Why Most People Are Getting Core Strengthening Wrong and Don’t Realize It
Core strengthening is one of those fitness goals that we all know we should be doing more of. Core strength is essential to keep us functional and mobile throughout life and is said to help prevent low back pain.
But did you know that many people go about core strengthening the wrong way? And worse, did you know that when core strength training isn’t done in the right way, it can prove more harmful than helpful?
Core Strengthening Mistake #1: Training Only Your 6-Pack
When we hear “abdominals,” people tend to think of 6-packs. In fact, that is just one part of several muscles comprising core strength. The core muscles can be classified into two functional units:
- Outer core unit
- Inner core unit
While the outer units tend to get more attention and credit, the two units are both important. Though they pertain to different muscles and provide different functions, they usually work together.
The outer unit includes muscles intended for creating movement. It is comprised of:
- Internal oblique
- external oblique
- rectus abdominis—the 6-pack muscle
- erector spinae- outer layers
The internal oblique muscles aid in respiration; they move the lower wall of the chest cavity as the diaphragm expands and contracts when we breathe. They also work with the opposite side external oblique muscles to allow rotation and side-bending of the trunk. When one side of the external obliques contracts, it can create lateral flexion.
However, the way many people do core strength training, the 6-pack muscle, rectus abdominis, gets all the attention. The rectus abdominus extends along the whole front length of the abdomen. It is responsible for lumbar spine flexion and moving the ribcage to the pelvis or the pelvis to the ribcage.
When you do crunches, you are strengthening the rectus abdominus (R.A.), and when the R.A. gets very strong, you get that nice, buff 6-pack look.
Why Is This Type of Core Strengthening a Mistake?
By isolating the rectus abdominus and not training all the core muscles, the front of the body can get tight and pull your chest forward into a slumped posture.
Let’s take a closer look at why this happens. The rectus abdominus runs from the ribs and breastbone all the way down to the pubic bone. If the rectus gets too tight and short with one-sided training, it essentially pulls the breastbone towards the pubic bone.
This distorts your posture and sets you up for a number of additional problems as well. In fact, those sexy abs could actually cause difficulty breathing because the tight R.A. reduces the length of the trunk and drops the breastbone forward, creating less space for the internal organs and inhibiting breathing. We have seen fit guys with great 6-pack abs who suffer from panic attacks, in part because they have difficulty breathing fully and deeply. Is there a link? You decide.
Core Strengthening Mistake #2: Compromising Core Stability
Above, we looked at a core strengthening mistake associated with the outer functional unit of the core. To understand the second common core training mistake, we need to look at the inner functional core unit.
The inner core unit contains four muscles that work together as one functional unit:
- The deep erector spinae multifidus
- the diaphragm
- the transversus abdominis
- the pelvic floor muscles
The main function of the muscles in the internal unit is to stabilize the vertebral column, the rib cage, and the pelvis.
Ever wonder why people say that lower back pain is linked to weak abdominals? This is why. One of the important functions of the transverse abdominus, a key muscle of the inner core unit, is to stabilize the lower back. When the transverse abdominus engages, it activates the thoracolumbar fascia to stabilize the lower back, as you can see in this video.
Stabilization of the back and core provides the lower limbs, arms, and head with a stable base from which balanced movement can take place. Essentially, stabilization of the back and core is the basis for the stability of the entire body.
The Key to Core Stability
In normal functioning, the muscles in the internal unit are stimulated into action a few milliseconds before limb movement. Stability begins in the core muscles and passes from the center to the periphery (to the limbs). Impaired function of the internal unit affects the stability of the limbs as well as of the vertebral column.
Core stability is, in large part, driven by the action of the transversus abdominis. During contraction of the muscle, the navel is pulled inwards, and both sides of the pelvis are pulled towards each other. This leads to a significant chain reaction in the thoracolumbar fascia connected to the lower vertebrae.
Contraction of the transversus abdominis pulls the fascia from both sides of the vertebral column. The final product of this action is increased stability on both sides of the vertebral column simultaneously.
How Neglecting the Transverse Abdominus Can Compromise Core Stability
The nervous system will cause muscle stimulation according to the functional demands on the body.
If the exercise you are doing does not require the activation of core stabilizing muscles, the brain will not activate them. Unfortunately, many people predominantly do core training with exercise machines.
Training with machines that fix the body in position creates a situation in which the external muscle groups are stimulated to great activity. In contrast, the stabilizing inner muscle unit is neglected.
A typical example of this at most gyms is a simple chest press machine. The seated, supported positioning of the machine fixes the body and the movement in place. In this case, the rectus abdominis muscle (the external unit) is the core muscle stimulated to stabilize the back.
Fixation abolishes the need to activate muscles in the internal unit, such as the transversus abdominis. The result is an impairment of the functional balance between the units: the external muscles are increasingly strengthened, while the internal ones remain weak.
The result of this disturbed functional balance is impaired core stability. This impairment expresses itself in different everyday motions and actions in which the body needs the internal muscles for stabilization. These everyday actions like moving, reaching, and leaning are demanded of our bodies every day without having instruments available to support us. The only stabilizing factor we count on for these tasks is the internal unit of the core muscles; if we lose the foundation for proper core stability, we set ourselves up for increased risk of back pain, movement injuries, and functional limitations.
Check out this video for a visual representation of Core Strengthening Mistake #2.
How do you avoid these issues? When doing core strengthening exercises, be sure to add functional exercises to your workout to ensure that both your external and internal core units are being strengthened.
Exercises that enable free movement in all directions with stimulation of stabilizing muscles in every action are preferable. Balance balls are a great tool for implementing this. It is important to remember that imparting multi-directional stability to the vertebral column is impossible without actively stimulating the internal unit of the core muscles; the body naturally does it!
Most yoga postures provide natural and balanced core strengthening as well. For a one-stop core strengthening practice, few yoga poses beat Plank Pose (Phalakasana). Check out Dr. Baxter Bell’s guide to the many variations of Plank Pose in this article, and you will be well on your way!