There’s no denying that having a strong and defined core is at the forefront for many lifter’s goals. This particular goal is sometimes a reason that many actually start going to the gym in the first place. As the field strength & conditioning continues to progress and coaches and athletes everywhere learn more about training, we all continue to evolve and utilize the best training methods possible.
If you’re only training abs to improve their appearance, then you’re selling yourself short for recognizing the pure awesomeness the core has in our daily life. The core plays a huge role in how we function everyday and has a ton of impact on both sport and lifting performance, so limiting its use to only appearance is short sighted, in my opinion.
Why can’t you have great core that also functions at a high level? The new rules for training the core are based on three key pillars: Strategy, function, and performance.
Rule 1: Realize The Core Is More Than Just the “Abs”
The core is often regarded to as only the front showing portion of the torso, you know, those bumpy ridges that so many desire, but the core is much more than the rectus abdominis. Instead of referring to the core as one muscle group, it’s important to recognize that the core is all of the musculature of the torso and hips that create stability and positioning for the body’s center of mass.
Some of a major muscles that make up the core along with their functions are as follows:
- Rectus Abdominis: Trunk flexion and assists in creating intra-abdominal pressure
- External Obliques: Trunk rotation and assist with spinal rotation and passive flexion
- Internal Obliques: Support abdominal wall, trunk rotation, spinal stability, and forced respirations
- Transverse Abdominis: Trunk movement, spinal stability, assists in creating intra-abdominal pressure, and anterior core tension.
- Erector Spinae: Spinal extension, ipsilateral trunk flexion, and spinal stability
- Glute Maximus: Hip extension and external rotation
- Glute Medius: Internal rotation of the thigh (anterior fibers), thigh abduction, pelvis stability
- Iliopsoas: Hip flexion
By acknowledging the vast amount of muscles that constitute the core along with their actions, then it’s pretty ease to see that variety and diverseness in training is a must for building a strong core. One useful way to approach variety with core training is to separate exercises by their main movements: Flexion, lateral flexion, rotation, etc.
The Takeaway: Only performing core exercises that result in torso flexion is limiting to growth.
Rule 2: Acknowledge Fiber Type
Research that encompasses the topics of muscle fibers and how they function and adapt continues to evolve. This is amazing for the strength & conditioning field because this evolution then suggests better means of training.
Generally speaking, the abs are usually composed of a mixture of Type I (slow twitch) fibers and Type II (fast twitch) fibers with the majority of the composition airing on the side of slow twitch fibers. (1) This is important to understand, but why? Muscles that play a large role in stability and posture support are usually composed of more Type I muscle fibers (cough cough, here’s looking to you, soleus and erector spinae). Their main role in daily life is to be continuously working to support posture by resisting gravity, so they need to be highly resistant fatigue.
If we can acknowledge that likely a majority of the core muscles are composed of Type I muscle fibers, then we can partition our core training to reflect how these muscles will respond best to external stimulus and progress. By using muscular endurance focused core training, we can improve upon the slow twitch fibers that heavily make up the core. This could mean using progressive overload training in the form of increasing time under tension and total volume, or upping individual set reps.
Now, there’s a caveat. The above is not intended to create a bias towards core training. There are still Type II (fast twitch) fibers in the core and they need to be trained with exercises that focus on the manifestation of strength and power.
The takeaway: Use a variety of core exercises that train the torso to be durable and strong in multiple ways — it’s time to do more than just holding planks.
Rule 3: Brace Accordingly
Bracing during exercise is a hot topic because it’s so often debated and misconstrued. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can create some problematic ways of thinking when folks adapt a blanket style approach to bracing for all exercises.
What does this mean?
Let’s look at the squat and deadlift. To perform heavy reps with either of these exercises, there needs to be ample intra-abdominal pressure created. This pressure then helps support the rigidness of the spine, which protects it from being prone to injury. In addition, this pressure assists with movement mechanics. For this scenario, a lifter’s brace will be much more calculated and rigid and will only last a few seconds before needing to reset and re-brace.
Now, let’s look at the plank or a Pallof press. These exercises have a time or high rep (generally) goal, which right off the bat indicates that the way we brace for them will need to be different. This is where developing a passive bracing strategy comes into play. When performing movements like the plank, the core should be braced, but only to a point that is needed to sustain the desired posture. For example, your brace in the plank should not completely limit breathing like your brace in the squat.
This concept is food for thought and will need to be interpreted and adapted based on the context of the exercise being performed, as different movements and intensities will require different levels of torso rigidness.
The Takeaway: Brace in a way that realistically promotes function. Forcing the body into an extremely rigid base for core movements can be counterproductive for growth and training.
Other Useful Core Training Content
Like every other muscle group, core training needs intent and strategy to truly progress. If one of your missions is building a stronger core, then check out some of the useful articles below!
- How Often Should I Train Abs?
- Squats and Deadlifts Are Not Enough to Build a Strong Core
- Ab Training 101
- Should You Train Core Everyday?
Core Training FAQs
How often can you train core?
The core can be directly trained multiples times a week since it is predominately made up of smaller muscles that have a fair amount of slow twitch muscle fibers. A good rule of thumb is to train core on days that potential fatigue won’t limit performance.
A good frequency for many to experiment with would be:
- Beginners: 2x a week
- Intermediate: 3x+ a week
What muscles make up the core?
The core can be defined as all of the muscles of the torso and hips that support the positioning of the body’s center of mass. Some of the major core muscles include:
- Rectus Abdominis
- External Obliques
- Internal Obliques
- Transverse Abdominis
- Erector Spinae
- Glute Maximus
- Glute Medius
What is the best core exercise?
Every core exercise is useful and beneficial when used in the right context for a prescribed adaptation. The best means of training the core is to use a variety of exercises and intensities to ensure the core is being engaged in a well-rounded approach.
Feature image from Ivanko80 / Shutterstock