When core training became all the rage a few years ago, it was all about the four abdominal muscles. And man, things went crazy! The goal of ab workouts was to see how much you could make them burn and if your abs weren’t sore the next day, then you obviously didn’t do enough.
The core is so much more than just the abs. The abdominals are important – don’t get me wrong – but true core training takes posture into account. When posture is thrown into the mix, all the muscles that attach to the spine and pelvis must be considered. In simplistic terms, the core is everything in your torso and hips. May I present my definition of the core and how you can update your core training program.
Components of the Core
Starting at the top of the core, we have the thoracic spine. (Yes, the cervical vertebrae are really on the top of the spine, but we’ll save discussion on them for later when we’re talking head posture.) Back to the 12 thoracic vertebrae. This is the area where rounding and slouching happens. The thoracic spine typically adapts to a flexion position with excess sitting. As part of core training with my clients, I have them extend their spine over a foam roller. This exercise moves the spine in the opposite direction to counteract excessive flexion. You should include this mobility exercise in your warmup.
The next component of the core is the diaphragm. It may sound insane, but how well you breathe plays a huge role in posture, core stability, pelvic floor function, and hip flexor tightness. Mike Robertson from RobertsonTrainingSystems.com wrote an excellent article on breathing. Give that a read for sure! In a type A, stressed out world, we tend to hold air in. Getting a full exhale takes some serious thought and practice. You can practice by lying on your back with knees bent; inhale through your nose, and take longer to exhale than you did to inhale. Focused breathing also has the added bonus of calming your nervous system. It’s a great recovery “exercise” after a tough workout or hard day at the office. If you aren’t addressing your breathing patterns, you’re missing a link in the chain.
The ribs envelope the diaphragm and can flare out when you have poor posture. You may think that seeing your lower ribs when you’re laying on your back means you’re slim. But, your ribs should actually lay flat and you shouldn’t see a protrusion. Strength coach, Tony Gentilcore, likes to say, “own your rib position” while doing any exercise. That essentially means to pull your flared ribs down and lock in your core. It’s a great technique cue that you don’t often hear!
The rectus abdominis gets all the attention in core training because everyone wants the almighty 6-pack. Doing 1000 crunches per day has become a badge of honor it seems. Not only do crunches wreak havoc on your spine from repetitive stress, but they also don’t address why your abs may be weak in the first place. If you have anterior pelvic tilt, your 6-pack muscle is overstretched, weak, and doesn’t activate well.
You must learn how to tuck your tailbone under and posteriorly tilt your pelvis for your abs to even get close to being in alignment. The top portion of your rectus abdominis attaches to your ribs and that’s why crunches work your upper abdominal fibers. But consider the bottom abdominal muscle fibers attach to your pelvis. Address the muscle imbalance from the bottom up by tucking your tailbone.
Planks are fantastic when done correctly. Rather than listing all the variations of planks that you could do, focus on doing a plank really well. One of the first technique cues that I give my clients doing planks is to, “tuck your tailbone and squeeze your glutes.” This simple tweak in technique makes a world of difference! You immediately feel your abs turn on because now they are not in that overstretched position. Now they are contracting (and shaking.)
In addition to the rectus abdominis attaching to the pelvic bone, you have lots of muscles attaching there. If any of them are too tight or too weak, your pelvis can get seriously out of alignment or worse, pain can arise. Common muscles that get thrown under the bus are the hip flexors (usually the psoas) the IT Band, and the hamstrings. But did you know that the diaphragm is connected to the pelvis via connective tissue? See…it’s all related. That’s why it’s critical to consider your hips part of the core. If you only address one area of the core you won’t truly establish a solid foundation.
The gluteals attach on the pelvis as well which brings me to my final component of core training: the glutes. We neglect our butt. We sit on it too much. And like the rectus abdominis mentioned above, in anterior pelvic tilt, the glutes get overstretched and weak. It needs dedicated exercises to wake up these sleepy muscle fibers. Too often we do squats and lunges and our quads scream while the glutes are silent. Bridges are a simple, effective exercise for the gluteus maximus, but are often done incorrectly. This video explains how to do them.
Don’t think of working your butt as part of the lower body anymore. Include bridges and side-lying leg raises in your core training. Side-lying leg raises target your smaller gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles. Did you know you have three glute muscles? All 3 are important to keep strong.
In summary, how we approach core training needs to be updated to reflect the needs of our bodies. Modern conveniences and poor training methods are creating muscular imbalances that can be improved with smart core training.