Yesterday I was talking about the importance of core strength on Facebook. Today I’m going to go a little more in depth with that discussion. As I was saying then, many people confuse having a visible six-pack with having a strong core. The first problem is your core consists of a large group of muscles extending from your lower chest to hips and from your upper back to pelvis and around both sides of your torso. These muscles work together, not in isolation to stabilize the spine and prevent flexion under load.
Marketing execs further confuse this distinction with a multitude of products all designed to promote flexion of the Rectus Abdominis muscle, and it is just one muscle by the way not six or eight. The problem with this path of thinking is that sit-ups, crunches, reverse crunches, knee-to-elbow, and overuse of GHD devices to perform more sit-ups all teach your core specifically your back to collapse under load. Anyone who’s ever bit off more than they can chew with a heavy Barbell Squat will tell you that your core collapsing under that kind of load is a bad thing.
The reality is that many times when clients and trainees fail on a squat it was not their leg muscles that were too weak but that their core could not stabilize the load, they fold at the waist, the torso leans forward and it’s all downhill from there. Without sufficient core support in the lower torso and back it’s next to impossible to engage in the necessary hip drive to initiate upward motion on a squat, the squatter gets stuck in the bottom and most either ditch the bar and bailout or get driven to the ground with potentially disastrous injury. I see this most often in women because simply put they do not frequently lift as heavy as many men and their cores have little experience with stabilizing weight loads in excess of their own bodyweight.
This brings me to my first exercise truth; one of the best ways to strengthen your core is to lift heavy. Deadlifts, Front Squats, Overhead Squats, Cleans, and Snatches all heavily recruit the muscles of the entire core to generate speed power and stability. Any lifting coach worth his salt will tell you that all these moves initiate from the hips, which get their power from your core muscles around the waist and pelvis.
More often than not the moves that work the core the best are ones most of us hate so we avoid them like the plague. Burpees, Hanging Stiff Leg Raises, L-sits for time, Toe-to- bar with rigid form, GHD Back and Side Extensions, Dragon Flags, Russian Twists, Medicine Ball V-ups, Floor Wipers, Barbell Roll-outs are all core moves that should be part of every routine. The trick is to go slow and focus more on control and from than just getting it over with as fast as possible. Not only is this a lazy man’s approach but for many of these moves it’s just dangerous and putting the back at serious risk of injury.
Finally let’s talk about the holy-grail of CrossFit movements; the Muscle-Up. I cannot think of a more potent example of a move where poor core strength makes it virtually impossible to perform. Unless you’re an Olympic Gymnast in which case you already have a core that can reflect bullets, you will be kipping in order to get your body in the necessary horizontal plane to facilitate your rise into the rings. The kip for the Pull-up, muscle-up, and toe-to-bar are all closely related and all rely on using your core to keep your entire body from swaying under the bar/rings. You must maintain a relaxed loose shoulder during the initiation of these movements in order to get the lateral movement and rotation around the bar or rings that bring you not up under the bar as in a traditional strict Pull-up but around and over it, to position the body into the dip and completion of the move. This is only possible with a strong core stabilizing your midsection so all that momentum from your kip isn’t just turned into useless flailing but speed and direction. Once again the number one reason I see clients and trainees fail in this movement is not lack of back or arm strength but poor core strength and by association insufficient kip or rotational movement towards the rings.
To make it simple, your kip should begin in the hips anchored by your core exactly like a “Hollow Rocker” on the floor. Starting the motion in your feet or shoulders is widely taught but often leads to excessive swaying under the bar throwing off not only the kip, but timing, and direction.
If you want a strong core you’re going to have to get comfortable with discomfort there’s no way around it. The moves that work the core best often involve stabilization not flexion or bending. Likewise they should be performed with slow controlled motion. If you whole body begins to shake from the effort while performing a core workout then you’re probably doing it right. Finally your core is much like a support column in a building all of the muscles in your trunk upper back, shoulders, arms, and legs rely on the core to anchor the movement. If your core is weak every lift will suffer.