When’s the last time you checked out at a grocery store and didn’t see a celebrity’s midsection in the middle of the sea of pop culture magazines with the ‘six-pack shortcuts’ or ‘how she did it’ headline staring right at you? Aside from being an extremely flaunted muscle group for both men and women, the core is without a doubt one of the most important muscle groups in the body.
One of the most common causes of injury is a weak or imbalanced core, and by strengthening every aspect of it, we can not only avoid many nagging injuries, but also perform better in everyday movements. We use the core all the time, from bending over to pick up groceries, holding it in when we need to use the restroom, sitting up from the couch to reach our bowl of hot Cheetos, and almost non-stop in more competitive sports environments.
“Every aspect of the core?” you might ask. Yes, contrary to what most people think, the core encompasses more than just the six-pack muscles on the front of your stomach. The core musculature circles all the way around the torso from the stomach to the lower and middle back, each muscle contributing a different function and working together to enable us to do all the amazing things we’re able to do with our bodies. A large chunk of the core is designed to help protect the spine, a fragile yet extremely important network without which we wouldn’t be able to move. The thoracic and lumbar spine make up most of this large structure, but the lumbar spine is the section where we most often hear about nagging injuries. There are five lumbar vertebrae, and not only do they have to support the weight of the upper body, but they aren’t protected by the rib cage or the pelvis, leaving them exposed and prone to injury when put under load.
Why should we train and aim for a strong core?
As I mentioned previously, we use the core in just about everything we do, but to convince the skeptics in the audience to crank out those crunches (crunches are actually not recommended, and will be addressed later in this article), here are some more reasons why we should attack the abdomen.
Sexy stomach! Probably the most obvious, and shallow (literally and figuratively) reason to train abs. Everyone is blown away by a chiseled six-pack or perfectly toned and flat stomach. While accomplishing this comes from a mixture of training and nutrition, you can be sure the nicest midsections have hours of work behind them.
Injury prevention. Strong core muscles and more core stability prevents injuries and pain, both now a nd in the future. One study focused on individuals with chronic low back pain found that exercise routines focused on strengthening core muscles such as the rectus abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae, as well as routines focused on segmental stabilization that targeted ‘deeper’ muscles such as the transversus abdominis and lumbar multifidus both decreased pain and relieved functional impairment. That being said, routines focused on the stabilization muscles found significantly better results than the more superficial strengthening muscles.
Body alignment. Imbalances in core musculature can have a domino effect that throws the whole body out of whack. Like a coin, much of our bodies and movements have two interconnected sides. If one muscle is tight or weak, another has to compensate for it. For example, tight hip flexors are usually accompanied by inactive and weak glutes, which can put excessive pressure on the lower back to work overtime and will probably end up causing lower back pain.
What’s the safest and most effective way to train your core?
There’s been a lot of conflicting evidence about how to best train your core, and as new research pops up, what we thought was best for the core now is being found to actually be detrimental to our health. Things like sit-ups and leg raises, the staples of ab training in the past, have been found to cause a lot of spinal loading and compression, exceeding the numbers recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. For lower back training, the classic superman where you lie on your stomach and raise your legs and upper body can cause very high compression of the lumbar spine and lead to injury (sorry Clark Kent). The key in abdominal training for spinal health is to avoid excessive spinal loading while still causing considerable activation of the muscles. Things like the plank, side plank, and leg extensions or bird dog, all of which are incorporated into X-Core’s routine with an added stability and balance aspect given by the Megaformer’s constant movement, are the exercises that both effectively hit the underlying muscles like the tranversus abdominis and save the spine from stress and excessive force that could wind up causing problems down the line. So come over to the studio, and work that core!