Luke Teuma | UK Personal Trainer
Your core is your centre, and no matter whether you’re sitting down, standing up or moving – you will be utilising it at some point. Core exercises train the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen and should ideally work in harmony. This leads to better balance and stability, whether you’re playing sports or just to help in your daily activities.
Strong core muscles make it easier to do everything from hitting a tennis ball to cleaning your car. As mentioned, these muscles are ideally meant to work in harmony, but if they are weak this can lead to many problems.
What is the core?
When most people think of the core, they think of abs. Although the abs are a important part of the core, they are not the only muscle that it is composed of. The core is like a corset; it consists of muscles that are on the front, side, and back of your body.
There are many muscles used that make up the core, here are just 3 muscles that you’re most probably familiar with and their purpose:
✓ Rectus Abdominus (Abs)
✓ External Oblique
✓ Erector Spinae
The stronger these muscles are, the more firm and tight they becoming giving you a strong and conditioned centre. People also think that working the core has to be specific to certain ‘core exercises’ but you can strengthen your core doing squats, deadlifts, pull ups and many more exercises too!
The function of the core as a whole is to stabilise the spine. This is why core strength and control is essential for optimal training performance.
Rectus Abdominus (Abs)
The main function of the abs is to allow sufficient flexibility of the spine.
These: rotate the spine; laterally flexes the spine; and similar to the abs, the obliques flex the spine too.
This muscle group helps with extension of the spine.
Benefits / variations of working your core
If you think about a boxer, to produce a truly powerful and effective punch they really need to utilise the core through rotation.
The obliques will be hugely involved, the arm of a boxer no doubt will be extremely strong on its own but the rotation of the core will initiate more power to the arm producing a very effective punch. This can be used in many sports including golf, football and tennis.
Think and analyse how these people play their sport and how much movement initiates from the core to help the end result of a movement! Power is extremely important in sports and gym workouts and core will help you produce a load more!
✓ Balance and stability
As mentioned earlier, the core is similar to a corset, the stronger it is, the tighter and more firm it becomes – therefore your balance will become better as you have more control of these stabilising muscles, making them tightly compacted to ensure minimal movement when tested.
So for anyone who is training for an event, particular sport or even just exercising for everyday life, balance is extremely important and can also set you just that little bit apart from your opposition!
✓ Quality of exercises execution
Whether you’re on a machine or a free weights exercise, when exerting your muscles, you’re probably going to feel that the core will engage to try and keep the body stabilised or move it more to help assist a movement.
A great example is if you’ve ever seen someone lean back and arch their back doing a bicep curl. Although this could be argued to be beneficial in order to help lift a very heavy weight, the reality is that really isn’t great for your back and you’ll become slightly dependant on the lower back to help with that weight.
If you had to keep your body still or was to curl against a wall, will your biceps alone have enough strength to curl that same weight? Probably not. In my opinion, it’s better to really focus on isolating and contracting the main moving muscle to ensure its that muscle which is getting the best ROM and contraction and not depending on stabilising muscles to help the movement unsafely.
✓ Decrease lower back pain & injury
Weak core muscles can potentially lead to poor posture, lower back pain and muscle injury.
For example: If your lower back was extremely strong and your abs were weak, the lower back would dominate in stabilising an exercise or engaging during a sport. This will not only cause pain but also this can change positioning of your hips which can lead to some bad postural positions and over compensation. This is why training them equally and making them work in harmony will keep your posture and movement as good as can be.
With big compound movements like squat and deadlift you’ll also be engaging the core; however, tight/weak core muscles will make these movements very difficult as the body positioning will be hard to execute and cause stress on certain areas of the body.
5 Exercises To Strengthen The Core
Exercise #1: Plank
This is a beginner level movement and is great to maintain neutral spine and keep abdominal pressure working all of your core muscles in unison. Begin this exercise on your elbows and knees with the hands locked together.
✓ Keeping the legs straight, lift your body to be supported by the balls of your feet. Feet to be hip distance apart – remember to contract muscles tightly for stability.
✓ Hold the position, breath normally; don’t arch the back; try the exercise for longer each time – 20,30,40… seconds.
Exercise #2: Russian twist
With the feet raised this will certainly engage your core, the rotation will work your obliques giving you a great contraction on your sides. Begin lying on your back on a mat, raise upper body and bend knees to position your body in an imaginary ‘V’ shape.
✓ Grab a medicine ball tightly and extend arms out in front of you. Exhale whilst twisting your torso to one side, keeping your arms straight.
✓ Hold the contraction for 1-2 seconds before repeating on the alternate side and repeat.
Exercise #3: Ab wheel
This will test your control and strength of your core muscles, start off with a small ROM and get lower as you get better at the movement. Begin with an ab roller tightly gripped with both hands whilst kneeling down on the floor (imagine a kneeling push-up.) Remember to keep a tight core at all times.
✓ With control, inhale and roll the wheel forward until your body is aligned as flat as possible (try not to touch the floor with your body.)
✓ Hold the stretch for a moment before exhaling and returning back to the starting position. Repeat.
Exercise #4: Hanging leg raise
The aim will a hanging leg raise is to keep your body still and raise your knees / legs in a controlled manor to focus on contracting the abs whilst maintaining your in a completely still position.
✓ Grab onto a secure overhead bar and let your body naturally hang with legs down.
✓ Exhale and begin to raise your legs to create a 90-degree angle – hold this contraction and return before repeating.
Exercise #5: Cable wood chopper
Using the cable will give you constant resistance throughout the movement, this can be done from different angles and is aimed to use rotation in order to produce power and contracting the obliques! Begin by connecting a handle to a pulley and ensure it’s positioned as high as possible.
✓ Standing on your side, grab the handle with one hand and move arms length away from the machine, keeping the arm straight.
✓ Stand feet width apart and grab the handle with the other hand to extend both arms. Whilst rotating, pull the handle over your body to your knee. Return and repeat for repetitions and perform on other side.
Take home message
Train your core! Even if you don’t play a sport, or don’t really focus on core work currently then start. It will help will to keep a great posture, minimise injuries and execute all of your gym exercises safely and effectively.
For any sports players the core will keep you stable and balanced plus giving you that edge producing a great power output to use on your opponents. For everyday life you will be able to move and stabilise effectively for easy everyday life!
Utilise this important set of muscles to keep a strong, tight and powerful core to keep you training and moving to your full potential.