Core Strength: More Than Just Sit-Ups and Planks

Why build core strength?

There are many reasons to improve your core strength, and they don’t all involve getting 6-pack abs. More importantly, a strong core can help to improve your physical function and reduce your risk of injury.

Everyone can benefit from having a strong core, but many people experience difficulties when trying to build one. They may waste their time with ineffective exercises, develop pain or dysfunction in the process, or fail to achieve the results they want.

This post will help you to strengthen and use your core in a comprehensive and effective way.

What is your core?

First, it helps to understand what the ‘core’ is and how it works. The core is the section of your body between the bottom of the pelvis and rib cage. Many different muscles in this area work together to control the movement of the trunk, permitting everyday functions like balance and gait.

How does your core work?

The muscles of the core control three planes of movement: forwards and back, side to side, and twisting. They can work to move the trunk through the plane of motion (as if doing a sit-up), slow the trunk down as it travels through space (controlling the descent of a kettlebell swing), or stabilize the trunk against an external force (maintaining balance during a lunge).

The muscles of the core handle a range of loads as they control the trunk. These range from producing a small force over a long period of time, such as when standing upright for a prolonged period, to withstanding a large force for a brief period, such s when lifting a heavy object.

To effectively strengthen the core for performance enhancement and injury prevention, we must work in all of the planes, types of movement, and loads that it may be exposed to handle during everyday function. If the core is only challenged in one plane of motion, used in only one type of movement, or exposed to only one level of load, it may not be equipped for the highly variable demands of everyday life.

What happens when the core doesn’t work?

Many musculoskeletal conditions are contributed to by a lack of core strength. If the core is incapable of controlling the movement of the trunk, other parts of the body may become overloaded in an effort to compensate.

The most common effects of inadequate core strength are seen in the muscles and joints of the lower back. If the core muscles on the front of the trunk are underactive, the back muscles need to work harder to maintain control. This may result in pain, tension, and postural changes. If the muscles of the back re also weak, the load is placed directly on the spine. Over time, this can strain nonmuscular structures like spinal joints, ligaments, and discs.

Core control can also affect function in the peripheral joints. During dynamic activities such as running or lifting, the muscles of the trunk dampen and direct forces that may overload peripheral joints like the ankles, knees, or shoulders.

The core also cooperates with one of the largest and most important muscle groups in the body: the glutes. The glutes play an essential role in the biomechanics of the lower limb and spine. The following paragraph provides an explanation of how the glutes cooperate with the core to work effectively.

One of the primary actions of the gluteus maximus is to drive the leg backward from the hip joint, for example: pushing your rear leg behind you as you walk. If the core isn’t working to stabilize the lower trunk and pelvis when the leg drives backward, the lower back will arch and the pelvis will tip forwards. This shifts the glute’s attachment point, limiting its ability to fully contract and produce force. Over time, this movement pattern can lead to weakness in the glutes and an overreliance on the muscles of the lower back.

Note: The most common reason people struggle to build their glutes is a lack of lower core control.

What is the best way to build core control?

Start with the fundamentals

The core is comprised of more than just the ‘6-pack’ muscles. There are many deeper muscles in various locations throughout the front and back of the trunk that is essential for core control. Start by learning to activate these to establish a baseline level of control. You can find a sequence of exercises designed to teach you the fundamentals in every prescription available on the Phyx app.

Variety is key to functional core strength

Once you have learned the fundamentals of trunk control, you should start using them in a variety of situations. Whether you’re walking up the stairs, cycling to work, or squatting a the gym, consciously adjusting trunk position will improve your core control and strength. The ‘Modifications’ section o the Phyx app has step-by-step guides on how to adjust your posture in a variety of situations.

When targeting the core with specific exercises, be sure to incorporate all planes of movement, types of movement, and load. Sit-ups and crunches can be effective at strengthening the upper abdomen in the sagittal (front and back) plane, but they shouldn’t be used exclusively. You should also focus on controlling rotational and side bending forces under a variety of loads. See our selection of the 15 Best Core Exercises, broken down by movement plane, type of contraction, and load, with video demonstrations and dosage recommendations.

One of the best ways to expose the core to high loads is to focus on trunk stabilization during heavy compound movements. For example, rather doing a weighted sit-up, try to prevent the back from arching excessively at the bottom of a heavy squat. This will improve your ability to control large forces with your turnk while siulatneously building strength in the muscles that coopearte with the core in everyday tasks.

Don’t forget to stretch!

Strengthening a muscle can cause it to get tight, and the muscles of the core are no exception. If you do 100 crunches, you should expect the body to tighten into a slightly crunched position for the next few days unless you stretch your abs. If left unattended, tension in the trunk can contribute to biomechanical issues everywhere from the neck to the ankles, so be sure to stretch out in all three planes. You can find stretches for the abs in our guide to the 15 Best Core Exercises, or on the Phyx app.

Summary

Core strength can help to improve physical function and reduce the risk of injury but can be difficult to build. If your core is underactive, you may be more likely to overload other parts of the body when they try to compensate. To build core strength, you should challenge it in all the different ways it will be used: in multiple planes of movement, different types of contraction, under a variety of loads. Get started with our guide to the 15 Best Core Exercises, and don’t forget to stretch!

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