Your core is the Jared Kushner of your body: It’s responsible for pretty much everything. And it’s also often misunderstood—what it is, what it does, and how to strengthen it. It’s time to set the record straight. Here are the three most important things you need to know about your core.
Secret #1: Your Core Is So Much More Than Your Abs
Most exercise physiologists would argue that is comprises every muscle that isn’t an appendage—and includes everything from your glutes to lats, explains Phillip Giackette, C.S.C.S., assistant director of the Professional Athletic Performance Center in New York. Together, these muscles keep the spine, pelvis, ribs, and shoulder girdle stable in alignment and protected. That’s job one.
Your core muscles are also in charge of the trunk’s three basic movement patterns: forward flexion and extension (bending), lateral flexion and extension (side bending), and rotation and anti-rotation (twisting). Every time you pick a kettlebell off the floor, perform line-drill sprints, or climb a wall ladder, your core is firing, powering your performance, and preventing injury, Giackette says.
When you think of it that way, it’s obvious why crunches—or even planks—alone don’t make a comprehensive core workout. So what will?
Secret #2: Core Exercises Aren’t Best at Strengthening the Core
While traditional core exercises such as plank variations, V-ups, and bicycle crunches definitely help develop core strength—especially in people undergoing rehab training—they may not actually develop it as well as do large, compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and military presses, Giackette says.
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For instance, in one Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study, researchers found that a loaded squat works the lower abdominals and obliques to the same degree as do the side plank and superman. In addition, they discovered that squats activate the erector spinae 69 percent more than those traditional core exercises.
In a subsequent study, Appalachian State University researchers questioned the effectiveness of stability ball training and discovered that it doesn’t hold up to squats or deadlifts when it comes to developing core strength.
Core Secret #3: Optimum Core Strength Requires High Training Volume
Why might core exercises not deliver as promised, or at least as hoped? Because your core is always working. To really get those muscles to adapt, you have to hit them hard—significantly harder than they are used to during such daily tasks as carrying groceries, climbing stairs, and reaching behind you to get bags out of the backseat of the car.
And, think about it, what’s going to force your core muscles to work harder to stabilize your spine: moving about with a loaded barbell on your back or performing a bodyweight move on the floor?
“Because it’s comprised of such a large amount of muscle groups in the body, the core usually thrives with high load and volume,” says Giackette. He notes that, as your core becomes stronger, you may need to dial down set and rep counts and move more weight during every exercise—including both traditional core work and large, compound lifts.
“You hear a lot of people doing the conventional three sets of 10 reps for every exercise,” he says. “But if the exerciser has progressed immensely, instead of sticking to the conventional setup, I recommend adding an external factor such as weight on a plank, or increasing the weight in a Palloff press.”
The same goes for squats, lunges, woodchoppers, and pull-ups, says Giackette, all of which require and develop amazing core strength.