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Core Strength Workouts



Core strength workouts, necessary for athletes and individuals or another gimmick from the “functional training” movement?

Function at your peak and look good at the same time.

This is an article as much for the regular person as it is for coaches and elite athletes. It can be used as your basis for all core training.

In this article:

  • What is the core? – An explanation of what the core consists of and how the muscles of the core work.
  • The role of the core during specific activities.
  • Core strength workouts – How to effectively train the core for performance, injury prevention and of course, aesthetic appearance.

What is The Core?

Core strength workouts.

In order to understand the role of the core and whether or not it should be trained, we need to first understand what the core actually is. So I’m going to attempt my own definition of what the core is.

The core is the link between upper and lower body. By link I mean transfer of force, in that the core transfers force from the lower body to the upper body and vice versa. In addition to that, the core provides spinal stability to a potentially unstable area. In the core area the only skeletal structure is the spine, everything else is muscle and connective tissue. The spine itself provides limited stability, it is stabilised by connective tissue and the muscles acting on it. So the core consists of the muscles supporting and providing stability to the section of the spine running through the abdominal area.

Core muscles include:

Transverse abdominis - The transverse abdominis helps to compress the ribs and viscera, providing thoracic and pelvic stability. It acts as the body’s natural weightlifting belt during heavy exertion. It is also terms the corset muscle, as it serves the function of pulling the abdominal wall in and keeping the entire abdominal area “tight”.

Rectus abdominis – The rectus abdominis is responsible for flexing the lumbar spine. It also serves to resist extension of the lumbar spine, hence preventing hyperextension and injury. The rectus abdominis is the muscle responsible for “six pack abs”. This muscle is also important in respiration, especially during forceful exhalation. This is why you often get sore abdominal muscles as a result of severe coughing. Core strength workouts.

External and internal obliques – The internal oblique is the antagonist to the diaphragm. It helps to exhale air by compressing the abdominal cavity, reducing its volume. Secondly, it acts to flex the trunk laterally, as in a side bend. The external oblique functions to pull the chest downwards and compress the abdominal cavity. This increases intra-abdominal pressure as in the Valsalva maneuver. It also provides limited action of rotation and flexion of the vertebral column. Core strength workouts.

Muscles of the pelvic floor – The main function of the pelvic floor is to provide stability and support to the pelvic organs, such as the bladder, intestines and uterus. As a core muscle in exercise function, the pelvic floor is part of the circuit of muscles that help maintain intra-abdominal pressure during exertion.

Multifidus – The multifidus is a deep, very thin and quite long muscle running along the spine. It acts mostly as a postural muscle, providing support and stiffness to the spine from the sacrum to the mid-cervical region of the spine. It has attachments all the way along its length, providing stability at each joint segment. Core strength workouts.

Erector  spinae – The erector spine is not a single muscle, but rather a network of muscles performing a common function spanning the length of the spine. In short, the erector spinae serves to extend the spine, hence providing the function of resisting flexion. If you stand in the bottom of a deadlift position and reach to your back you will notice thick bands of muscle along each side of the spine. This is your erector spinae, or at least a part of it. Without this network of muscles you would literally fold in half trying to lift a pencil off the floor. Core strength workouts.

The Role of The Core During Activity: Why You Need It

By looking at the function of many of these muscles listed here, you can easily see that the core is an important network of muscles, without which you would simply not be able to function. You can see the individual actions of these muscles and muscle groups, but what about working synergistically as a whole? How does the core work together to aid performance and provide stability to the human frame?

Here we will look at several specific activity examples and the role of the core muscles during these activities.

Heavy lifting

Heavy lifts such as the squat and deadlift or more awkwardly lifting objects such as a fridge, large stones or a log, require extensive use of the muscles of the core. You can have the strongest legs in the world and the strongest arms. However if the core is weak and does not support the connection between upper and lower body, this limb strength means very little.

But is it even likely that someone could be super strong all over but have a weak core? It’s unlikely to be the case. The heavy lifts themselves will provide the necessary strength to the core that is needed to perform the lifts themselves. It’s self-fulfilling.

