The core refers to any muscle that works to stabilize the spine, so when we talk about strengthening the core there are a wide variety of muscles that contribute to this process. In this article, we’re going to discuss why it is important to strengthen the core, which muscles are most important and what they do to improve health, well-being, and performance.
Health and wellbeing
The first way that core strength contributes to health and wellbeing is through the development of general stability of the spine. Increasing the musculature around a joint contributes to injury prevention and improved control over the joint itself. When we look at the vulnerability of the spine, it is obvious that there are a lot of moving parts that require insulation and stability. Strengthening the core (and the areas of the lower back that it works with) is a great way to reduce the chance of miscellaneous injury and keep the spine healthy.
Dynamic stability refers to the ability to stabilize a joint in response to movement – both internal and external. Consider how standing on one leg might challenge dynamic stability (internal challenge) whereas it becomes more difficult if a friend gently pushes you in different directions (external challenge). Developing core strength through dynamic stability exercises – even something as simple as reaching beyond the base of support from seating, standing or one leg – can reduce the long-term risk of falls and joint injuries.
Core strengthening is also an essential part of protecting the discs of the spine. The discs are between the vertebrae and provide a soft, gel-filled cushion between them in order to absorb shock and stop the bones grinding. By strengthening the core, we off-load some of the load placed on the discs by improving posture and providing muscular support. Simply put, increasing the strength of the core will stabilize the spine and protect the otherwise-vulnerable discs, which are otherwise susceptible to bulging, herniation and rupture.
For many of us, improving posture is a great benefit by itself! Posture has been linked to a lot of skepticism in the health sciences, but proper spinal alignment is necessary to reduce the stress placed on the easily-injured lumbar (lower) spine and reduce the risk of a variety of common back pain complaints. Strengthening your core now means reduced pain in future, and potentially a healthier aging process.
Many of us want to look and perform better, as well as aging better and avoiding injury/pain. Core strengthening plays an important role in the development of athletic performance and an attractive physique. Whilst washboard abs don’t guarantee core strength, a thick, strong core will generally be more attractive than a frail-looking waist. Health, strength and physical appearance tend to go hand-in-hand, and strengthening your core will also contribute to the toned, athletic appearance we see in top-level sports competitors.
Core stability is key for many sports and training feats, with isometric core strength – the ability to keep your core tight and your spine in the right place – being a huge part of Strength and conditioning. When we look at any strong human, we might consider barbell exercises such as the squat and deadlift to be some of the best indicators of overall strength. These require a large amount of isometric core strength, which improves mechanical efficiency and force transfer, making it an essential part of top-end power and strength output.
Dynamic stability is the most important part of core strength for athletes, or at least those athletes that compete in fast, multi-directional sports where changes of direction and responding to competitors’ movements is necessary. Keeping the spine stable during these movements (such as side-stepping in rugby or other field sports) is important to the athlete and will contribute to improved performance on the field.
For sports performance, it is also important to remember that many of the most dynamic sports rely on the use of sling-based movements for power output and movement. For example, running, boxing and jumping competitions all require the ability to move effectively in the transverse plane. This simply means rotation through the core and other muscles which interact with it. Strengthening the rotational and anti-rotational movements of the core, and the muscles that contribute to rotational power such as the glutes, quadratic and obliques. If you want to throw huge punches, run faster or improve response, core strength can’t be ignored.
What should we think about core strength, overall? Firstly, it is an essential process in strengthening the core to avoid injury – both in static and dynamic conditions. In addition to simply stabilizing the spine, proper strength training for the core should focus on the passive posture that we exhibit – it should combat the kind of poor posture that places stress on the lower back and contributes to pain and injury.
For athletes and performance enthusiasts, the core is an essential part of the body to train. Stability in the core during exercise, training, and competition is non-optional: if you have a weak core, you’re going to perform worse. This is the case for static stability, dynamic stability and power-production through the rotational muscles of the core.
Here are some basic principles for core training
- Work Isometrically, as well as concentrically/eccentrically: exercises like planks and holds will strengthen the core in different ways to crunches and other common exercises
- Work in different planes: you should train the core unilaterally (asymmetric movements/holds), sagitally (forwards/backward), laterally (side to side) and transverse (rotation). This will improve health and performance if performed correctly.
- Be functional and specific: there’s been a lot of discussion of “functional” exercises lately, but functional just means that it has some carry-over to real-world applications. This means that, for example, planks, leg raises, and rotational exercises are more useful than crunches or sit-ups, which don’t transfer well to real life scenarios.
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