a sustained position work the inner core in the best manner. So your most basic exercise for the inner core is a plank – push-up position with your elbows on the floor, feet together, and a straight line from your ankles, through your spine, to the top of your head.
Of course, like any muscle group, the more angles you hit it from, the better the results. So try planking with your feet at a raised level, then try with your arms at a raised level. For a more challenging approach place your feet, or arms, on a ball, to focus on stabilisation. You can also do all of the above as a side plank, with only one foot and the same side arm touching the ground or ball. The more of these variations you do, the better. Do not do anything less than 30 seconds, and do as long as you want. An example of a good stabilisation workout is as follows:
✓ 1-minute normal plank on the ground
✓ 1-minute plank with feet on a ball
✓ 30-seconds normal plank on left side
✓ 1-minute plank with arms on the ball
✓ 30-seconds normal plank on right side
✓ 1-minute plank with hands on the ball in a push-up position with arms straight
✓ 1-minute normal plank on the ground
Don’t rest for longer than 30 seconds between each plank, so the whole workout should take less than 10 minutes!
The “Outer” Core
While the benefits of the “outer” core are the much anticipated chiselled abs, they also provide a substantial practical benefit – explosive power. This means sprinting faster, lifting heavier, punching harder, or which explosive action is relative to your training. The reason this benefit occurs is because aesthetic abs are achieved through contraction of the abdominal muscle – be such contractions through crunches, sit-ups, or leg raises. When these muscles are strengthened, it allows the stomach muscles to contract harder and faster meaning that the body itself can move harder and faster. As the stomach is the driving force behind your body – in the same way an engine drives a car, your stomach drives your body.
To train your “outer” core it is best to perform the usual – crunches, sit-ups, etc. It is important to make sure that you do not only do linear movements, lateral movements must also be incorporated by activating your oblique muscles on the side of your stomach through Russian-twists, side raises/crunches, and so on. Keep your reps higher than 15, and no less than three sets, with as little rest as possible in between sets, without comprising on the form. Any exercise which contracts or expands your stomach is appropriate so mix it up as you like – it’s best not to stick to one combination. So choose four or five exercises, make them 20 reps each and repeat 3 or 4 times. Personally, I prefer to do them as a chain so my workout would look something like this:
✓ 40 Sit-ups
✓ 20 Leg-raises
✓40 Russian twists
✓ 40 Crunches
I would do this as a circuit and repeat it 4 times, after doing the stability workout provided earlier.
I don’t see a substantial difference if I do this workout 5 times in a week, versus if I do it twice, provided that I am doing cardio throughout the week. I would therefore not bother doing it more than twice a week, keeping in mind, however, that most exercises in the gym work out the core anyway – any compound lift with a weight is going to incorporate the core.
It is, of course, imperative, if your goal is aesthetics to ensure that you are also doing at least two cardio sessions a week on top of this. I find that those that might do this workout 6 or 7 times a week don’t necessarily need to do cardio, and can retain their abs provided that they are eating correctly, but I think the results are still better when completing core twice a week, and 2 cardio sessions. Of course, if you want to do core 7 times a week, and cardio, the results will show.
On the topic of aesthetics, it must be noted that while a core workout is critical to abs, the most important of all is diet and cardio – if your body fat % is too high, you can have the best ab muscles in the world, but no one would know because they are covered in a layer of fat. All in all, however, core workouts are critical to a good training regime and done right they can yield a number of satisfying, and substantial, results.