Are you tired of the usual fare of abdominal exercises -- crunches, leg lifts, weighted side bends? If so, that's probably a good thing. Those exercises are far more likely to cause back pain than carve a solid core.
Finishing your workout with four to five sets of traditional ab exercises, often termed "isolated movements," used to be considered good core training. In reality, though, your body does not act in isolation.
Instead, you should think of your body as a single kinetic chain. Movement is created through the coordination of multiple muscle groups. So when you train your core, focus on integrated movements, not on trying to isolate a particular muscle or muscle group.
Another issue with performing a high volume of crunches and situps is that they can leave you with bad posture, shortened hip flexors and lower back pain.
The core really encompasses everything from your head to your toes, as every segment of your body is intimately linked, both structurally and functionally.
Eric Cressey, certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Cressey Performance, Hudson, Massachusetts
What Is the Core?
Before you can understand what is meant by integrated movements, you must know the definition of core.
"The core really encompasses everything from your head to your toes, as every segment of your body is intimately linked, both structurally and functionally," explained Eric Cressey, certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. He says that while there are many exercises that train the torso, the most effective, as well as the most functional, are often simply derivatives of what we already do -- such as the squat, the deadlift, the lunge -- but with asymmetrical loading and optimal trunk positioning.
The core does not only refer to the anterior musculature, which includes the rectus abdominis -- commonly referred to as the six-pack; transverse abdominis -- the musculature below the rectus abdominis; multifidus -- deep lying stabilizer; and the internal and external obliques -- the musculature in your sides that aid in twisting and hip flexion. Stabilizing the torso and engaging in movement is a collaboration among these muscles and the antagonistic engagement of the entire posterior chain -- the lats, spinal erectors, glutes and hamstrings.
Developing the Core
Joe Dowdell, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Peak Performance in New York City, says real core training is about selecting appropriate core exercises, those that will challenge your abilities while safely and effectively progressing you toward your goal.
"That being said," Dowdell added, "the ultimate goal is to develop a core that is both strong and stable and will allow us to be able to either resist and/or transfer significant amounts of force in any given movement pattern."
When developing the core, engage specific movement patterns and resist or prevent these exact movement patterns to ensure a comprehensive strength profile and create torso stability. When you develop this strength and stability, you'll be able to reach serious strength levels, generate and transfer power and decrease your potential for injury.
One example of a highly effective core exercise series is the cable chop/lift sequence. From a kneeling, split squat or standing position, set up perpendicular to the high or low attachment on the cable machine. From this position, rotate your locked arms across your body in various patterns -- diagonal up, straight across or diagonal down -- while keeping your torso fixed and braced.
Strengthening the core is not restricted to exercises where movement occurs at the hip, however. Compound movements and variations to many conventional upper and lower body exercises can develop high levels of torso strength, stability and balance. This is because when you change the loading, base of support or plane of movement, you're required to stabilize, or resist movement, for the duration of the exercise.
When performing exercises such as squats and deadlifts, you often hear the term "braced." Bracing the torso for isometric, compound or unilateral movements involves the activation and balanced antagonistic contractions of all of the musculature surrounding the torso. Tense and contract the core as if you were bracing for a punch. The resulting hoop stresses work to stabilize and protect the spine.
Bracing is a skill that can be developed. It will keep your spine safe under load and allow you to accumulate, transfer and express power.
Conventional core training has given way to a more intelligent, integrated program design. When you better understand the function of the core and how the body works, you'll be able to structure your workouts to eliminate weaknesses and improve your lifts or your performance. The introduction of integrated core movements, unilateral upper and lower body variations and static postures will help re-enforce bracing and improve your torso stability under load.