A comprehensive guide to core training
You’ve probably heard the phrase “core” or “core muscles”, but what does it really mean?
For many, it only refers to the abdominal muscles alone.
In fact, the core (the set of deep muscles) is made up of many different muscles.
In this article, I’ll explain what the core muscles are and their role in keeping the body mobile and stable, and we’ll also look at some effective deep muscle exercises that everyone should include in their workout programme.
What is the core?
Whether you are pushing a shopping trolley, putting on your shoes, or just breathing – you are using your core muscles. They also have a big impact on your posture, stability and balance.
Contrary to popular belief that the core is made up of only the abdominal muscles, it also includes the back muscles and the muscles around the pelvis.
Our core is made up of:
- Erector spinae – muscles in the back that helps us stand up straight after bending over, as well as bend sideways and turn our head.
- Rectus abdominis – the abdominal muscles that help us bend forward – (the six-pack or abdominal press).
- Obliquus abdominis externus and Obliquus abdominis internus – the oblique abdominal muscles that help us turn and bend the body.
- Transversus Abdominis – this muscle is mainly responsible for the correct positioning of the organs inside the abdominal cavity and helps to support the lower back and stabilise the pelvis.
- Lumbar Multifidus – supports the spine and stabilises spinal movements.
- Other deep muscles:
When these muscles are strong, our posture improves, our stomach is flat and firm, the risk of back pain is reduced, and our health and well-being improve significantly.
Deep muscles can indeed work wonders. For example, I have two herniated discs in my spine (which I got in my youth from training too hard with too many weights). The doctors told me that my career as an athlete was over and that I should forget about training, but – I still work out at least 4 times a week. Yes, sometimes my back hurts, but thanks to a strong corset of deep muscles, I can still enjoy a full and active life!
How to train the core muscles?
It depends on what you want to achieve – for example, if you do squats, different muscles will be involved and activated in a different sequence than if you try to balance on one leg.
Also, how you (your muscles) feel after a workout depends on what exercises you do, how intensely and how many times you do them (whether you push or pull a weight, whether you do the exercise standing, sitting or lying down, etc.).
Regardless of how, when or why you engage your deep muscles, it is crucial to understand that during movement, all these muscles do not work in isolation but in harmony – complementing each other.
Training deep muscles correctly is not just about strength. Strength is certainly important, but we also have to pay attention to how our deep muscles work to ensure stability, mobility and coordination.
Effective core muscle training aims to learn how to use these muscles at the right time, develop motor control and endurance, refine activation patterns, and coordinate their involvement in breathing and maintaining constant pressure in the abdominal cavity.
In other words, it is necessary to vary the types of exercise, not to stick to one specific type of exercise (that I am comfortable with).
To get a really strong and functional core, it is necessary to be able to engage it in any situation and in any way, providing support to the spine and stability to the body during movement.
And here we come to the million-dollar question – How to do that?
How to engage your core muscles in the right way?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask this question to and who answers it. How to “properly” engage core muscles depends on your body, injuries, previous experience and goals.
When I work with my clients, who are mostly women with no previous experience (not actively involved in any sport), I try to teach them the “basics” – how to engage the deep muscles of the abdomen, pelvis and buttocks in harmony with their breathing, so they can even unconsciously apply these skills to all kinds of movement in their daily lives. For example, how to tense muscles when lifting a child or shopping bags, how to squat properly, etc.
In other words, how to control the body and make stable movements without holding your breath and letting a part of the core muscles relax or compensate for the function of the core muscles with other muscles that shouldn’t be involved in the movement.
Here are the four main ways in which the core muscles are involved when we move, both in everyday life and during workouts:
1 Concentric contraction of the abdominal or back muscles
This is a type of contraction where the muscles shorten, for example – bending the arm at the elbow when picking up food from the counter.
For the core muscles, a good example is traditional abdominal exercises (e.g. crunches) or back muscle exercises (e.g. Superman exercise), where the core muscles are the main performers of the movement.
For example, when bending the body forward, rectus abdominis and obliques contract to pull the ribs towards the hips, lifting the shoulders and head.
This is the most familiar use of the core muscles for most people.
2 Eccentric contractions of abdominal or back muscles
Eccentric contractions are the opposite of concentric contractions, meaning the muscle lengthens during the contraction.
Eccentric contractions are performed to slow down/reduce the force of a body movement and always occur in tandem with a concentric contraction on the other side of the joint/body.
For example, if you are sitting at your desk hunched forward – when you straighten your back, two contractions will occur: a concentric contraction in the back muscles and an eccentric contraction in the abdominal muscles.
3 Abdominal bracing
This is an isometric contraction of the abdominal wall muscles (the muscles tense but do not shorten or lengthen) that does not change the position of the spine, ribs or pelvis.
This tightening of the abdominal muscles provides stability to the body and protects/supports the spine under heavy loads such as lifting weights.
4 Abdominal draw-in or hollowing
The abdominal draw-in is an exercise where you try to bring your navel closer to your spine. This exercise is used to ensure stability, for example while leaning. The exercise is most effective when performed while breathing out.
We should not focus only on abdominal draw-in, as bracing is more effective for activating the upper abdominal muscles.
Exercises to strengthen the core muscles
If you are a beginner or have not exercised for a long time, you may need to consult a personal trainer first to determine the best exercises, sets and repetitions for your fitness level and goals.
I would recommend starting with the plank in all its variations and abdominal draw-in.
As your fitness improves – try this deep muscle training programme:
Everyday situations you can use to strengthen your core muscles
- Sitting. Sit with your back straight and draw your abdomen in, trying to bring your navel closer to your spine. Or tense your abdomen as if expecting a punch to it.
- Breathing. Relax the abdominal muscles, shoulders and neck. Slowly inhale, allowing the abdomen to gently push outwards. Try to minimise the upward movement of the shoulders, as this means using the supporting muscles of the shoulders and neck for breathing.
- When lifting or moving weights. The core muscles are involved during all resistance exercises – when you hold a weight in your hands, when you squat down, pull up, etc. Some studies show that the core muscles are most involved during exercises with free weights (not machines).
- Cardio exercises. Walking, running, swimming, cycling, etc., all involve movements in different directions, thus engaging the core muscles.
- Yoga and Pilates. In these activities, the core muscles are engaged by lying down, doing bridges, balancing on one or both legs, etc.
Strong core muscles help improve balance, reduce the risk of injury and improve our overall health (including reducing back pain, urinary incontinence in women, etc.).
Simply speaking, the core muscles are the basis of all our movements, and by learning to effectively engage them in your daily activities, you will be able to move without pain for many years to come.
In the past, squats and crunches were used to keep the deep muscles in good shape. But these exercises are not as efficient as we once thought. They strengthen only a few muscles and can cause lower back pain in older people.
When performing exercises for core musculature, focus on quality, not quantity.
If it becomes difficult, stop the exercise rather than trying to do more by performing the exercise incorrectly (without deep muscle activation).
To keep your range of movement and your joints strong and mobile – don’t forget about stretching and other forms of myofascial release.
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