Your Great, Mysterious Core
People claim to have seen it. There may even be blurry, photographic evidence from years past. But do you even have a core?
I cannot speak for the other urban legends on this list, but your "core," in my opinion, does exist, and has a functional definition. We brought up this definition a few articles back in "Hips Don't Lie."
In any given movement, "your core" can vary in its composition. The common thread is muscles associated with the trunk of your body to provide stability and force transfer through your center while your limbs move. That's the core. It stays; your limbs move.
Your core is like your very own George Washington Bridge / Walt Whitman / Golden Gate / other famous bridge you like.
I love bridges. Their simplicity and elegance, the physics involved. Bridges are really one of humankind's greatest feats. The question I have for you is, where does a bridge begin and end? This is a direct analogy to your core, and the answer is the same - it is tied to its function!
Switching gears now..
If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. Huh?
What I mean here is, if you can provide stability in your trunk musculature at high speeds, then you can certainly do it at lower speeds.
So many people, fitness professionals included, falsely follow the assumption that a low-functioning person with low power and low balance needs to continue moving slowly. As in, "hold a plank for 30-60 seconds" before moving on to "more difficult" exercises. This is the most "basic b****" of all basic b**** moves in fitness. Don't be that person.
Have you ever considered, though, that this scenario involves holding oneself up on the shoulders for that exact same period of time? Who has the isometric (see below for definition) strength in the shoulder complex (refer back to that article) plus the lack of pain and/or over-excitement in the upwardly translating and internally rotating muscles of the shoulder complex (see previous article), to even perform an adequate plank, pain-free on his/her first day(s) in the gym?
Similarly, the ab wheel (above) has been shown to neurologically activate the abdominal muscles more than any other core exercise. However, most people have neither the isometric strength at the shoulders and hips, nor the base level of strength in their trunk muscles to accomplish this exercise properly. So, once again, we come to the conclusion that the application of exercises is more important than how awesome they may be made to appear.
Isometric exercises are often harder to achieve properly than isotonic (commonly considered your standard exercise move, definition below) exercises in untrained people or people with low muscular endurance.
Time under tension (TUT) is an important concept in adaptations to exercise training. Increasing time under tension of muscles via holding or really slow movement (often seen in bodybuilding for extra muscle growth) has its specific applications.
However, someone who currently has low muscular endurance or little recent experience doing isometric holds may not want to start right there. In fact, it might just be helpful to directly train someone for what they need. If someone needs power, why dance around the subject and train indirectly for it? Injuries notwithstanding, why not go right at strength and power training for your clients who are trying to maintain function as they age? Well, most of the time, the reason for not doing so is lack of proper know-how.
Side note: There are different types of muscle contractions, based on what you are asking your muscles to do.
Isometric muscle contraction: muscles don't shorten to move your limb when they contract - they just hold position while contracting.
Isotonic: the one with which we are likely most familiar - muscles move our joints via shortening (concentric phase) and lengthening (eccentric phase)
Isokinetic: a type of isotonic contraction - muscles do move your limb when they contract, albeit at a constant speed
So, what do I recommend instead? Start at Step 1. When trying to improve your posture (main core muscle function), why would we immediately test it by asking it to assume multiple roles at once?!
**We can start strengthening your core by taking posture out of the equation. There are many core exercises that can be executed from the ground - while you are on your stomach and back. Even advanced exercisers can benefit from this type of core training since we are transferring forces through our cores as our limbs move, which we know from the above definition is at the "core" of what we are trying to accomplish, haha.
This floor training may sound a bit like Pilates, or as I call it, "World War II Physical Therapy." As a brief reminder, much of the field of Applied Human Physiology was born out of war - necessity to understand human responses to stress in various situations and environments. For this reason, we have known the benefits of things like hydration and interval training for decades. And yet, few are applying them properly today, even sometimes at the highest levels of athletic competition.
