Are you tired of endless crunches, leg lifts and side bends? That's 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 doesn't work in isolation.
Instead, think of your body as a single 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 sit-ups is that they can leave you with bad posture, shortened hip flexors and lower back pain. So here's what you need to know to better sculpt your midsection.
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, owner of Cressey Performance
What Is the Core?
Before you can understand what's meant by integrated movements, you must first 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," says Eric Cressey, certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass.
While there are many exercises that train the torso, the most effective (and the most functional) are often similar to what you're already doing — squats, deadlifts, lunges — but with asymmetrical loading and optimal trunk positioning.
Your abs aren't just your "six-pack muscles" (rectus abdominis). You have your transverse abdominis (musculature below the rectus abdominis), multifidus (deep lying stabilizer), and internal and external obliques (muscles 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.
Build Functional Core Strength
Joe Dowdell, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Peak Performance in New York City, says true core training is about selecting appropriate core exercises. That means those that will challenge your abilities while safely and effectively progressing you toward your goal.
"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," he says.
One example of a highly effective core exercise is the cable chop/lift sequence. From a kneeling split squat, set up perpendicular to the high or low attachment on a 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.
Incorporate Compound Movements
Compound movements and variations of many conventional upper and lower body exercises can develop high levels of torso strength, stability and balance. 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." It essentially mean tensing and contracting the core as if you were bracing for a punch. It's a skill that can be developed, and it'll keep your spine safe and allow you to build and transfer 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.
What Do YOU Think?
What does your current ab workout look like? Do you train your abs in isolation or do you incorporate compound movements into your routine? What exercises do you do to tone and strengthen your abs? Do you do any of the ones listed in this sidebar? What other ones would you add? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Core Movement Patterns and Core Exercise Examples
Core Movement Patterns — Movement 1. Hip flexion 2. Hip extension 3. Rotation 4. Lateral flexion
Core Movement Patterns — Anti-Movement 1. Resisting hip flexion 2. Resisting hip extension 3. Resisting rotation 4. Resisting lateral flexion
Core Exercises 1. Plank variations 2. Swiss ball pikes 3. Rotational medicine ball throws 4. Cable chops/lifts 5. Ab roller
Upper Body Exercises for Core Strength 1. One-arm push-ups 2. One-arm dumbbell bench 3. One-arm standing military press 4. One-arm standing dumbbell rows 5. Alternating standing dumbbell rows
Lower Body Exercise for Core Strength 1. Squats 2. Deadlifts 3. Lunges 4. Contralateral loaded lunges 5. One-leg hip thrusts
Is This an Emergency?
- McGill, Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance 2nd Edition, BackFitPro Inc. 2006.
- Boyle, Mike. Advances in Functional Training, On Target Publications. 2010.
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: Core Stability Exercise Principles
- ACEFitness.org: Muscles of the Core
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies: The Myth of Core Stability
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention