I was recently asked by Mens Health magazine to put together some information for an article about core training. As is often the case with these kind of requests they are a little unsure what shape the article will take – as such I cobbled together my current (because they do change!) thoughts on the core – what it does – and how to train it. The Mens Health piece ended up being shorter than planned and more of a sample workout – you can see the article here.
However, I thought it would be worthwhile publishing the information I had put together for them.
The core – depending on who you listen to – can include everything from your ‘6 pack’ mucle (rectus abdominus) through to your gluteals (butt) and even your diaphragm. Training it effectively will require understanding that its more than doing crunches.
Muscles in the body can be broadly catergorised into ‘tonic’ or ‘phasic’ muscles.
Tonic muscles have a job of maintaining tone and are also known as postural muscles or stabilisers.
Phasic muscles – as the name suggests – provide movement.
Maintaining optimal functionality requires us to use the right muscles, at the right time, for the right job. When we have large global (phasic) muscles doing the job of smaller, local (tonic) muscles, the big boys become overly ‘tonic’ (tight) and the little guys become weak and inactive. Classic example of this is the chronically tight hamstring doing the job of stabilising a pelvis in a person with a weak core – you can see my post on the relation between hamstrings and core strength here.
The musculature of the ‘core’ falls into the tonic category . Tonic, or postural muscles have a role of resisting movement rather than providing it. Their job is quite simply to keep you upright, or more specifically keep your ribcage on top of your pelvis.
Understanding the role of the core then makes training it very simple. All we do is understand how many ways our upright, neutral posture can be compromised, and train to provide strength resisting those forces.
What directions can affect or challenge our ‘neutrality’?
Flexion (forward bending)
Extension (backward bending, or arching)
Lateral flexion (side bending)
Now to effectively train the core we need exercises to provide strength and stability resisting ALL of those directional forces. The most important to consider are the flexion and extension resistant exercises – as they are the most common forces we have to deal with – which of those we bias will depend on the starting posture of the individual.
Good ‘bang for your buck’ exercises for each plane:
Anti-flexion: ‘bird dogs’, prone ‘superman’, glute bridges
Anti extension: dead bugs, roll outs, plank variations.
Anti lateral flexion: Side planks, suitcase carries
Anti-rotation: chopping variations (as a guide – start with half kneeling and progress through tall kneeling, to standing)
Most important point to get across with core training, or indeed training any other tonic muscle (rotator cuff etc) is that you do not train them to failure – ever!
Crushing a bicep / tricep workout till you can fry an egg on your arm is all well and good – but ever tried doing that and then performing a fine control task with that same arm the next day?
Muscles that we need to maintain posture and prevent injury we do not teach to fail and shut down– think of it as driving without your seatbelt on….