It’s smack dab in the center of your body, but your core is more than just your abs – it encompasses almost 30 different muscles, including your superficial and deep ab musculature, obliques, glutes, hip flexors, superficial and deep spine muscles and even the muscles that make up your diaphragm and pelvic floor. How can your core NOT be important?
It’s from your core that you generate power to do other movements. Strong core muscles help you stay balanced and aligned and improves your ability to do everyday movements. They also protect you against injury. A strong core enhances your appearance too by optimizing your posture. Ever notice how hunched over posture due to poor alignment can make you look 10 pounds heavier?
Chances are you do exercises that specifically target your core muscles, but you can also increase core engagement by modifying your existing training program. Here are four ways to slip more core work into your workouts.
Core Work Tip: Modify Your Planks
Standard planks are an isometric exercise that engages multiple core muscle groups, including your abs, obliques, glutes, and back, however, you can increase core engagement and burn more calories by doing plank modifications. Don’t just hold a static plank every time you hit the floor. Do a set of walking planks on occasion by walking your hands and feet out in on direction and then the other as you hold the plank position. Due to the dynamic nature of this exercise, you’re increasing core engagement and turning a static exercise into a dynamic one for more calorie burn. Plank jacks are another variation you can use to burn more calories while working your core.
Many people avoid doing side planks, maybe because it’s a more challenging move? Don’t be one of them. Side planks target your obliques and are an effective way to build a rock-solid core, not to mention, elicit a balance challenge. After mastering standard planks and side planks, force your core muscles to work harder to maintain balance by doing single-arm planks – they’re more challenging than two-armed planks. Then move to single leg planks.
Next, add a balance challenge. Grab a stability ball and hold a plank with your feet on the ball. Anything that forces you to balance works your core harder. Don’t forget about plank rows holding dumbbell – you’ll get more arm and chest action too with this variation.
Most people don’t venture beyond standard planks but don’t take this approach. As your core adapts and becomes stronger, it’s no longer as challenging. Wake up your core and take it out of its comfort zone with plank variations.
Core Work Tip: Focus More on Compound and Integrated Exercises
When you weight train, you’ll get greater core engagement if you focus more on compound exercises rather than isolation moves. Compound exercises are those that work more than one muscle group or joint at a time – think squats, deadlifts, bent-over rows, overhead press, bench press, and dips. Not only do compound exercises recruit core muscles better, but they also build functional strength and create more metabolic stress so you burn more fat while doing them.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed compound exercises using dumbbells, especially deadlifts, and overhead presses, more effectively target core muscles than standard core exercises. Another study showed back and abdominal muscles were more engaged with exercises that recruit glutes and deltoids than with exercises that only involve flexion of the trunk.
Compound exercises also work those stabilizing muscles that don’t get trained when you do isolation exercises. A good ratio of compound to isolation movements is to do two compound movements for every one isolation movement. Compound exercises are also more time efficient.
Core Work Tip: Do More Unilateral Training Exercises
You can work your core with almost any exercise by working one side at a time. When you work unilaterally, it creates an unstable situation that forces your core to work harder to keep you balanced. Overhead presses, rows, and curls are some of the easier exercises you can do unilaterally. One-legged squats are a little more challenging, but all of these exercises increase core activation relative to working both sides at the same time.
A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed core activation is greater with standing exercises than with seated and greater with unilateral as opposed to bilateral exercises. Unilateral training is also an effective way to correct strength discrepancies between sides, right and left asymmetries. One strategy for incorporating more unilateral training is to add unilateral sets to the end of your workout.
Core Work Tip: Engage Your Core Muscles Every Time You Train
Learn to engage your core when you lift. Get the feel for proper core engagement by pretending someone is getting ready to punch you in the tummy. As you brace for the blow, you’re engaging your core, stiffening or tightening the muscles to protect them. Practice doing this and you’ll soon get an idea for what your core should feel like when it’s engaged. You’ll also get more core engagement on compound exercises if you use good form. Focus more on using proper form than adding more weight and you’ll target your core more AND get better results from every exercise you do.
The Bottom Line
No matter what you do, what kind of sport you play or what your fitness objectives are, a strong core is an asset. Even if the only workout you do is lifting weights, a strong core will help your performance and lower your risk for injury. Sneak extra core work in by engaging your core muscles when you train. Also, do a higher ratio of compound to isolation exercises, train one side at a time on some sets, and break free from the static plank by adding some plank variations. You’ll be rewarded with a strong core, better posture and alignment, and greater resistance to injury.
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. June 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 6 – p 1684-1698. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318291b8da.
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):590-6.
Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 May;112(5):1671-8. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-2141-7. Epub 2011 Aug 30.
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):590-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2cc7.
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