Forget about Crunches, Learn the Real CORE

by Hong Yiying (Ph.D., CSCS, CPT, MFT)
When mentioning “core”, most people think about crunches. Crunches are good, but your core entails so much more than crunches. This article will teach you what is the real core, its function, and how you can actually train it effectively. You will learn:
  1. What is “core”
  2. Why is maintaining core strength and health so important to overall health and injury prevention
  3. Are there signs/indicators that a person has a weak core
  4. Are there simple ways to work/engage the core throughout the day (not as part of a workout)
  5. What are some of the best core-strengthening exercises to complete as part of a plan
  6. How often should people be including core work in their routine

1. What is “core”?
Core is the linkage between the lower and upper extremities, the transit hub in the center of the kinetic chain across our body. Anatomically, it goes up to the diaphragm and down to the pelvic floor. Some of the important muscles in the core include: rectus abdominis (the 8-pack), transverse abdominis (the hoop), internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum (QL), erector spinae, pelvic floor muscles, and multifidi. 

2. Why is maintaining core strength and health so important to overall health and injury prevention? 
Core has two important functions: stabilization and force transfer.

When we are standing or sitting, the core helps to maintain an upright posture by stabilizing the lumbar spine through balanced force around the middle segment of the body. If the spine is a flag post, the core is like multiple cables/ropes attaching the post to the pelvis so that it doesn’t fall sideways.

Most of our daily movements and sport movements are not isolated in one limb or one part of the body. When we try to pull a heavy door, we pull from the arm but we need to anchor our legs on the floor. Core is the stabilization center to make sure that the anchoring is solid enough to reduce deformational energy loss.

When we throw a basketball, we initiate the jump from the lower-body and the power transfers in sequence to the upper body to execute the throw. In this case, core is the dynamic stabilizer that is essential in power transfer from lower- to upper-body. If your opponent bumps into you to commit a foul during your ball throw, your ability to quickly counter the incoming force and re-balance yourself to prevent fall also rely heavily on the core.

At the center of the core is the lumbar spine, which is designed for stability during weight-bearing activities rather than mobility.

A weak core not only makes movements inefficient, but also results in excessive movement beyond its normal range of motion at the lumbar spine, and hence injury risks.

3. Are there signs/indicators that a person has a weak core? 
Some people with an imbalanced or weak core develop low back pain due to high body mass or overloading from improper exercises. There are many ways to assess the core. A fitness professional usually starts with static posture screening to find any deviation from the neutral posture. These deviations can suggest possible muscle imbalances. However, it should be coupled with movement screening to make any meaningful conclusion. Some standard movement screenings such as squat, overhead squat, single-leg movements, pulling, and push-up screening can reveal the core’s weakness in stabilization during a dynamic movement.

Core is not only measured in terms of strength or weakness, but also balance. As the core involves anterior (front), posterior (back), lateral (side), and deep (inner core) aspects, their relative strength endurance relationship plays an important role in maintaining a neutral posture at rest and during movement. This can be evaluated through a series of core endurance tests to identify muscle imbalance around the core, such as McGill core muscular endurance test battery. Always consult a professional when you intend to perform such assessments and interpret the results.

4. Are there simple ways to work/engage the core throughout the day (not as part of a workout)?
This can be done in two steps. First is to increase postural awareness. Because every individual may have a different issue, some people have under-active abdominal and gluteal muscles and overactive lower-back and hip flexor muscles; some people are exactly the opposite. So the first step is to understand what constitutes a neutral pelvis position, what deviation you are experiencing, how it feels like to be in a neutral posture by engaging the correct muscles. Again, you might want to consult a qualified fitness professional. The next step is to always try to maintain this neutral posture throughout the day, when you are standing, sitting, walking, etc. Simply by trying to maintain the correct posture, you will engage the weakened muscles and train them throughout the day. On the contrary, not being aware of the already deviated posture and chronically positioning yourself in that posture deepens the problem, gradually weakens the core and increases your injury risk.

5. What are some of the best core-strengthening exercises to complete as part of a plan?
The core can be divided into superficial anterior (front side), posterior (back side), lateral (side), and deep core. The movements to train the core should consider all of these aspects. In particular, the movements will include flexion (forward bending of the trunk, e.g. crunches and sit-ups), extension (e.g. superman), sideway movement (e.g. side plank dips), and rotational movements (e.g. wood chops). The training should also consider anti-flexion, anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation, considering the core’s role in stabilization.

Some useful core exercises you may consider are:
  • Plank (anti-extension)
  • Single-leg/double-leg Roman chair hold/extensions (anti-flexion/extension)
  • TRX side plank (anti-lateral flexion)
  • Hay balers / wood chops (rotation)
  • Bear crawl (a.k.a. beast crawl) (anti-rotation during a dynamic movement)
  • Cable/band disturbed movements (where the resistance from the cable/band is not on the same movement plane as the exercise movement itself. Working on anti-rotation properties of the core during a dynamic movement).
Core exercises are actually everywhere. All the compound exercises you do (deadlift, squat, push-up, pull-up, shoulder press, etc.), as long as you are actively maintaining the correct posture, they give large stimuli to train the core. Bear in mind that how you do the exercises are much more important than how much you do. You can deadlift and plank all year long but still compromise your core if you don’t do it correctly.

Don’t forget it’s also about muscle balance. Some muscles need activation and strengthening, while the other muscles need stretching. So yes, stretching should be part of your core training as well.

6. How often should people be including core work in their routine? 
Core exercise is something that you can do every day. Slip it into your resistance training, perform it as a standalone session, or make it as part of your wakeup routine. However, rotate through different aspects of the core if you’re doing dedicated core exercises everyday, because you should give each muscle group at least 48 hours to rest in between training sessions. You can also do some simple dynamic stretching and movement flow routines in bed when you wake up in the morning.
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