Your Core Muscles are a group of essential muscles that provide a platform of strength and stability for the rest of the more dynamic muscle sets. The core includes pelvic floor muscles, the diaphragm, your transverse abdominals, internal/external obliques, lower back muscles and abdominals. Most of these can be seen in the cross section of the mid-section (right).
As you get more experience lifting weights and understanding the limits of your body; mainly its range of strength, flexibility and balance, it starts to become more and more apparent how vital your core is. In fact, the development of this group of muscles dictates the potential for improvement in all these facets of your body’s structure.
It seems to be an affliction of youth that makes many people ignore the importance of the core and concentrate heavily on the showier muscles, e.g the chest, arms and abs. Often people will repeatedly ‘skip leg day’ to such a degree that they might look top heavy; their upper body muscularity looking bizarre in contrast with the skinny legs holding it up.
Ironically, a complete leg workout amongst a regular weights schedule will actually enhance the gains of the upper body, considering that amongst other reasons, many lifts use the legs as secondary muscles to brace against the force of the primary muscles being worked.
Working the legs and upper body peripheral muscles is all well and good but it still misses the isolation of a crucial area: the core is used in nearly every exercise we perform, and while that in itself will enhance it to a degree, specifically targeting it will induce even better results. Much like concentration curls will build a bicep muscle beyond its capacity that say a lat pull-down will (where it is used as a secondary muscle), isolating the core will have the same effect on the core muscles.
Why Should we Focus on the Core?
As already mentioned, the core is virtually always engaged as a secondary group of muscles during nearly every resistance movement. Not only does it provide extra strength, but stability (balance) and a certain flexibility of movement (a more subtle concept but still apparent).
Strength-wise, a good way of explaining the role of the core muscle group is to use the metaphor of an engine. During a squat movement, the legs can be compared to the piston arms, while the load you are bearing could be the cylinders themselves. Perhaps you can see the bending and straightening of the piston arms as you squat down and up, driving the weight of the cylinder up as you push.
Consider the core to be the engine housing itself. If the cylinder was moving up and down inside a weak engine housing, it would probably not be able to move with as much force and may even break through, completely wrecking the integrity of the engine. If the cast metal housing is very strong then the power can be driven up and the crank shaft can spin faster, pistons and cylinders following suit.
How Does the Core Work?
Dynamic exercises are those which require movement, i.e. lengthening and shortening of the muscle (or contraction/extension), whilst isometric exercises are those which require the muscle to be static. Essentially, the muscle remains engaged, throughout the exercise but does not move.
This type of exercise is especially relevant to the core muscles. During a squat, bench-press or dead lift (the muscle-building trifecta), the core is engaged isometrically the whole way through. Obviously the muscles under dynamic movement are responsible for much of the strength required to lift the mass through the movement. The core is providing the platform and the balance.
There’s two general ways to improve core strength, and while they both involve the same muscle group, they are quite different in execution.
One way is to incorporate core training into your lifestyle, which means that you will learn to engage the core during many of your daily activities. The results from this are less impactful than pure isolation techniques during specific exercise routines but it is well worth it. In fact, if you had the option of this type of conditioning or exercise isolation, lifestyle conditioning would win out every time.
The other way has already been discussed, but core exercises incorporated into your exercise time is a way of yielding quicker results with perhaps a higher strength potential.
Lifestyle conditioning and isolation exercises together will compound the beneficial effects several fold.
So how do you train your core when you are sitting at your desk or getting the first coffee of the day in? The answer is very simple. Engaging the core starts as a conscious effort, but after time will gradually become an autonomous behaviour.
The transverse abdominal muscles are the key to this working as it should. You must think between 20% and 30% maximal effort when using the transverse abs.
This muscle is like a cylinder which lies inside your trunk and provides a solid base layer to the major abs and obliques that everyone wants to show off on the outside. The way to engage them is draw your abdomen inwards – again, just 20% to 30% maximal effort – with the pulling sensation somewhere just below the belly button. You should breath normally as you do this because this is NOT a sucking of air but a drawing-in of the muscle.
Sitting is a fairly corrosive activity, but if you can turn it into a core training exercise then it lessens the negative effect it has. Of course, you must be sat upright for this to be effective. After a while, you will get tired in this position, in which case you can relax. The longer you keep doing it, the longer you will be able to engage the transverse abs, and your inner core will grow and grow in strength as a result.
This strengthening will give your upper and lower body an extremely strong cylindrical-like connection. Think of the upper body and lower body muscle mass the other half will be able to support with this connection.
A certain portion – perhaps 10 to 15 minutes – of your usual exercise routine should be devoted to isolation of the core. This can be done at the end of your session to really ‘finish off’ the muscle group and ensure maximum strengthening over-compensation before the next workout.
The plank, and various related exercises are excellent examples of core isolation. Swiss balls (hte big inflatable ones) are ideal for maximizing the balance and stability aspect of core training, and whether or not you are used to using them, or think you look silly doing it, it is you that will get the last laugh from sticking with it and really solidifying yourself.
What Improvements Can You Expect Elsewhere?
Some people, whether through injury or another reason, must dial their training back to consisting ONLY of core training and cardio work for a period of time. These are the people who will tell you the benefits of improving this area of their physique.
Yes, they may have lost some of their power in dynamic exercise, but the body will bounce back and remember how to get there again very quickly. The real difference lies in the base strength they possess on returning to the weights. The added core strength means the potential for overall muscle growth and strength improvements is so much larger.
Flexibility and Injury Prevention
Many back injuries are caused by a weak core. For example, if the load being lifted shifts out of balance then the stabilizing muscles to keep it controlled might be placed under stresses that they alone can not bear; thereby causing them to be damaged. Often, this injury can be directly caused to the back area or manifest that way via sympathetic responses from other muscles trying to absorb the load that the injured ones can’t. Either way the cascade effect means more time is spent recovering from injury rather than benefitting from muscle gains.
Strengthening the core can not only prevent or minimize these injuries but can add flexibility to the movements you can perform while under stress. Specifically, the ability to hold isometric positions during activity such as Yoga, rather than lose the integrity of the pose (with tell-tale body shaking) can all be attributed to additional core strength gained.
It can take a long time before some people really embrace the value of core training, and the integration of core engagement throughout daily life.
Once it is adopted, however, the gains in both overall strength, stability and injury prevention are well worth the effort.
For a place to start splitting your whole exercise schedule into something that makes sense and works really well, try our primer on the Push Leg Pull Split.