But anyway, back to current exercise science. Posture-free core exercise is useful in scenarios in which people have no idea where they left their core, or parts of it (on the counter?). For a novice or even advanced exerciser, specific exercises can be inserted into your regimen to allow your core's weaker points to start "catching up" to your body's stronger muscles. Especially under the right guidance of a solid fitness professional, progress can happen pretty quickly.
I like to analogize this "relative progress in muscles" to horse racing (each horse equals a muscle or group of muscles). Fresh out of the gates (starting an exercise regimen), all horses move forward. Some have better starts than others. At some point, maybe one horse takes a sprint and is in the lead.
For any given movement or lift, your body's muscles can have a preferred way of doing this based on which muscles are ready to rock (neurologic memory of movement preferences).
Often, in complex, multiple joint maneuvers like sprinting, lifting heavy weights, lifting lighter weights quickly, throwing a ball, it is the stabilizer muscles (like our "core) that hold us back from further power and progress. By teaching those that are expected to be stable to do so, the "movers" can do their thing at a better clip. Otherwise, our "movers," on occasion, must also act as "stabilizers," leaving them confused, and you stiff, maybe injured.
So, back to the order of things. Once you have mastered some "posture-free" core exercises, it is time to get back on your feet. (Posture-free core exercises can also be used to prep your core for strength training bouts, by the way.)
So, core training while on your feet? How?
We can incorporate your core as a stabilizer while the rest of you:
A. moves a load
B. moves with speed
C. moves a load with speed.
That is all there is to your core. The days of abs-burning for looks are all but dead. Sure, sit-ups are a decent way to hypertrophy (grow) your abdominal muscles for that body builder look. There are also other ways to get abs that actually show. The first exercise on that list is commitment.
A point-counterpoint article by Brad Schoenfeld and Morey Kolber published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning back in December of 2016 said what a lot of us professionals have been thinking for quite some time - there are some strengths and benefits to sit-ups, but the applications are specific, not broadly appealing.
An article from Mendrin, et al, in August of 2016 shed more light on up to date knowledge of isometric core training progressions. It's a great read. See here:
And as for breathing, we need to incorporate the diaphragm properly in our movement chains in order to maximize the effectiveness of our movements. Just remember, "exhale as you exert." This was first studied in Marine snipers - it was found that when they exhaled as they pulled their triggers, it was much smoother, the shot more accurate.
Inhale eccentric (muscles lengthening, as in releasing a biceps curl back down to the start), exhale to exert while engaging your trunk muscles (for most lifts, that is - Olympic lifts can be discussed in their own right).
So, you have mastered the floor routine for your core. What next? Well, if you are doing some strength training, then exercises such as overhead squats, front squats and dead-lifts are very much core exercises - they coordinate a large number of muscles in movement. Just be sure you know what you are getting into when you commit to these types of maneuvers.
So, now we can think of core exercise in two distinct ways:
Multi-joint exercises involving force transfer across our midsection
Multi-joint exercises involving force transfer across our midsection
Oh wait, that's one.
Regardless of whether you are doing an Axe Chop, V-Ups or a Back Squat, the principle is still the same: muscles associated with the trunk of your body to provide stability and force transfer through your center while your limbs move. That's the core. It stays; your limbs move.
**Sometimes, even very mobile joints like the shoulders and hips can act as core muscles (like in our earlier examples for planks and use of the ab wheel), even sometimes acting like core stabilizers in one part and movers in another section, simultaneously (like in axe chops).
It drives me nuts how people's expectations of core exercises, misconstrued by desires for appearance, under-informed media and under-educated fitness professionals, lead them to have really low expectations for their own performance.
*Once we remove our mental barriers, it is much easier to become a really fit individual.
Have a great week!
P.S. Big shout out to http://bodybuilding-wizard.com/ for your imagery. I may not be a body builder, but your anatomical images are awesome!
Image credit: http://bodybuilding-wizard.com/
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