During heavy lifts such as the squat, the deadlift and related movements such as lifting and atlas stone or heavy couch, the transverse abdominis provides intra-abdominal pressure, hence providing stability to the spinal column and allowing for stability through the midsection to ensure force is transferred between the upper and lower body. Core strength workouts.

The erector spinae is an important group of muscles during heavy lifts. Humans are erect (no pun intended), upright animals. The muscles that allow us to be upright are important especially when an external load is applied. External loading is a critical human function. Looking at other animals, such as a kangaroo for instance, lifting and shifting external loads is not a primary function. But humans, like other primates, have strong hands designed for grasping objects in order to lift, carry and move them. The erector spinae allows the spine to be stable along its length during the lifting of heavy objects.

Sprinting

Sprinting is the act of running at maximum pace over a short distance. The legs provide the majority of force to the action of sprinting. Power and generated in the glutes, quads and hamstrings and transferred downwards to the muscles of the calf, where force is absorbed from the meeting of the foot on the ground. This kinetic chain needs to be strong all the way along. Core strength workouts.

Having said that, the upper body acts as a counter balance and generates force of its own in order to get the entire body moving from a static position to high speed movement. This force is provided by the larger muscles of the upper body such as the latissimus dorsi, deltoids, pectoralis major and minor, the triceps and the trapezius. The force these muscles generate does not immediately transfer into forward motion. The force generated must be transferred along the kinetic chain to the legs and ultimately to ground contact. This transfer is applied through the core. If the core is weak then the force is lost through inefficient, disconnected movement from the waist up. The role of the core is twofold here. First it provides stability so that force generated in the upper body is not lost and is transferred to the lower body. This is provided by stability and stiffness. Second, the core performs subtle lateral and rotational movement that generates a small amount of force in its own right, which is transferred to the lower body.

Throwing

Throwing can refer to a number of actions. In this instance we are talking about the broad action of throwing, including throwing a baseball or a stone, javelin, bowling in cricket, shot put and throwing a punch. All of these actions have a similar kinetic sequence. So how is the core involved?

During a baseball pitch as an example, the athlete gains a strong and stable surface through the legs. Often this is a dynamic sequence, where the legs are moved in order to generate starting force then slammed down into the stable final release position. This force is then transferred directly to the core, where the core provides rotational force that is finally transferred to the arm, where the final whipping action is performed, releasing the ball. It is this rotational action of the core that provides most of the force in a throwing action.

Jumping

Jumping actions are extremely high intensity and require maximum rate of force development and muscular power. A jump is a full body movement, with force generated from the legs, transferred through the core and up through the upper body to propel the body upwards or forwards. Core strength workouts.

For this example we will use a standing long jump. The core here has many functions, but mostly serves as a protective mechanism for the spine, preventing hyperextension. It also allows for a more stable posture during the jump to prevent unnecessary motion of the upper body where energy can be lost. In this instance the rectus abdominis contracts with extreme force to prevent excessive spinal extension and to flex the spine and hips to bring the feet forward so they land as far forward as possible. Core strength workouts.

Do a workout consisting of standing long jumps and you will notice significant soreness the next day in the rectus abdominis.

Breathing

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that breathing is pretty important for most people. It’s something we all take for granted. If the lungs are in good health then breathing should be at a peak, right? Wrong. Breathing efficiency is more than just healthy lungs. The lunges don’t suck in air on their own, they need the action of muscles in order to provide the necessary pressure to inhale by increasing the space in the abdominal cavity, and to exhale by decreasing the space in the abdominal cavity. Having a strong core, particularly muscles considered abdominal muscles, allows a person to breath more efficiently in a number of ways, including greater volume of air inhalation in less time and forceful and rapid exhalation. Think of rowers and swimmers, that need to make best use of each and every individual breath. Core strength workouts.

Core strength workouts and the function of the transverse abdominus.

