By Michael Krueger
The concept of core strength has been a hot topic for the past decade or so. Gone are the days when people did a set of sit-ups and called it a day. Now there are dozens of machines and multiple toys and techniques–all dedicated to improving “core strength.” What is it all about?
Where Is Your Core?
There are a lot of ideas regarding what and where your core is and how to train it. Since there isn’t any definition that everyone can agree on, I guess they are all more or less accurate. My opinion is that your core starts at you navel and radiates in all directions. The weakest parts of the core are usually the lower back, the glutes, and the hamstrings. Notice how these areas are all on your backside, where you can’t easily see. This is a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind.”
There are many different exercises that can be done to improve these areas. You could easily spend a few minutes addressing the various muscle groups during your workout and move on. Unfortunately, this is only going to going to provide some of the stimulus that you need to improve your core. Core-specific exercise certainly is an important part, but the biggest change–with the biggest effect you can have–is to address your posture both in and out of the gym.
Stop and look at how you are sitting right now. Odds are you are slouching, your legs are crossed, you are resting on your elbows, your head is tilted, and your back is twisted. Is it any wonder that you make “your grandfather’s noises”whenever you get out of your chair?
Exercise is a couple of times a week, and core exercises are just a few minutes of that workout; posture is all the time, even when you are sleeping. Proper postural alignment will give you more benefits than you can imagine. If you make the effort to stand up straight with your arms at your sides and your thumbs pointed forward, chin up and chest out, shoulders back with your weight equally distributed on both feet with your pelvis in a neutral tilt, I can pretty much guarantee that within a few minutes you will be fatigued and uncomfortable. Why is that, you may ask? It’s because you don’t normally hold your body in that position, and to maintain it you must fight gravity, years of muscle memory, and many bad postural habits.
Once you have tried this little experiment, you will have a better idea of what you need to address both in the gym and in your daily activities. You will notice that perhaps your hips felt tired and tight, or you lower back began to burn; these are telltale markers of weaknesses that need to be addressed. There are exercises to help you do that, and these are important to incorporate into your routine, but the biggest benefit will come when you start standing, sitting, and walking properly. Bottom line is that Mom was right: Sit up straight, and stop slouching.
Let’s talk about the simplest exercises you can do to improve the strength of your core. There really are just five or so moves necessary to hit all the groups.
First, you need a sit-up crunch-type move; then a twist like a “Russian twist”; next, a static hold like “planks,” “side planks,” or “bridges”; a lower back extension like “Superman’s” or “bird dogs”; and a hamstring/glute move like “leg curls” or “straight leg dead lifts.” A set of each, and you are done. Of course, you may do more if you are so inclined, but this is enough to get you headed in the right direction.
There are also many sophisticated machines available in gyms to help you work these muscles. Many of them are quite good; if they are available to you and you like them, by all means use them. Many of the “infomercial” products advertised on TV are suspect in their science, overblown in their claims of success, and poorly built; it is better to just ignore them. When deciding on an exercise course of action, just think about what each movement is doing, and be sure to maintain a balance between all the muscles in all the planes of movement that you are working on.
Balance is the key to successfully addressing core muscles. We tend to overwork the abs in hopes of developing a “six pack.” What usually happens in that case is you overwork your hips flexors and quads. Over time, this can cause a lot of problems with your back. For most people, the quest for a six pack will end in disappointment. The old adage that you can’t spot reduce is true. Only by greatly reducing your body fat will you ever be able to see the underlying structure of the rectus abdominus muscles.
Whenever you lift weights, you should be paying attention to your posture. This even applies to exercises where you are lying flat on a bench.
Keeping in mind how important it is to breathe while lifting, it is equally important to “block” or brace your abs while lifting. This is done by momentarily tightening your abdominal muscles. The contraction is similar to what you would do if you thought someone was about to punch you in the gut. This movement creates a solid core out of your liquid center. The muscles compress your internal organs into a rigid cylinder between your back, abs, and obliques. This creates a “girdle,” which stabilizes your spine, thereby preventing injuries. With practice, you will be able to maintain a solid core while still breathing. While on the “girdle” subject, don’t use a lifting belt in the normal course of your workout. Such belts are used by trained power lifters to gain additional support for their back when attempting a one rep max lift. If you use them as a matter of course, you will be depriving yourself of the opportunity to strengthen the very muscles that need attention.
This braced position can’t be maintained unless you are standing, sitting, or lying “tall.” This means shoulders back, spine straight, chin up, and pelvis neutral. This is the position you should be maintaining at all times in and out of the gym. Your entire body works best from this ideal postural position.
Day to Day
I would guess that everyone has at one time or another experienced the morning to night “shrinking” phenomenon that is illustrated by having to adjust your rearview mirror at the end of the day. By day’s end, you have allowed gravity to beat you down, and you slouch into your vehicle and can’t see anything in your mirror. This can act as a simple daily reminder to improve your posture.
There are so many issues that are made worse though poor posture. We don’t breathe as well as we might if we sat and stood straight. We don’t digest our food as well, causing heartburn and acid reflux. Our necks get sore, and even our eyes get tired from not being in their proper alignment.
The sore neck issue has recently shown itself in a new and disturbing light. Chiropractors have noticed that they are seeing more children than ever before with neck and upper back pain. It turns out that many kids are spending so much time with their heads tilted down and their shoulders rolled forward while texting that they are developing chronic pain issues. This does not bode well for the prospect of them living an effective pain-free life.
Fortunately, the cure for “postural deficiency” really is as simple as standing and sitting up straight. These uncomplicated acts will put you on the road to a solid core, reduced pain, and improved function. I’ve seen people with severe chronic back and radiating leg pain become pain-free in a few weeks just by being more aware of their posture and doing those few simple core-strengthening exercises mentioned earlier.
The human body is very adaptable. Train it to do what you want it to do, and it will respond every time. Leave it to its own devices, and the end result is entropy every time.
Now, quit slouching and sit up straight … and while you’re at it, eat your vegetables!
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.