What is core strength? Is it six-pack abs? or pelvic floor? Or something else…..
What are the best exercises…….?
Pilates purists might tell you that the most important abdominal muscles to train are those that comprise the deep core, together forming a metaphorical barrel that provides stability and subsequent protection of its contents; the lumbar spine and pelvis. I don’t disagree with this concept, these are important muscles for spinal stability, but are they the most important..?
There is an extensive body of literature supporting the effectiveness of Pilates for general spine health and rehabilitation from injury, though the prescription of Pilates exercises will vary depending on the instructor and available equipment.
Athletes may choose more dynamic, dare I say it ‘functional’, exercises to train the ‘core’. When done correctly, exercises like the Turkish Get-up or Pallof Press integrate stabilisers and prime movers not just of the trunk, but also the hip and shoulder. Exercises of this nature will yield the best results in regard to function and performance. However, these are advanced movements that will have beginners struggling to recruit the correct muscles to move well.
A typical body builder will probably care about more superficial muscles of the abdomen; the rectus abdominis (six-pack) and external obliques. They may choose spinal flexion and rotation exercises to train these muscles, like a crunch or Russian twist. Like any repeated, loaded movement these exercises can induce muscle damage and drive the desired physiological adaptations, maybe you even get ‘toned’ or ‘fully jacked and swoll’ like Arnie (what a legend).
However, what we know about trunk flexion (bending forward), is that it’s a good way to damage spinal disc tissue, whether through sit up repetitions or prolonged, slumped sitting at your desk or on the couch.
Some people may execute these exercises well and never experience any direct pain as a result. Though why not choose alternative exercises that can achieve similar results with a reduced risk of spinal injury.
So what to do?
Train your trunk muscles to hold a neutral spine.
I recommend the best place to start is with the humble plank. The plank or prone bridge is an exercise that most beginners may have heard of, or attempted. It is sometimes downcast by more advanced gym goers as ineffective or too easy, though when done correctly it is a great way to train the body to hold a neutral spine.
Anatomical neutral is how the spine best absorbs stress, not through flexion (bending), extension (arching) or rotation (twisting). Hence, the best way to strengthen trunk muscles and reduce injury risk are to teach them to anti-extend, anti-flex and anti-rotate, holding neutral.
Understand neutral spine, find it, and teach your trunk muscles to hold it! Achieve this first and you will soon be able to progress to more advanced, dynamic exercises that train not only the trunk muscles but the whole body synergistically.
The essence of ‘core strength’ is recruitment, strength and endurance of the muscles that control the spine, not just the deep core or the superficial muscles, but all of the trunk muscles working in various task specific combinations.
For further advice on spinal health, stability and performance training come in to SA Integrated Therapies to help achieve your goals.