Core Strength Workouts: How to Effectively Train The Core For Performance, Injury Prevention and of Course, Aesthetic Appearance

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Now it’s time to answer the question posed at the very start of the article; Core strength workouts, necessary for athletes and individuals or another gimmick from the “functional training” movement?

In other words, is it truly necessary to dedicate training to the core specifically, or will its functions be enhanced through effective training practices as a side-effect? The answer is both.

Here we will look at how to train the core for the most effective and efficient performance benefits, as well as aesthetic (appearance) enhancement. This article is not about core training that is specific to each individual sport. Rather, it covers core training holistically, in other words training the core for all functions necessary in sport and in life.

Apply each of the following to your training and you will have a core that allows for maximum performance enhancement and looks tight and ripped at the same time.

Basic compound strength training

Basic compound strength training movements refer to movements that should form the basis for all strength training programs. Strength training using these big lifts conditions the transverse abdominis more effectively than any other form of training due to the way it needs to brace to maintain spinal stability and intra-abdominal pressure. The transverse abdominis acts as a corset. It pulls the abdominal cavity in and keeps it tight, making the waist look tighter and smaller. Functionally it is the muscle that provides the most stability to the vertebral column during heavy exertion. It keeps the abdominal and spinal region statically locked in a stable position. Core strength workouts.

Further to the transverse abdominis, the erector spinae is extensively involved in these lifts. Without the erector spinae we wouldn’t be able to even stand erect, let alone lift an external load while doing so. Heavy lifts ensure the spinal erectors are well conditioned, providing maximum strength to movements that involve hip extension while keeping the spine in a mostly neutral position. Core strength workouts.

Compound lifts include

  • Squats – all variations such as front squats, back squats etc
  • Deadlifts – and other lifts from the floor such as sandbag lifts, atlas stones or log lifting
  • Standing overhead press
  • Free-weight rowing movements – such as barbell bent over rows, dumbbell rows and upright rows
  • Bench press

Kettlebell and Olympic lifts and their variations

Kettlebells are designed to be lifted explosively and throughout awkward planes of movements. The same goes for Olympic lifts. It could be argued that Olympic weightlifters have the strongest core of all athletes, which is why Olympic lifts are an integral part of many athlete’s programs, regardless of their sport.

Depending on the lift being performed, the dynamic and explosive nature of them teaches the core to contract forcefully and to provide stability during high speed movement where external loads are applied. These dynamic lifts are useful in almost all actions performed by the core. They provide similar transverse abdominis benefits to the large compound lifts, but during faster movement. Olympic lifts are applied through a large range of different movements. For each lift the load is held in the hands, while the feet are planted on the floor. This dynamically transfers the centre of gravity rapidly to a range of different positions. As an example the snatch involves thrusting a bar from the floor (deadlift movement) straight to an overhead position in one swift movement. The lift is “caught” in a squat position with the bar overhead, forcing muscles of the core to stabilise the trunk throughout 360 degrees and stop the spine from rotating, flexing and extending from all angles.

Kettlebell and Olympic lifts include:

  • Kettlebell snatch
  • Kettlebell swing
  • Cleans and other variations
  • Snatch (barbell)
  • Jerk
  • Push press
  • Partial lifts such as snatch pull and clean pull

Body weight strength training

Body weight strength training involves movements as basic and easy to perform as push-ups, all the way up to advanced gymnastics movements such as iron cross on rings, handstands, muscle-ups and the planche.

In most instances body weight strength exercises cannot be performed in an isolated manner. They require full body tension in order to hold one part of the body statically while another part of the body performs a given movement. Look at the simple push-up for example. It involves the feet in a static position on the floor while the legs, hips and spine must remain neutral while the arms are planted on the floor and the entire body as one unit lowers to the floor and back to the start. Push-ups force the core to provide an anti-extension role on the spine. Core strength workouts.

