Fact: If your legs are strong enough to Squat 500 pounds but your core can only support 200 pounds, you’ll only be able to lift 200 pounds.
The same principle applies to all athletic movements. If your core can’t support it, you won’t be able to do it. People may think of “core strength” as synonymous with “six-pack abs,” but in reality having a strong core is far more important than a showy set of vanity muscles. Without core strength, your posture deteriorates, compromising even the most basic movements and possibly leading to injury.
Why Most Core Training Is Unproductive
By and large, the exercises most people think of when they think of core strength—moves like Sit-ups and Crunches—are a waste of time. That’s not just my opinion, there’s science behind it. One academic, Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, has conducted numerous studies showing that Sit-ups, Crunches and Side Bends are high-risk exercises.
Compare that to a study by researchers at Penn State University, which showed that stabilization movements like Planks and Bird Dogs produce greater muscle activation than isolation exercises like Sit-Ups and Crunches. More activation is better for two reasons: You use smaller muscles that isolation exercises miss, which you need to be strong when you’re moving in sports; and when your muscles work harder, they get stronger.
To get the most work out of your core with the smallest risk of injury, concentrate on the three B’s: Brace, Breathe, and choose Better Exercises.
If you’ve read even a few exercise descriptions at STACK.com, you’ve probably seen statements like “tighten your abs,” “keep your core engaged,” “squeeze your abs as you move,” and so on. These are all different ways of saying that since the core is involved with every movement, you should keep at least some tension in the core whenever you lift weights. Simply put: Make sure your core is braced and ready for the movement. That makes lifting heavy weights safer.
To brace your core:
- Squeeze your glutes
- Fill your midsection with air, making it as wide as possible
- Squeeze the muscles in your midsection
If you have trouble filling your midsection with air, practice your breathing technique by lying on your back and placing your hands on your stomach. Breathe in and press your palms against your belly, feeling the air flow in.
If you are having trouble engaging the muscles in your midsection, stand with your hands behind your back and have someone swing their hands as if they were going to smack you in the stomach. Your core muscles will automatically contract.
Once you’ve established the proper muscle engagement for bracing your core, you need to learn to breathe correctly. (Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to breathe during exercise.) Breathing while braced allows you keep the most tension on your core and other muscles as you move, helping you be more safe (and stronger) in your movements.
To breathe over your brace:
- Brace your core
- Keep your midsection filled with air for the entire rep
- When the repetition is complete, exhale while keeping your muscles fully contracted
- Take a new breath, fully expanding your midsection with new air, and begin your second rep
The key to choosing good core exercises is picking movements that teach you to maintain good posture as you move. (Strength coach Mike Robertson offers a good breakdown of this in his article, “21st Century Core Strength.”) Your best bet is to choose exercises that require you not to isolate movements, but to resist them entirely. Resisting flexion (the crunching motion of the core), lateral flexion and rotation of the trunk as you move your limbs causes your core to be engaged in a way that’s true-to-life, imitating the forces you experience during most sports. This gives you the best chance to be successful and stand out among other athletes on the field.
One Last Note
When it comes to core training, it’s common to see young athletes overdo it. Contrary to popular belief, you should not train your core every day. If you train your muscles before they’ve had a chance to regenerate from the previous training session, it will result in a loss of strength, stability and size. Like all the other muscles in your body, the muscles of your core grow during rest.
Find more information on STACK’s Core page.