Sit-ups, planks, mountain climbers… all of these exercises require a nice, stable core. Learning where to start when training that bad boy, however, is the key to improvement – and not just in regards to your abs.
Look, everyone in the gym wants a six-pack. For some, that’s the only reason they’re there. With that said, strong and healthy core muscles lead to much more than a sexy stomach. Toning the various layers of musculature in the core allows for better movement, activation, posture, form, and more.
When we talk about building the core, the first thing we need to focus on is the concept of bracing. Properly bracing your body for movement – especially weight-bearing and loaded movements – is the key to staying healthy in the gym. If you cannot properly brace your core and activate those local and global stabilizers, you cannot maintain proper positioning during your workouts. This inability to practice good posture not only has an immediate impact on compound movements, such as deadlifts and squats, but also leads to gradual problems with exercises such as the shoulder press, bicep curl, and even the pull up.
So, how do we properly brace ourselves for activity?
The first thing you want to do is find your neutral pelvic tilt. Too many people are stuck in a posterior (rounded lower back, tucked butt) or anterior (inwardly rounded/arched lower back, butt sticks out) tilt, which causes a slew of problems as we age. Training your body in that neutral position is crucial, and once we’re there, the best cue a trainer can give a client is to keep everything tight. This is especially important with regards to the core because the core provides all the stability between your upper and lower halves.
Please note: this will not be easy, especially if you never exercise those abdominal muscles. You need to remain aware of this, especially in the early days, until “keeping tight” is almost second nature.
Now, are there exercises you can do to help strengthen those core muscles so that it is easier to remain “tight?” Absolutely. However, there are so many muscles in the core that it is impossible to hit them all with something as generic as a sit-up. Sit-ups are great for strengthening the frontal area, but they are not an end-all, be-all solution. If you want that coveted six-pack, but also decide you want to strengthen that core for other, less obvious reasons, then here are some exercises you should try:
- Planks. If you ever played a sport growing up, then chances are you’re familiar with this grueling exercise. Why is it such a dreaded workout? Because simply put, it never seems to end. You sit (or plank) in the same position for what seems like an endless amount of time, feeling the burn increase more and more without an end in sight. Well, I’ve got news for you: that burn means it’s working. Still, there are ways to increase the tension while also making the exercise more enjoyable. Once you’ve gotten yourself into proper positioning, you can use modalities such as TRX bands or exercise balls to help de-stabilize the position, which puts more of a focus on the core. You can also try side planks or different foot and hand movements to further challenge your abs.
- Hyperextensions. These don’t necessarily work the front of your core, but rather the lower back muscles. Remember – your core is the entire middle section of your body. This is a big reason why sit-ups aren’t the only exercise you should be doing. If you’re looking to strengthen all the necessary muscles – and even lose a few inches off your waist – then hyperextensions are a must-do.
- Supermans. Much like the hyperextension, supermans will focus on the lower back, but they are also a great way for beginners to learn the proper kipping motions that are required in gymnastic-based exercises. Supermans also provide good compression for the vertebral disks in the lower back and even work the gluteal muscles.
- Bird dogs. The bird dog is a fantastic exercise for any fitness enthusiast, regardless of their experience level, because it can be modified to increase in difficulty with the use of exercise bands. It is a great exercise for those rehabbing from lower back pain and can simultaneously give your lower abs a serious burn. Suggestion: if you don’t think you’re “feeling it,” try sitting something, like an empty cup, on your lower back. If the cup falls as you perform the exercise, you need to engage those lower abs more (again, remember to keep everything tight!).
The core is arguably the most important part of your body. If you don’t take care of it, you’ll eventually face the consequences. When trying to figure out where to start in your core training, focus on actively bracing throughout your entire workout and start strengthening those muscles with a host of stabilization exercises. It will take some time to get comfortable practicing these techniques, as all things in the gym do, but bracing is vital to one’s longevity in the gym.
In the end, I can almost guarantee your body will thank you.
For more advice on how to better your physical and emotional self, check out the other fit tips from Frankie.