Core Training: The Benefits And Best Exercises

Core training is a vital part of any exercise program. Your core muscles stabilise your entire body, allowing it to function more effectively. A strong core allows you to perform everyday tasks and lifts in the gym more easily and reduces your risk of injury.

What is core training and why is it important?

Core training strengthens the muscles in your mid-section. These work together to allow you to perform movements such as bending over to pick something up or bracing to carry a heavy load of shopping.

Since core training helps your whole body work together, it will improve your athletic performance by supporting heavier lifts and quicker movements. It also will help you perfect your technique on heavy lifts. For example, by allowing you to keep your back in a neutral position whilst deadlifting and stay upright as you squat. And of course, if you have a strong core it will also help you get a defined set of abs.

Core training also helps with your posture and decreases the strain on your spine [1]. This can reduce your risk of developing various injuries and pain, such as a ruptured disc in the lower back or strained ligaments.

What muscles does core training involve?

Core training strengthens muscles deep within the abdominals and back and those which attach to the spine or pelvis. The key muscles involved are the rectus abdominis, obliques and transversus abdominis (TVA) [2].

Rectus abdominis

Extending between the ribs to the front of the pelvis, the rectus abdominis muscle is your abs, or those muscles which can form a six-pack. You use them constantly, every time you move, walk, bend over or cough.

Obliques

The term obliques refers to two muscles, external obliques and internal obliques. External obliques are on both side of your abs, while internal obliques are just inside the hipbones. These muscles allow you to bend sideways, twist the torso and round your back [3].

TVA

The TVA is the deepest layer of core muscles, running between the ribs and pelvis. It is what stabilises your spine, supports internal organs and helps you breathe deeply. Because it is used to stabilise the lower back, a weak TVA can lead to dreaded lower back pain and injuries.

The best ways to train your core

There’s more to core training than doing a few crunches or sit-ups. You can train your core both directly and indirectly.

Every time a client trains with Plexus, they will use their core. Many people may not realise that compound movements such as the squat, bench and deadlift all work your core. For example, the core is what you use to avoid rounding your back on a heavy deadlift. It’s also used in every squat as you brace and stabilise your spine. These exercises work multiple muscle groups at the same time, including your core. They develop your overall strength and help you in your daily life and regular activities.

By indirectly training your core, you will improve your full body strength, allowing your body to function efficiently. This is how some athletes achieve a perfect set of abs, sometimes without doing any specific ab exercises.

However, that’s not to say you should overlook directly training your core. Most physical activities depend on stable core muscles. Performing exercises which specifically target your core, such as crunches or planks can help improve your balance, posture and technique. A weak core could lead to other muscles overcompensating, causing strain [4].

Effective core exercises

To build your overall strength, you should be performing the four key strength training movements of squat, push, pull and hinge. These form the basis of the squat, bench press and deadlift and will all indirectly train your core. For more about the main lifts, read The Best Exercises To Get You Strong.

Exercises which specifically target your core muscles can be broken up into three main movements, spinal flexion, static holds and anti-rotation. There are many variations of these, allowing you to build up difficulty and add weight as you progress.

Spinal flexion

Spinal flexion occurs when you bring your rib cage and pelvis together, rounding your back. If you do it too often, perform it incorrectly or with too great a load for your level of strength, it can cause pain and even lead to a herniated disc injury. Keeping your core strong and maintaining your lifting technique is the best way to prevent back problems which arise from spinal flexion movements, both in the gym and your everyday life [5].

Any exercises which bring your rib cage and hips together will involve spinal flexion. For example, crunches and sit ups. Other options include leg raises, cable crunches and jackknifes.

Static holds

Static holds, or isometric exercises, are when you hold one position for a period of time, during which your muscles are continuously under tension. These will help to stabilise joints throughout your body, improve balance, posture and build strength for more explosive movements [6]. Examples include the plank, weighted or side plank, static dead bug and bear hold.

Anti-rotation

Anti-rotation exercises build strength and stability by resisting rotation. They allow your body to resist forces that may try and rotate it in an unsafe way and will also help correct imbalances. For example, carrying something that is awkwardly shaped or an uneven weight, or if you fall over into an awkward position [7]. One-arm dumbbell rows and the pallof press will both train the core through anti-rotation. Other exercises include anti-rotational plank pulls, renegade rows and single-leg Romanian deadlifts.

Other movements which train your abs include anti-flexion and anti-extension. Anti-flexion is when you resist bending through the lower back, for example by holding a neutral position during a deadlift. Similarly, anti-extension is when you resist extending your lower back, such as during a plank, ab rollout or dead bug.

How often should I be core training?

How regularly you target your core will depend on your personal goals and any existing issues with technique or imbalances. At Plexus, we often use core exercises to warm up for compound lifts, but they can also be completed after your main lifts. The important thing is to understand you should be using your core in every single workout, whether directly or indirectly. If you or your trainer has identified a weakness in your core or technique, it may be time to incorporate more specific core training exercises.

References

[1] http://fightclubamerica.com/2019/02/03/importance-of-core-training/

[2] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/abdominal-muscles

[3] https://www.stack.com/a/oblique-workouts/#:~:text=The%20obliques%20are%20actually%20two,travel%20perpendicular%20to%20each%20other.

[4] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/core-exercises/art-20044751#:~:text=Core%20exercises%20train%20the%20muscles,depend%20on%20stable%20core%20muscles.

[5] https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-daily-spine-spinal-flexion-296439

[6] https://barmethod.com/the-science-behind-static-hold-exercises/

[7] https://redefiningstrength.com/why-you-need-to-include-anti-rotational-exercises-in-your-workouts/