Core means “the central or most important part of something.”
With a definition like that, you know it’s something you should be paying attention to.
And you’re likely already aware of it. If you’ve spent any time in a gym, talked to a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach, or ever read anything about fitness, you’ve undoubtedly come across the word.
To the uninitiated, having a strong core means a sleek six pack. To the initiated, your core is a complex structure vital to efficient and powerful movement, proper balance and posture, and protection from undue wear and tear on the joints and muscles that make us prematurely age.
The core is made up of the pelvic girdle (a bony structure consisting of the hip bones, the sacrum, and the coccyx), the trunk (your torso), and the scapular region (muscles extending from the trunk and attaching to the shoulder blades).
Here are 7 things you absolutely need to know about core training if you want to do it right.
1) There are local and global muscles in the core region
Your core region has 29 pairs of muscles. They can broadly be grouped based on where they are located, what they look like, the type of muscle fibers they are made up of, and by how they function.
Based on these features, the muscles of the core region can be separated into local muscles and global muscles.
Local muscles are the ones that are deep and right next to the spine. If you’re a muscle anatomy nerd, these are the: multifidi, transversus abdominus, internal oblique, medial fibers of external oblique, quadratus lumborum, diaphgragm, pelvic floor muscles, and iliocostalis and lognissimus (lumbar portions).
The global muscles are superficial and mainly function to generate torque and joint movement. These are the: rectus abdominus, lateral fibers of external oblique, psoas major, erector spinae, ilicostalis (thoracic portion), and gluteus.
The stability of the spine relies on the coordination of the muscles in both groups.
Therefore, training programs should include exercises that engage local and global muscles.
Core exercises that engage the local core muscles are things like planks. Core exercises that will encourage local and global muscle groups to work together are moving into a push up position from standing (the whole time keeping the spine neutral and supported).
2) The spine has a neutral zone
The neutral zone of the spine is a position where movements can be performed without any tension being generated in non-contractile tissues (joints, ligaments, nerves, or cartilages).
An important goal of core training is to improve the body’s ability to maintain the neutral zone of the spine. Since the neutral zone involves less tension in non-contractile tissues, it means less unwanted wear and tear on these tissues while you move about doing activities.
Improving core stability to better maintain the neutral zone of the spine can be done by incorporating exercises that train local and global core muscle groups.
3) The order of muscle activation
The ideal pattern of activation is local muscles first, then global muscles.
Activation of local muscles first stabilizes the spine so that the limbs can move more efficiently. This pattern of activation is beneficial from a power generation standpoint and from a “this isn’t going to cause me a lot of pain at some point in the future” standpoint.
When spine stability doesn’t come first (i.e. global muscles are activated before local muscles) you make yourself a prime candidate for lower back pain.
If you’re reading this and you can feel that dull ache in your lower back, there is hope. Focus on exercises that incorporate:
- unilateral resistance (one arm or one leg at a time – shoulder press, bicep curl, calf raise, and squats)
- training on unstable bases
- eyes closed (this helps train your muscle proprioceptors to make them more responsive)
- hops, bounces, and jumps
4) Stability comes first
In order for stability to come first, local muscles must be able to stabilize.
Unfortunately, stability is often overlooked simply because core exercises that involve a lot of movement are much more popular than the static ones – probably because they look a lot cooler to do.
Research suggests, however, that static exercises are going to do a lot more for you in terms of improving spine stiffness and posture during athletic activities and during daily life.
For this reason, and because of what we talked about in the previous section about activating local muscles before global muscles, static core moves (planks and all their variations) should be done and mastered before moving on to the sexier dynamic exercises you see going on all around you.
5) The world is three-dimensional, your core training should be too
As you move around in this world, there are many different forces acting on you: there’s gravity, there’s the movement of the body, there’s lifting or supporting external loads, and there is the force created by muscular contractions.
Because we live in a three dimensional world, these forces push and pull on our body in three dimensions.
To prepare your body for the stresses and strains of everyday life, a proper core training program should include movements in all three dimensions.
6) The core is more than just the lower abs
The core has more muscles than most conventional training programs tend to utilize. It has muscles making up its floor, wall, and ceiling.
Because so many people in the world suffer from lower back pain, the muscles in close association with the lumbar spine tend to receive the most attention. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the strong relationship between lower trunk instability and lower back pain. But, a complete core training program should include all the core muscles.
The most often forgotten components of core training are the pelvic floor, the transverse abdominus, and the diaphragm.
7) Train your core’s reaction time
As we mentioned before, maintaining a neutral spine is important for life and sport. Ideally, we want muscles involved to spring into action quickly and efficiently when they are needed so they can function optimally.
Train your core muscles’ reaction time by using unstable bases.
Incorporating tools like Swiss balls, a BOSU, wobble boards, or foam pads causes disturbances in the body’s center of gravity.
Disturbing the center of gravity suddenly changes the position and length of muscles. Sensors within muscles (proprioceptors) sense these changes and generate reflexive action. The more sensitive proprioceptors are to changes in muscle tension and position, the better they will be at maintaining the stability of the spine.
I hope I’ve been able to convince you that core training is more than just doing exercises that will give you a six pack.
Your core is central and important to good spine health and efficient, pain-free movement. It’s role is to ensure the integrity of the spine and vital organs during movement, maintain body balance while we perform tasks, and transfer forces between lower and upper limbs.
The better and holistically the core is trained, the better able the core will be able to perform these tasks. Properly training the core means training local and global components, training to maintain a neutral spine, training proper muscular recruitment patterns, training to prepare for the demands of life and sport, and training all of the core.