Core Strength: What is it? Why do we need it? And how do we get it?

Core training is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Any balanced training regimen will include enough core exercises to complement the rest of the workout and prevent injury. That said, many people don’t actually know what the core is, why it’s important, or how to train it effectively. Below I will discuss these topics and hopefully convince you to stop doing so many damn crunches.

What IS the Core anyway?

It’s really no surprise people misuse the term, as there isn’t actually universal consensus on it’s definition. The term “core” is fairly nebulous and has several definitions within the scientific community. I fall into the school that defines the core as the group of muscles that stabilize and protect the spine. This means the core includes most of the muscles in your torso, neck, butt, and hips. Contrary to what you might think, the core is not synonymous for only abs, although abs do play an important role.

Why is this Important? Why do we Train the Core?

The core’s job is to transfer force from one extremity to the other without excessive spinal movement. Assuming the rest of you is strong enough to generate force in the first place, the stronger your core is, the more force you will be able to safely transfer. Better force transference means the more weight you can lift, the harder you can punch, and the faster you can swing a bat.

Understanding the function of these muscles in relation to core strength determines how we train them. Keeping our spine safe is obviously important, but what does that entail? Accepting the core’s role as a stabilizer means we want to PREVENT movement rather than create it during core exercises. Knowing this, we conclude that core strengthening should teach the many individual muscles of the core to fire as a unit in order to prevent spinal motion under an external load, such as a barbell, couch, or toddler.

How to Build a Strong Core (and how not to)

First, let’s define strength training. Simply put, maximal strength is moving the heaviest weight possible for one repetition. The more force you can exert on an object, the stronger you are.

Now, let’s apply this concept to core training. We know that the core’s primary function is to prevent movement in the spine, so a stronger core will be one that can resist more force. The stronger your core, the more weight you can lift without your posture breaking. When training the core, our goal is to develop and increase the ability to resist force.

So how do we do this?

If we are trying to prevent movement through the spine, we need to learn to create tension. A string can become sturdy by pulling at both ends and creating tension. No matter what core exercise we do, we should seek to create as much tension as possible. Eventually resistance can be added, but learning to create tension properly is invaluable. A simple bodyweight exercise like a plank has a very high ceiling for strength because there is no limit to the amount of tension you can create. Planks don’t really get easier if you do them right. The stronger you get, the more tension you can create, and consequently the harder the exercise becomes.

The core needs to be strong in every direction, so we must train it in every direction. The three planes of movement are sagittal (forward and back,) lateral (side to side,) and transverse (rotational). Every human movement is within some combination of these three planes. With the concept of tension in mind, here are some examples of exercises in each plane:

-Sagittal: front plank, dead bugs, hollow hold, leg lift, ab rollout
-Lateral: side plank, suitcase hold,
-Transverse: pallof press, single arm plank, renegade row, cable anti rotation hold, landmine russian twist

You’ll notice that nowhere on here do I include popular exercises like crunches or other bendy exercises. These exercises can be useful for some individuals, but I feel they do not build the kind of strength most people need, and that time could be better spent doing the exercises listed above.

Crunches do not build strength, they build endurance. Anything you can do 30+ times is not building strength. To build strength, we need heavy resistance/high tension as previously discussed. Furthermore, crunches do not build the strength to resist movement, and therefore aren’t going to be that useful in creating the powerful core stability we want.

All AB-out Core Training

There you have it! Here I have provided a very, very brief overview of core training. While there is much to be said on the topic, the information here is sufficient to take your training to next level, especially if your core training currently consists of sit-ups and  planks with an arched back. Including a core exercise from each plane at the end of a workout once a week should do the trick. Just don’t overdo it — no need to spend an hour a day doing core work.

Questions or comments? Want to know more about bulletproofing your core? Interested in Personal Training? Send a message my way!

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