Think you have strong core muscles? It’s a common misconception that all it takes to build a strong core are standard abdominal exercises like crunches, bicycles and leg lifts. These exercises only strengthen a portion of your core, mainly your rectus abdominus muscles and obliques. They do little for other muscles that make up your core – hip flexors, back muscles and deeper muscles like the transverse abdominis and the muscles that support the pelvic floor. The transverse abdominis is the deepest abdominal muscle, sometimes referred to as the “corset muscle,” for good reason, a transverse abdominis holds everything in, giving you those hard-to-get flat abs.
The deeper muscles that make up your core are “stabilizers,” muscles that keep you steady and balanced when the “primary” muscles are doing the work. When stabilizing muscles are weak, it reduces the amount of weight you’re able to lift. Strong stabilizers also make it easier to do functional movements where you have to stabilize your body as you generate force, for example, lifting a heavy box.
The benefits of training your core extend beyond building “chiseled abs,” a goal many fitness buffs aspire to. Sculpted abs are important, but so is injury prevention. A strong core helps you generate force and avoid injury when you weight train and play sports. Strong core muscles also support your spine and lower your risk for back problems. It’s your core that connects your upper body with your lower body and transfers force between the two. Your body is only as strong as its weakest link, and for many people, that’s their core.
Signs Your Core Muscles Are Weak
How strong is YOUR core? One of the most common signs your core muscles need strengthening is a history of sports or weight-training injuries. The muscles that make up your core work together to help you maintain balance during dynamic movements. Strong core muscles also help distribute force more effectively when you lift a barbell or a heavy object. This reduces the stress on your muscles and joints when you lift, not to mention improves your lifting performance.
A weak core can also show up as problems with balance and difficulty generating power. Remember, the core muscles help the primary muscles generate more force through their role as stabilizers. People who play any type of sports, even long-distance runners, can benefit from core training. For certain sports that require power, like sprinting or jumping, core strength and stability is critical.
Poor core strength also shows up as chronic back pain. Research shows core strengthening reduces the risk of lower back pain. It’s not hard to see why. A balanced core workout targets muscles in the upper and lower back, making them stronger and more resistant to strains. Core strengthening also helps with body alignment and posture. Poor posture is a common cause of lower back pain. When you slump, the muscles in your spine and neck have to work harder to keep you balanced. A strong core also gives your spinal column greater support and stability.
How Strong Are Your Core Muscles?
One measure of how strong your core muscles are is the plank test. If you can’t hold a plank position for at least 30 seconds, your core definitely needs strengthening. If you can hold a plank for 60 seconds or more, you’ve got a reasonably strong core. Now try a side plank with your body in a straight line and your weight on your elbows and feet. Can you hold it for 60 seconds? If so, you’ve got a pretty strong core.
Best Exercises for the Core
Core training requires a balanced approach. With so many muscles making up your core, abdominal crunches alone won’t cut it. Instead, focus on doing a variety of abdominal exercises including planks, side planks, bicycles, leg lifts, flutter kicks, etc. followed by exercises that target your back. Training the core muscles in the front without attending to the ones in the back will create a muscle imbalance that leads to performance problems and, potentially, injury or back pain. Imbalances create a “weak link” in the chain, which you don’t want. Supermans (back extensions) is an effective exercise that targets back muscles. Other back exercises to add to your core strengthening routine: good mornings, bridges and bird dogs.
It’s easy to see why so many fitness trainers focus on planks. Unlike crunches that only target ab muscles, planks also strengthen your upper back, lower back, and hips. You’ll get more benefit from planks when you focus on fully engaging your transverse abdominis, the corset muscle, by pulling in your abs.
Planks have their limitations though. Planks are an isometric exercise that don’t work your core muscles through their full range of motion. That’s why you need to do a variety of back and abdominal exercises to maximize core strength. They also don’t burn many calories. You can ramp up the calorie burn and still get some of the benefits that planks offer by doing plank jacks or mountain climbers. You can also create a balance challenge by doing a plank with your feet on a stability ball.
To work your core in a different way, try a power yoga workout. Certain yoga poses, like boat pose, target on your core and abs. Yoga also improves posture, which can help prevent back pain. Yoga is a good complement to weight training and a way to relax and unwind after a workout.
The Bottom Line?
A strong core helps generate power, supports your spine, helps with posture and lowers your risk of injuries and back pain. If your core muscles are weak, make sure you’re doing workouts that target all the muscles that make up your core. Abdominal crunches alone just won’t cut it.
J Occup Med Toxicol. 2007; 2: 3.
ACE Fitness. “Core Training for Injury Prevention”
Bol Asoc Med P R. 2006 Jan-Mar;98(1):56-61.
Stack.com. “How Strong is Your Core?”
ACE Fitness. “Reality Check: Are Planks Really the Best Core Exercise?”
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