When you hear the term “core” images of endless sit up variations pop into your head. You think of that midnight infomercial with the woman in spandex selling you a video of 20 different crunches set to cheap music. But what exactly is the core, and why should you be training it?
When most people think of core they immediately think abs. But your core is much more than those 6 pack abdominals everyone wants. The cliff notes version I like to tell clients is take your arms, legs, and head off and you’re left with your core. It also encompasses parts you can’t see as well such as the transverse abdominals and pelvic floor. You should look at your core as a stabilizer for your trunk as well as being the heart of where your movement and power comes from.
Andy Waldhelm from the LSU Department of Kinesiology wrote a dissertation entitled “Assessment of core stability: Developing Practice Models.” In it, his team developed 35 tests to assess core stability. He identified 5 different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function.
The core acts as a spinal stabilizer as well. In 1975 H.F. Farfan wrote “Muscular mechanism of the lumbar spine and the position of power and efficiency.” He explained how abdominal muscles positioned the spine and pelvis to maximize power and output. Now a days most strength coaches can tell you this, especially in the transverse plane as demonstrated in a swing of a baseball bat, a golf swing, or a slap shot.
So if endless sit-ups and crunches won’t do the job, what is a smarter way to train the core.
At Steel Mill we use a combination of compound movements and accessory movements to train the core. Compound movements such as the squat (back, front, overhead), Bench Press, Deadlift, and overhead pressing require the spine to remain rigid while under a heavy load. Anyone with any formal strength training will tell you it’s not a walk in the park to brace your core while squatting a maximal load. If you don’t believe me when I say these movements work your core, give me 5 min and an empty barbell and my team will have your core screaming.
Steel Mill uses the Conjugate Method of training which in a nut shell means many variations on the classical lifts as well as numerous accessory movements, which are used to build up weakness. Our favorite way to work your core with accessory work is by challenging your posture and position with a heavy carry. Some examples we use are suitcase carries, front rack carries, overhead carries, stationary weighted holds are just a few we use every week to build better humans. We use these in every program we offer. Our team training, CrossFit, small group, and even 1 on 1 training all use these principles.
Oblique’s or your “side abs” are mainly stabilizer and breaking muscles. The external obliques help rotate the trunk and supports the rotation of the spine. Some of our favorite movements for strengthening these often forgotten body parts are the single arm deadlift, suitcase carry and sandbag/heavy bag bear hug carry.
When I travelled to Westside Barbell, world renowned strength coach Louis Simmons emphasized that you MUST have a strong core not just to be a strong lifter but to perform as a human in daily life. Louis who has broken his back twice, credits a strong core as his main reason he not only came back from an injury that ends most athlete’s careers but helped him set many more world records.
The CrossFit Conjugate Method Trainer Certification (formerly CrossFit Powerlifting) teaches CrossFit coaches to use accessories and proper breathing to stabilize the spine and trunk for lifting and moving heavy loads.
A strong core isn’t just for the gym, but for daily life. Multiple times a day you will sit (squat), hinge (bend over aka deadlift), reach overhead, twist, push and pull, all of which requires bracing and stability. This is a life skill and can add a quality of life to your later years. This is why CrossFit and strength gyms are so important. We aren’t just trying to make you look better (although we do a damn good job of that too), but we are trying to make you ready to outlast mother nature.