Your core is a multidimensional group of muscles that allow you to move in all planes of motion. It’s from your center, or core, that power is generated and transferred to your upper and lower body. Your core muscles also act as dynamic stabilizers. As such, they play a key role in functional fitness and in sports performance, including strength training. If your core muscles are weak, you won’t be able to lift as much weight safely and will be at a higher risk of injury.
A strong core protects against back pain and injury in your daily life. Every time you stand up from a chair, twist your body or lift something, you recruit muscles in your core to help you do the job safely. Since core muscles stabilize your body, they help you stay balanced, so you’re less likely to fall. Core imbalances also create postural imbalances that contribute to neck and back pain. A strong core is the best protection against back pain and injury.
Most people consistently work only a portion of their core muscles, specifically the muscles that make up the superficial abdominal wall – the rectus abdominus and internal and external obliques. Unfortunately, they focus less on the deeper abdominal muscles that also comprise the core, mainly the transverse abdominus. Yet your core is also made up of the muscles in your back and hip.
All total, there are about 30 muscles that make up your core. Needless to say, abdominal crunches won’t work all of these muscles. In fact, if you’re just doing crunches, especially if you’re using sloppy form, you’re placing added strain on your back.
How Strong is Your Core?
A simple test of core strength is how long you can hold a plank, with good form, of course. Test yourself by getting into a plank position. Your forearms should be even with your shoulders and your body in a straight line from head to toe. No cheating by lifting your hips into the air or letting your body sag. Time yourself to see how long you can hold this position.
How’d you do? Here’s how to interpret the results:
Under one minute Weak. Your core needs significant work
1 minute Average. About what you should expect if you’re in reasonable shape.
1-2 minutes Good
2 minutes or more Excellent
Are there other tests of core strength? According to Robert Donatelli, Ph.D., PT, the single leg stance is a barometer of core strength. How long can you stand on one leg without toppling to one side? Give it a try. As Dr. Donatelli points out, people with weak core muscles often can’t hold this position for even 6 seconds. Ideally, you should be able to hold this stance for 10 seconds or longer. Try it on each side. Then, challenge yourself more by doing partial squats using only one leg. If you have trouble staying balanced, you need to focus on strengthening your core.
Other Signs That Your Core Muscles Need Work
How is your posture? If you slump when you stand or sit, it’s partially because your core muscles are weak. Remember, core muscles are the muscles that support your back and spine too. One sign that core strength is lacking is a tendency to slump. What’s happening is muscle imbalances in your core create instability that makes it hard to sit or stand with proper posture. If you slump day after day, you strain the muscles in your back and are at high risk for back pain. Doing more core work can boost your posture by strengthening the weak muscles and creating balance and stability. Not correcting the imbalances reinforces the problem and your body becomes accustomed to being slumped over, often without your awareness.
Strengthening Weak Core Muscles
If you don’t fare well on the core strength tests, do something about it. Focus less of your workout time on exercises that work the superficial muscles in your abdomen, like crunches, and more on movements that recruit the other 27 or so muscles in your core. Remember, the goal is to create balanced muscle strength.
Doing planks, and their many variations, are one way to improve core strength. Once you can hold a plank for two minutes, try holding the position with one arm stretched out in front of you or one leg stretched out behind you. (off the floor) Once that starts to feel easy, add movement to your planks by doing walking planks or by placing your feet on an unstable surface as you hold a plank.
Compound Exercises for Core Strength
Make sure your workout routine focuses mostly on compound exercises, multi-joint movements that work more than one muscle group. Examples are deadlifts, squats, push-ups, overhead presses, lunges, and bent-over rows. Although these movements don’t directly target core muscles, as planks do, you recruit your core muscles as stabilizers. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed compound exercises target core muscles better than actual core exercises do.
Finally, don’t confuse abdominal work with core work. Crunches, crunches, and more crunches create an unbalanced core. When you do an abdominal flexion exercise, follow it with one that involves back extension, like Supermans. Most importantly, lighten up on abdominal floor exercise you do on your back and replace them with more plank movements and compound exercises.
Finally, don’t underestimate the core-strengthening benefits of yoga. Certain yoga poses, like tree pose, help increase core muscles strength if you do them regularly. Plus, it’s a way to add variety to your core workout.
The Bottom Line
If you can’t hold a plank as long as you expected, work on improving your core strength with a variety of plank variations and compound strength training movements. Such an approach will pay off with better performance when you weight train when you play sports and in everyday life.
SportsMD.com. “What is The Core?”
On Fitness. September/October 2016. “9 Test for Your Overall Fitness”
J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Mar; 27(3): 619–622.Published online 2015 Mar 31. doi: 10.1589/jpts.27.619.
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. June 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 6 – p 1684-1698. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318291b8da.
WebMD. “Balance Your Way to a Stronger Body”
PLoS One. 2012; 7(12): e52082.
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