Chiseled abdominals and a flat stomach always seem to be high on people’s health and fitness wish-list, but does a six pack really represent functional strength? The truth is that being able to do 100 sit-ups is not exactly the primary role of the core, and the cheese-grater stomach is more a reflection of discipline in the kitchen rather than fitness for sport or life.
There is a lot more going on in your core muscles than you realise, so I am going to break it down in this article. It might get a little fitness-nerd, but stick with me because it is worth it.
In very general terms the core has two main jobs: keep your spine safe and your internal organs in place, and maintain a taut cylinder that transfers power and movement between your upper and lower limbs.
The core muscle family is huge, and it wraps around the front, back, and sides of the abdominal area between the ribs and the pelvis. Below is a front and back view of the major core muscles I want to talk about. Click through the slides to peel away the muscles.
These muscles can be divided into two groups based on their function.
These deep, stabilising muscles work to lock down and brace the spine prior to movement beginning.
- Transverse Abdominus
- Internal Obliques
- Quadratis Lumborum
This group contains the more superficial muscles (meaning closer to the surface), and they have four roles: gross stabilisation of the spine (so you don’t collapse in on yourself), keeping the rib cage and pelvis stable (prior to impact or movement), the creation of movement of the torso, and the transfer of force from the lower limbs to the upper limbs.
- Rectus Abdominus
- External Obliques
- Erector Spinae
The muscle we all know well is the rectus abdominus, because this is the one that gets the most attention at the beach. But it is the lesser known siblings of the core muscle family that deserve greater recognition for the role they play in athletic performance and injury prevention.
In a properly functioning core, the bracing sequence for stabilizing the spine comes from the inside out. Multifidus, the transverse abdominus, and the internal obliques fire first. This quick action compresses the organs and braces the lumbar spine. Next, the larger muscles switch on to provide stability to the pelvis and rib cage. Only after the core is fully engaged will movement of the limbs begin. A strong and stable core is the foundation for maximum strength, power, and speed.
This correct order of activation prevents a lot of lower back pain and many other injuries through the kinetic chain - not just in dynamic athletic situations but in our day-to-day lives as well. Ever quickly reached out to catch something falling off a table, or reached down to tie your shoes and felt a little “twinge” in your back? This may be a sign that your core muscles are failing to activate correctly.
Three "ab-blasting" exercises you should stop doing now.
Like so many things in fitness, popular does not mean good. Well intentioned strength coaches and trainers everywhere encourage their clients to do the following movements, but I hope we can show you a better way!
1. Russian Twists
Move halfway to a sit-up, hold this position and then rotate your torso from side to side with extreme spinal rotation. Now let’s add some weight to your hands and elevate your feet off the ground!
I really wish I had x-ray vision for this one. If you look at the lower back it is quickly apparent what is actually going on here. The initial half sit-up engages the rectus abdominis and creates lumbar flexion, rounding the lower back and squeezing the intervertebral discs (the jelly that cushions our vertebrae) backwards. When the twisting starts, the already flexed spine is rotated. With your x-ray vision, watch closely as the intervertebral discs are actively pushed further and further out the back of the spine - but don’t get too close or a flying disc may well hit you in the eye!!
2. Sit-ups and Crunches
Given how flexion-dominant today’s society is (bent over our phones and laptops), the idea that we need to train more flexion is pretty crazy. Like the Russian Twists, the lumbar flexion is dangerous to the discs of our spine, but worse, this movement actually trains you to activate the core in the opposite order than it should. As I explained above, the transverse abdominus and multifidus should fire first as you engage the core. But when doing a sit-up or crunch the movement activates the rectus abdominus first, messing with that natural recruitment pattern, and can re-wire your nervous system to incorrectly order your movement.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, no matter if you have your hands behind your head, or overhead, or on your knees, the sit-up and crunch encourage a forward head position that stresses out the cervical spine, which is another problem we all suffer from (with the whole phone and laptop thing again).
3. Leg Lowers and Lifts
These are tough - but tough doesn’t always equate to good abdominal training! Leg lowers come in a range of forms: windscreen wipers, the ever impressive toes-to-bar done by that one guy at the gym, roman chair leg lifts, or the personal trainer favourite where you hold on to their ankles and they throw your legs to the ground repeatedly while you try to fight it.
These all have one key fault - they are primarily a hip flexor exercise. This means that instead of improving anterior core stiffness, your reps-to-failure only served to tighten up the psoas muscle. The psoas is connected to the lumbar spine. As the psoas shortens (with prolonged sitting or leg lift type exercises) it pulls the lumbar spine into extension and creates an anterior tilt of the pelvis, jamming up the facet joint and inhibiting the glutes. Ironically, an anterior pelvic tilt also pushes the abdomen forwards, giving the appearance of a belly instead of that six-pack you are chasing!
"Start with the end in mind"; three core exercises we love.
Ok - it wouldn't be fair to take away those options without giving you something better would it? The three below are three of our preferred movements because they are designed with the goal of improving performance and posture:
1. Pallof Holds
This one doesn't look like much, but you'll feel it! The Pallof hold is all about resisting a rotational force with your core engaged. This has double bang for its buck as well because it also helps hit the inside leg gluteus medius, another rock-star muscle.
Use a light weight on a pulley machine like Maddie here, or if you aren't in a gym grab a physiotherapy or exercise band secured to something at chest height.
Stand side-on to the pulley or band, and then holding with both hands, step away from the machine with your hands directly in front of you. Stand in a shallow squat, with your spine neutral, and chest tall. Hold for 15-20 seconds. To make it harder hold for five full forceful exhalations. Repeat for three rounds on each side.
Planks are “anti-extension” exercises. They train the core to brace against a load (gravity in this case).
To do them properly start lying on the ground, first stiffen your foot into dorsiflexion and "spike" your toes into the floor, next squeeze your quads and glutes, locking your pelvis into a slight posterior tilt (tail bone tucked under) then lift off the ground and contract your anterior core to maintain a neutral spine. Be sure to relax your shoulders and avoid pitching a tent with your thoracic spine.
A good plank position should look like normal standing posture, only horizontal.
Be careful you aren't cheating by lifting your butt to form an arch. It is a subtle difference but if you are new to planks and aren't shaking by ~20 seconds you are definitely cheating somewhere!
We keep planks to 45 seconds or less, aiming to squeeze everything hard whilst maintaining good alignment. If you need more "burn" either do more sets, or like the Pallof Hold, breathe more deliberately and forcefully.
For a first timer, four sets of ten seconds should be enough, and if that is too tough consider moving to a kneeling plank (with a cushion under the knees) to make things easier.
(NB: You should never feel any discomfort in your back while doing planks. If you do stop immediately and consult a physiotherapist or doctor.)
This is one of our absolute favourites. The Deadbug has two key criteria. First: pelvic floor/transverse abdominus should remain engaged throughout (imagine holding in a wee and drawing the belly button down). Second: keeping the spine and pelvis in neutral alignment, resisting lumbar extension.
While there is a hip flexor component, when done correctly the slow controlled nature of the movement means the psoas shouldn't need to jump in and override the abdominal muscles.
Lie on the floor with your arms pointing to the roof and legs at 90º at the knees. Slowly lower one leg and the opposite arm to the floor. Only go as low as you can while keeping the spine neutral. If you feel it arching or your abdominals are bulging out hard, you have lost deep core control.
Once at the low point pause for a second then slowly bring your arm and leg to the starting position. Repeat on the alternate side. If you are a beginner don't over-do it or you could develop some killer DOMS. Three sets of eight (four each side) should be more than enough first time round.
Enjoy, and as always hit us with a comment here or on Facebook if you have any questions!