When I first started working out, I didn’t pay much attention to my core.
I tended to be more concerned with building the muscles I could flex in front of the gym mirrors. Biceps. Triceps. You get the picture. Either you’ve seen that guy or you’ve been that guy.
While I did increase mass in the muscles of my upper body, I was not functionally fit. My core was very weak, and it caused muscle imbalances throughout my entire body. Without a strong core, I was very susceptible to injury, especially in my lower back. Lower back issues plagued me throughout my early twenties, which should have been my physical prime.
I was too young to be experiencing this, but at the time I didn’t realize that my training regimen was wrong.
It wasn’t until I understood the importance of training my core that I became functionally fit, decreased nagging lower back pain, and finally started to see a defined midsection.
In Western culture, we place the most emphasis on the aesthetic quality of defined abdomens, but few really appreciate the entirety of the core and what it means to physical fitness.
There also seems to be a misconception as to what core training actually is. A lot of guys I train will ask, “What ab exercise should I do to lose my belly fat?”
Think of building your body like building a house. Before you build the frame you must lay down a solid foundation. That foundation is your core.
The core is your center of gravity. It is where all movement originates.
It is the multitude of muscles that make up your midsection; your pelvis, lower back, hips, and abdomen on all sides.
Stabilizing the Core
The starting point for a core training program should be establishing a solid base of core stabilization.
It is important to build stabilization before incorporating exercises with spinal movement that will strengthen the core.
Core stabilization exercises place stress upon the core muscles, but there is little to no movement of the spine (think of a plank). Finding a neutral spine and using these muscles to resist gravity will provide a solid base for the core muscles to work more efficiently.
Below are three examples of core stabilization exercises and how to perform them effectively:
Start face down with your forearms on the floor and your elbows underneath your shoulders. Keep your feet flexed with the bottoms of your toes on the floor. Clasp your hands in front of your face so that your forearms create an inverted “V” shape.
Rise up so that only your forearms and toes are touching the floor. Your body should be a few inches above the floor in a straight line from shoulders to feet.
Do not let your butt sag towards the floor. Engage your midsection by drawing the bellybutton in towards the spine. Resist the urge to clench the buttocks, but rather spiral your thighs inward.
Try to hold this post for 60 seconds and lower yourself back to the floor. If you are new to planks, you may have to tap out early, and that’s okay. Try doing 6 sets of 10 second planks instead.
Side Planks with a Hold
While low planks engage the rectus abdominus and lower back muscles, side planks will engage the obliques and hips.
Lay on your left side and lift yourself up so that your left forearm and side of your left foot are touching the floor. Stack your feet and raise your hips so that your body is in a straight line from head to feet. Engage your midsection and hold for sixty seconds.
Turn over and repeat the same process on your right side.
Pushup with Rotation
The pushup with rotation is a more challenging variation of the standard pushup that will not only stabilize your core, but improve your coordination, balance, and upper body strength.
Start at the top of the pushup position; arms straight, hands placed on the floor directly underneath your shoulders. Lower yourself down to the floor until your chest touches the floor. With your arm strength and your core engaged, push yourself back up to the start of the pushup position.
Drawing your navel in toward your spine and keeping your core braced, start rotating your upper body to the right and raise your right arm straight up into the air.
Hold for 10 seconds and lower yourself back down to the top of the pushup position. Repeat on the left side and continue to alternate sides until you complete a total set of 12 pushups.
With little to no movement through the spine, the most important aspect of these stablization exercises is the isometric hold. The isometric hold will improve the endurance of the stabilizing muscles of the core.
After four weeks of core stabilization, you can move your program into the core strength training phase. I will cover the principles of core strength training next week in the second part of this article: “Core Training Part 2: How to Strengthen Your Core.”
Until then, be awesome, be vital.