When it comes to core exercises, people tend to burn though 10-minute ab circuits of crunches and sit-ups in order to achieve that coveted “six pack.”
Since flexion exercises like these work the rectus abdominis — the muscle that can give that six-pack appearance — it’s no wonder they are so popular.
But the truth of the matter is that the core musculature extends far beyond just one muscle, and performing too many exercises that flex the spine can actually create back pain for a lot of people.
In fact, there are five other major muscle groups in the core that are just as, if not more, important for a healthy spine and improving performance.
▪ External obliques: These muscles sit on the side of your torso and form the outer wall of your core. With the rectus abdominis, they can help flex the trunk but also act as rotators as well. The external obliques are involved in movements like throwing a ball or swinging a golf club.
▪ Internal obliques: These muscles sit just beneath the external obliques and run from the pelvis up to the ribcage. They, too, are involved in flexing the spine and rotational movements.
▪ Transverse Abdominis, or “TVA”: This is an inner core muscle that wraps around you like a corset, helping to improve your stability by increasing intra-abdominal pressure during activity. Essentially, it is your built-in weightlifting belt.
▪ Erector Spinae: These are the muscles in your lower back that help extend and stabilize the spine during activity.
▪ Hip Flexors: These are the muscles located on the front of your hips and drive the knee toward the chest while running, but they also act as a stabilizer for the pelvis during activity as well.
Collectively, the primary function of these core muscles is to work for stabilization. The core helps prevent unwanted movement to minimize risk of injury and serves as an energy transmitter between the lower and upper body when it comes to functional movement.
Dr. Stu McGill, researcher and head of the Spine Biomechanics Lab at the University of Waterloo, encourages people to approach core training with a stabilization (anti-movement) approach and ditch exercises that force you to do a lot of forward bending or twisting like crunches or Russian twists. Those movements place an undue amount of stress on the spinal discs, and McGill’s research shows that with enough bends over time, the discs will suffer damage.
The three recommended movements of a healthy core include:
▪ Anti-extension: This refers to exercises like Planks or Dead Bugs. The goal with anti-extension exercises is for your core to prevent the lower back from arching.
▪ Anti-rotation: In these exercises, the goal is preventing your trunk from rotating against a sideways force.
▪ Anti-lateral flexion: Includes Side Planks and any exercise in which you’re carrying an unbalanced load of heavy weights. The goal is for your core to resist bending sideways.
Here are four exercises that are very effective at challenging your core muscles in a more functional and athletic-based fashion to give you well-rounded stability and keep your low back healthy for all of your recreational endeavors.
Focus: Anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion
Insert one end of an olympic bar into a landmine or place it against the wall with a towel in between the bar and the wall. Begin by holding the opposite end of the bar at chest level. Using your arms, rotate the bar outside of your body with the largest arc possible with no movement at the core or hips. Keep your core braced throughout the exercise and repeat for a total of 10 reps.
Farmer Walks: Single Arm
Focus: Anti-lateral flexion
Begin by carrying a kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand and walk 20 yards in one direction. The goal is to keep your core braced and stay perfectly upright as you walk, not letting the weight bend you sideways. Make sure to select a weight that challenges this position (approx. 25-50 percent of your body weight). Return to the starting point and repeat on the other side.
This exercise can be used with a resistance band or cable machine. Begin by anchoring your band or setting the cable at chest height. Standing in an athletic stance, hold the handle against your chest with both hands facing sideways to the band or cable. Brace your core and slowly extend your arms away from your chest. The further your hands travel, the greater the challenge on your core. The goal is to not allow your torso to twist. Return your hands to the starting position and repeat for 10 reps before switching sides.
Focus: Anti-extension and anti-rotation
Begin on all fours in neutral spine (no arching or rotation) with your core braced and chin tucked. Slowly raise one arm with your thumb up and the opposite leg with the toe pointed away. Keep both arm and leg straight while lifting to body height. Hold and return both arm and leg slowly to the ground. The goal is to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. Repeat by alternating sides for a total of 10 reps.
Jason Wanlass, the owner of Champion Fitness Training in Meridian, has more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or championfit.net.