People talk about the core a lot these days, but there is a fair amount of confusion about what it actually is. There are so many different opinions about what core muscles and core exercises are, that it is obvious there is no clear answer. The core generally refers to the middle of the body and the abs and low back are always considered part of your core, but many other muscles should be included as well.
Some people think about the core as primarily being their abs, while others consider almost everything other than the arms and legs as being part of their core. This can lead to confusion when it comes to discussing the core, but fortunately, defining the core is not really necessary, if you understand how your core works and what it is does for your body.
Note: If you haven’t read the rest of our Abdominal series you can access them here:
Part 1: The Bona Fide Facts On Abdominal Exercises and Fat Loss
Part 2: Avoid These Frustrating Abdominal Training Mistakes By Using These Simple Effective Techniques!
Part 3: How To Integrate Ab Exercises Into Your Training Program
You use core muscles in various ways during practically every activity from playing sports to walking and even sitting, but they essentially have two main functions. Most importantly, core muscles are responsible for stabilizing your body and protecting your spine, both while stationary and during movement. They also transfer energy/force between different areas of your body, which is important for sports and other full-body activities.
In order for your core to function correctly, your core muscles have to work in a coordinated way with each other, as well as with muscles throughout the rest of your body. Technically, a core exercise can be any exercise that works a core muscle, but from a functional standpoint, core exercises should ideally train your muscles to work together to improve overall stability.
For instance, the abdominal and low back muscles have to work together in order to provide stability to your lumbar spine (low back). In many cases, people do not activate their abs correctly and the low back muscles end up having to do too much work, which ultimately results in back pain or injury. When this happens, simply training the abs more does not necessarily correct the problem.
To give you a better idea of how this works, think about what happens when lifting objects from the ground. If your core muscles do not activate correctly, bending over to pick something up usually results in a rounded low back and relaxed abs. When the object is lifted the back muscles have to work extra hard to properly support the spine, because the abs are not helping enough and the rounded back increases low back stress.
When the core works properly, the abs and low back muscles simultaneously contract to provide a greater level of support with less back stress. The combined muscle contractions essentially form a horizontal belt of muscle around the lumbar spine, which some people refer to as your natural weight belt. These muscle contractions also help keep your spine in a neutral position, which is much more stable and supportive than a rounded back.
Proper core function does require a certain level of muscle endurance and strength, so exercises that isolate or target specific muscles are useful for improving the physical abilities of those muscles. However, when it comes to really improving core function, the key is training your muscles to work together and contract the right amount at the right time.
This is accomplished by performing exercises that work your core as a whole, instead of targeting one or two individual muscles. By challenging stability over a larger area of your body and contracting more muscles simultaneously, your core function will improve at a faster rate. Some exercises that do this include prone or side plank raises or isometric holds, oblique cable twists or isometric holds, and prone ball roll outs.
It is also worth noting that core muscles do not even have to be the primary muscles used in an exercise for your core to get a good workout. Many exercises that focus on specific muscle groups also require significant core involvement. Some examples of these exercises are standing cable straight-arm pulldowns, standing cable presses, bent rows, and ball pullovers.
Many core exercises do not involve a lot of core movement, but rather your core works to prevent unwanted movement. In this way, core exercises are different from most other exercises, because they are not really about moving a weight from one point to another. By preventing unwanted movement, your core muscles allow the rest of your body to be more efficient and effective in whatever it does.
The true goal of core exercises is to maintain the structural integrity of your body while performing activities that challenge your ability to stabilize yourself. Therefore, performing exercises with correct form is incredibly important and you should focus on maintaining the best possible posture during every exercise.
When core muscles fatigue, you form will start to deteriorate and that is your key to stop the exercise. It does not matter if your other muscles can keep doing more work, because once your stabilizing muscles become tired, there is no possible way you can continue performing quality reps and you will have to cheat using incorrect muscles.
When performing core exercises involving movement, a good number to aim for is about 12 to 15 reps, meaning core stabilization becomes a real challenge somewhere in that range. When performing exercises where you stay in one position (isometric), core fatigue should occur somewhere around 20 to 30 seconds. These numbers can be higher or lower depending on the situation, but these are good general recommendations.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind with core exercises is that the goal is to fatigue your core muscles by challenging your stability. The goal is not always to lift more weight or do more reps, but to gradually increase the overall stabilization challenge. This results in you being able to properly stabilize your body in many different real world situations, which is one of the big keys to maintaining a healthy and pain free body throughout your life.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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