In gymnastics the gymnasts are taught to apply the hollow position. This involves tilting the pelvis upwards slightly, rounding the shoulders forwards and shortening the distance between the ribs and hips. This position is statically held throughout most movements performed by a gymnast. The hollow position is served mostly by the rectus abdominis. Yes, that is right, the six pack muscle. By learning to perform body weight strength exercises with the spine in a stable position and learning the hollow position teaches the muscles that flex the spine to do so with greater force and greater stability. As a side-effect, body weight strength exercises are one of the best ways to condition the rectus abdominis, hence developing a killer six pack.

Core specific exercises

Ok, now lets look at core strength workouts as a stand-alone training method. We see a lot of athletes and people in gyms performing many varieties of core exercises, often doing 20-30 minute core workouts several times per week. Is it really necessary? As a trainer and coach I will say no. Most core strength and stability is provided by performing a solid strength training program and through other drills such agility drills, sprinting and plyometrics. But just to ensure well rounded core development, there are a few stand-alone exercises that can be applied a few times per week.

Standing Russian twist

Anchor a barbell into the corner of a power rack or somewhere else that will keep it still and stable. This end will be empty and not loaded with any weights. Place a small amount of weight on the other end of the barbell and lift it to around 45 – 60 degrees. Grasp the bar in both hands, establish a stable stance and drop the weight off to one side then resist and reverse the movement explosively to the other side.

Leg lowers

Lie on your back, feet in the air. Use your abdominal muscles to pull the arch of your back flat to the floor. Maintain this spinal position through the movement. Lower the legs slowly as close to the floor as you can without the back arching back up then raise the legs back to the start position. This can also be performed explosively, provided correct form is maintained. Core strength workouts.

Med-ball throws

Throw a medicine ball explosively from various positions. For example from the left on the ground, throw the ball up and to the right and vice versa. Med-ball slams, where the ball is slammed into the ground from an overhead position. And side to side explosive throws.

Hollow position

Learn to correctly apply the hollow position. Then practice it through various drills. The first drill to learn is hollow rocks. Lie on your back, get your body into the hollow position and rock back and forth without bending at the hips and spine. For more advanced athletes, try ab-wheel roll-outs or walk-outs, where the hands are walked out in front as far as you can go while maintaining the hollow position.

Explosive movement

Explosive movement such as plyometrics and sprinting forces the core to work in a high stress environment by providing both stability and movement of the trunk. The act of learning correct sprint technique itself will ensure the upper body maintains maximum stability without wasted movement. Plyometrics exercises such as bounding and standing long jump force the rectus abdominis to contract with maximal force to prevent excessive spinal extension while at the same time the transverse abdominis provides stability to prevent unnecessary movement of the spine, which would lead to injury and spinal degradation.

Core strength workouts and the function of the transverse abdominis.

Conclusion

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The muscles of the core perform a wide array of important functions in both high-level athletic performance as well as basic daily functions. Without a strong and stable core the body would not be able to efficiently perform many of the movements responsible for greater performance. By the same token, simple tasks such as efficient breathing and healthy posture are a result of a well-functioning core.

Further to function and performance, the core holds a lot of aesthetic value. Quite often a well-conditioned core epitomises fitness for most people. If you see someone well-conditioned and they also have a tight and muscular core, you will likely perceive them as having an aesthetically appealing appearance. Core strength workouts.

In terms of appearance, a tight and strong transverse abdominis acts as a corset, giving the waist a tighter look and a flatter stomach. Combine this with well-conditioned rectus abdominis (a six pack) and you have a core, or “abs” that look tight and ripped.

So are core strength workouts entirely necessary? Yes and no. If people train effectively, performing movements that require the full use of the body, then the core is generally challenged to a large extent. On the other hand, many regular gym goers spend a lot of time using machines in fixed planes of movement, never allowing the core to switch on and perform its primary functions. If an athlete trains properly and applies what has been described above, even without the specific core strength workouts and exercises, they will develop a strong, functional and aesthetically pleasing core.

Incorporate what you have read here and your core will function well and look attractive.

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Core strength workouts and the function of the transverse abdominus.

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Core strength workouts and the function of the transverse abdominus.

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Core strength workouts and the function of the transverse abdominus.

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Core strength workouts and the function of the transverse abdominus.

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