A common question I am frequently asked in clinical practice is, “what is the best way to train my core?” Before we answer that, we need to understand a few important concepts that will help clear up any misconceptions about training core:
- Defining “Core”
- What is the difference: Stability vs. Strength
- What is the difference: Muscle Action Vs. Muscle Function
- Planes of Motion
First and foremost, let us define the ever so popular word, “core,” and what it entails so that we can be more clear on how to train it. Your core includes the entire trunk region, or pillar as I like to call it in practice, from your lats to your glutes and everything in between, and arguably even more. One might argue that it basically goes, “From my chest pubes all the way down to my ball fro,” (Doback, 2008). The Diaphragm, your main muscle of respiration, and your pelvic floor are essentially the North and South Poles of your core. There is a very complex and unique part of the body that exists from our Thoracolumbar Fascia, around the sides of our waist in between the iliac crest and rib cage, wrapping around to the front and down to the pubic bone. This is where the core truly exists. It is a 360 degree pillar where we rely on the musculature to stabilize us instead of our structures. Can you visualize this? Wrap your hands around your waist and around to your belly button, and feel the space between your ribs and waistline. This is supported and stabilized by the muscles that we associate the core with which include: the Rectus Abdominis, External Oblique, Internal Oblique and your Transverse Abdominis muscles. These are the main muscles of the trunk that all have similar ACTIONS: to flex, rotate, and laterally flex the trunk. Why is this important?
(main core muscles pictured above)
This is where we must understand the difference between muscle action and muscle function. I learned this concept from one of my mentors and good friends Dr. Jordan Shallow, one of the smartest people I have ever had the privilege to be around. Muscle ACTION is bringing a muscle’s origin and insertion points together, the ultimate goal when training for hypertrophy and typically trained in isolation. For example: performing a russian twist or a rope crunch. These are exercises that are commonly implemented into programs to train the core. We bring the muscle’s origin and insertion points closer together in an attempt to shorten the muscle as much as possible to elicit a stimulus to hypertrophy the muscle. But what about FUNCTION? Muscle function is how the muscles work together by creating an integrative system in order to stabilize. Muscle function trains muscles of STABILITY via ANTI-movement stabilization exercises. This is why we cannot just cop out by saying, you have a “weak core” or “weak rotator cuff, just get stronger,” especially when it comes to rehab. There are muscles of stability that need to be challenged and progressed by resisting forces to increase our ability to stabilize, just like we do with hypertrophy and strength training. Our ability to improve stability is where the magic happens.
It’s not all about strength when it comes to the core, it’s about STABILITY. Stability and strength are two separate entities and adaptations that we can train for but are commonly used interchangeably. This leads to blind spots in training and potential injuries down the road as well. Strength is defined as the ability to PRODUCE or exert force. Stability is the ability the RESIST forces. See the difference? They are similar, just like Italian is to Spanish and Portugese, but also different. When we challenge the “core” musculature to resist forces, we are calling upon their FUNCTION. They work together in unison to RESIST motion. We call this “anti-movement.” To come full circle, stability is the integration of muscle function. Why is this important?
Stability is the name of the game. Regardless of your goal, creating a stable system is paramount for progress. The more stable you become, the more force you can produce, thus creating a higher ceiling for progress. Understanding these concepts are crucial for you and for your clients, whether that be for pain and rehab or training and exercise selection. Critically thinking and implementing specific interventions with the minimum effective dosage will help you better manage injury risk long term, increase performance, and maximize results.
Here are a few of my favorite ANTI-MOVEMENT exercises to train CORE:
- Suitcase Carry
- Ab Wheel
- Copenhagen Plank
- Palloff Press
- One Arm Plank Reach
Lastly, there are 3 dimensions or planes of motion that we must account for when training ANTI-MOVEMENT exercises. The X Axis (Frontal Plane) which includes Abduction/Adduction movements, Y Axis (Transverse Plane) which include Rotational movements, and Z Axis (Sagittal Plane) which include Flexion/Extension movements. Having a grasp on these planes of motion will help you understand why you should select and program specific exercises for you and your clients, and how you can scale them to continually progress. It will also help you eliminate redundancy and get creative in the gym when you are thinking of exercises to create for yourself and others.
So what is the best way to train core? It comes as a loaded question, however I hope reading about the definition of core, muscle function vs. muscle action, stability vs. strength, and the 3 planes of motion has cleared up any confusion and given you the ability to analyze and think about how to intelligently approach training, especially your core. These fundamental base principles are here to help in guiding you to create your own thought process and to continually question and challenge yourself. There is no magic “one size fits all” exercise or program. Understanding concepts, thinking critically, implementing, adapting and gaining experience will allow you to experiment, learn, and progress in your respected field. Get some skin in the game. As Dr. Shallow would say, “There is no such thing as bad exercise, only exercises without intent.” Regardless of your goals, you should always be mindful, be intentional, have a purpose, and do it with passion!
Your Favorite Chiropractor,
Jeremy Scott Dinkin, D.C.