Core Galore: How To Incorporate Core Work Into Any Exercise
Most men would really like to enhance their abdominal muscles (six-pack, anyone?). But in fact your abs are only part of the equation. Where you really need strength is in your core, both to sustain greater abdominal development and to prevent injury. The core is the hip complex, spine (thoracic and cervical) and all of the muscles surrounding those areas. An easy way to think of it is: the core is where the body’s center of gravity is located and where all movement begins. For that reason, on the one hand, you can't really have strong abs without a strong core overall. And likewise, the core can be trained by a multitude of movements beyond ab work because it is, as mentioned, where all movement begins. Becoming conscious of this fact in your workouts will lead you to find opportunities for core work in all sorts of places.
The core is divided into two categories: the stabilizing muscles and the movement muscles. These two groups work together whether you are at rest or in motion. Core movement of any kind is initiated in the larger surface muscles. These movement muscles consist of the structures that we think of as forming a six-pack: rectus abdominus (upper abs, in the center), also hip flexors and external obliques.
Core stabilization, on the other hand, takes place in your deeper muscles, such as the transversus abdominis (the horizontal girdle of muscle running across your lower abdomen, below your belly button), the internal obliques (along your sides, above the hips), the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, and the deep erector spinae. These muscles work together to stabilize us during all movement—not just ab-targeting movemements. One of the least trained groups of the core is the stabilizing musculature. But stabilizing muscles are key in using the movement muscles effectively. Because they are under-used, and because we often train the movement muscles to be very much stronger than our neglected stabilization muscles, it is easy to arrive in a situation where unwanted motion can occur in the stabilizing muscles, causing injuries.
Whenever you are working out, in pretty much any exercise, you need to use your core—and that, in turn, means that you need to both engage it and protect it. I recommend learning what I call the “Drawing In Maneuver”. This slight movement can activate your abs and instantly adjust your posture, even as it protects your lower back during exercise. To perform the "Drawing In Maneuver", imagine that someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Hard. What do you do? You pull in the region just below the navel toward the spine. Engaging this region—the transversus abdominis—is literally the act of protecting yourself. It also allows you form a strong center from which to perform all manner of movements. In short, your reaction to brace yourself is perfect for engaging the core during exercise.
The warm-up is a great time to begin utilizing your core. Try starting out with Medicine Ball Chop Squats. Start with the feet slightly wider than the width of the shoulders, toes turned out slightly. This movement involves a cross-body chop motion using a medicine ball. Use the "Drawing In Maneuver" and start with the knees slightly bent, both hands on the medicine ball and arms straight. With hands initially at head-height, accelerate the medicine ball down and across the body. Then bring the medicine ball straight up and accelerate it in the opposite direction, from high to low. Be sure that the trailing leg (the one that you are accelerating away from) pivots like the finish of a golf swing. Repeat the pattern back and forth for 15-25 reps.
From the warm-up, begin incorporating core work into other kinds of exercises. An easy way to think about this is to take the exercises you usually do, but tweak them to create an unstable environment in which you must stabilize yourself. For example: Instead of using a bench while performing dumbbell chest presses, use a stability ball. Rest your upper body on the ball with the ball between your shoulder blades. With feet hip width apart, raise your hips so they are level with your shoulders. Then, remain in this stable position while performing your set of presses. This small change will turn a traditional chest exercise into a total body exercise—without sacrificing any of your pec work.
Similarly, when performing an exercise that is done in the standing position you can create an unstable environment by standing on one foot. For example: do standing dumbbell curls on one foot (switching feet half way through the set). Or, single leg, single cable swim strokes for upper back.
In the end, if you use your creativity, you can turn almost any exercise that you are currently performing into a stabilizing, core intensive exercise as well. Just be aware that the amount of weight used in a stabilizing exercise may need to be lowered until you become familiar with your limits. You may be surprised by how much difficulty the unstable environment adds to even very familiar exercises. In the end, though, this will let you push your limits in new ways.
Core at Rest
Depending on your phase of training you may not be able to turn a traditional exercise into a stabilizing exercise due to the need to lift heavier weight. Don't despair, however—in this case you can still incorporate your core during your rest periods. For example: If you are performing three sets of chest presses using heavy weight on the bench you will probably be giving yourself about one to two minutes of rest between sets. Keep your rest period the same, but spend half of the rest time in a core training exercise that allows your heart rate to slow down but still engages core musculature. These will be static exercises rather than movement exercises— think of a basic plank position or hip bridge, rather than crunches.
Try these tips in your next workout for a bit of time saving as well as an intense core workout!
About Ryan Allen: Ryan (profile name: RATrainer) is a personal trainer certified through The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), a gold standard in the fitness industry. His education and lifelong training in various sports and disciplines, such as yoga, gymnastics, and running, as well as his focus on posture, movement patterns, and fitness level form the basis for the individualized programs that he builds for each of his clients. He can be found training his clients at DIAKADI Body as well as various outdoor locations throughout San Francisco.