Now there is a term that gets thrown quite a bit in fitness circles. Working the core is the name of the game, and disciplines like yoga and pilates are known to emphasize But what is it? What does it do? And why all the hooplah?
In a nutshell, the ‘core’ refers to a group of muscles whose job it is to maintain a stable torso when it is subjected to destabilizing forces. This involves the rectus abdominus (of six-pack fame), as well as the obliques (on the side) and the transverse abdominus, a deep set of ab muscles that run diagonally and connect to the spine. But the core is not limited to the abdominal muscles; the chest, glutes, lats, shouders and spinal erectors, are in the mix as well, since stabilizing the torso involves aligning the head, neck, spine, ribs and pelvis in different ways, depending on the task the body is being asked to perform.
This makes it particularly relevant for many athletes, because the core is, by definition, centrally located, and serves as the connecting point of the whole body. If you swing a baseball bat, or a tennis racquet, or aim to get your full leverage behind a punch or kick, it is crucial that you learn to use the body as a unit, so that legs, hips and work synergistically to move with maximum leverage and efficiency. And doing that is going to take a little bit more than doing a couple of half-assed crunches as you scroll through your mp3 player looking for your favorite songs.
But there are valuable benefits for non-athletes as well. For one, well executed core exercises are a hell of an effective way to simultaneously condition a variety of muscles, particularly the abdominals. Even if you don’t play sports, teaching your body to move more efficiently not only makes you stronger in a general sense, but will make you less injury prone, as people frequently get hurt performing simple tasks in a position of poor alignment. In addition, strengthening muscles such as the spinal erectors goes a long way toward eliminating the kind of chronic back pain that plagues many people who sit in front of a computer for long periods of time. The key to working these structures properly is to integrate them with the rest of the body, rather than isolating them. With that said, here are a few my favorites:
Swiss Ball Modified Pikes
This is a great exercise for working the lower and upper abdominals at the same time, as well as the obliques on the side, which act as stabilizers. The first thing you’re going to do is lay face down on a Swiss Ball, so that your belly is resting on it. Now start walking your hands forward until you are in a pushup position, hands on the ground, lower shins resting on the ball. It is very important that you keep your lower back in a neutral-to-flexed position, meaning you keep your pelvis tucked in the whole time, so the lower spine is either neutral or slightly rounded. Make sure you take a moment to stabilize yourself so that your legs don’t roll off the ball. Now begin raising your butt toward the ceiling while simultaneously bringing the knees toward your face. Your speed should be slow, and the movement should be clean. When your knees hit chest level, emphasize tucking the pelvis as much as possible, which will in turn maximize abdominal involvement. Do as many reps as you can while maintaining control of the movement. Once your form starts getting a little loose, stop your set. You can always increase the reps as you get stronger at this exercise.
Standing Torso Twists (with medicine ball)
Grab a medicine ball, or any object such as a kettlebell, or an Olympic plate, or a stone if you’re outside. It should feel fairly heavy but not impossible to handle. Spine should be in a neutral position. Under no circumstances should you lean back. The object should be held roughly a belly button level. Now start by using a good amount of momentum and twist left, as if you were throwing the object. As you move to the left, your right foot should always pivot towards the direction you’re moving in. You should now be facing left, with the toes of both feet pointing left. Now it’s time to go the other way. Turn your right foot out in preparation for the movement, and pivot your left foot so that the toes point to the right as your body turns. Going both sides equals 1 rep. Unlike the previous movement, this one makes full use of speed and momentum. Be sure to allow your feet to move with the body, as this is a full body movement, and it includes the legs. Again, it should look like you’re throwing the object from side to side, without it leaving your hands. This exercise not only works the sides, but develops explosiveness in torqueing movements, such as punching, throwing, kicking and swinging bats, tennis racquets and battle axes, should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of being caught up in a zombie apocalypse.
This is not only an excellent exercise to strengthen the spinal erectors, but it teaches the glutes and back and arm muscles to work together. It is also an excellent exercise to counteract the damage done by sitting for long periods of time, which frequently creates chronic back pain. Many people report a substantial alleviation of this lower back pain by doing this exercise just a few times a week. The first thing you’ll do is sit on the ground, knees bent, palms of hands and soles of feet on the ground. Now lift your pelvis toward the ceiling as much as you can. When you’ve gone as far as your hips will go, reach toward your right shoulder with your left hand while looking to your right. Go back to the start position, and repeat on the other side.
These three exercises will go a long way toward giving you a stronger core, and are worth mastering. Of course, when it comes to core training, you are limited only by your creativity, determination and knowledge of how your body works. Now go get ’em!
Until next time…
By Gerry Pinzon, Mercedes Club Personal Trainer and Boxing Instructor