Getting to the core issue
“If you don’t have a strong core your body starts engaging the wrong muscles to compensate and you start hyperextending the lumbar spine (lower base of the spine). That compression at the base of the spine can cause injuries.”
Think your core is just a six-pack? Insert incorrect buzzer here. Aquanation personal trainer Chris Pattison explains that not only is your core so much more than exterior abs, it’s also ridiculously important for helping you achieve your goals no matter what your flavour of workout.
What is your core, really?
Washboard abs might seem like the epitome of a strong core, but as Pattison says that’s more fashion than function.
“A six pack might look good, but it actually doesn’t do much as far as stabilising your torso,” suggests the personal trainer.
Yep fun fact, there’s heaps more to the core than meets the ab-tastic eye. “Your core consists of your transverse obliques (the ones on the side), the hip flexors, the back extenders. All that area around your pelvic area so a lot of the muscles you can’t see but they’re vitally important,” explains Pattison.
He adds that gym junkies who work specifically towards a six pack are kinda missing the memo. “A six pack is not an indication of a strong core and I’ve seen people work purely on that six pack but when they load themselves up on a back squat they wobble all over the place.”
Pattison recommends tackling your core with a different mindset. He says it’s important to remember that a six pack is the result of constantly contracting your muscle, so if you’re constantly contracting that muscle and “making it smaller and tighter, this can actually pull your muscle out of whack,” he warns.
And more so than any other muscle, Pattison says core strength is vital to strength training. So rather than focusing on making your muscles smaller, “you want your core to be long and strong so when you do any heavy lifting that stabilises you.”
Back pain is the worst right?
Um, heck yeah it is! If you’re keen to avoid the doozy pain that is lower back agony (aren’t we all?) then read on friends.
According to Pattison, “if you don’t have a strong core your body starts engaging the wrong muscles to compensate and you start hyperextending the lumbar spine (lower base of the spine). That compression at the base of the spine can cause injuries.”
Science also backs him up. Back in 2015, a study by the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation found exercises that targeted the core helped patients with chronic low back pain manage their symptoms. Boom!
So, if you’re a regular patron of the squat bar, start working on strengthening your core because you’ll definitely get results.
“Core strength is so important for your squats and deadlifts, which most people, when they’re doing these exercises, are thinking more about their hammies and quads, but your core strength is vital for stabilising you during these exercises,” explains the personal trainer.
Basically, it all comes down to that initial bracing and Pattison says injuries are rife if you don’t have a strong core because “smaller muscles will be recruited where they shouldn’t be.”
Want glorious guns? Get your core game on point.
Yep, the benefits of having a strong core aren’t just for your lower bod’. Think about standing exercises you do; any wobbles are not ideal.
“Any movement where you’re standing, like a bicep curl or chest press with cables, recruit the core muscles and it becomes more of a functional movement,” Pattison advises.
That means, you’re twisting and pushing all at the same time and even if you could crack a walnut between your thighs it doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t have a strong core to bring it all together.
Cardio and core go together like…
We bet you’re thinking, cool, my gym workouts are gonna be lit if I get my core sorted. True story. Also, turns out if you love a cardio workout you’ll be smashing your PBs with a strong core.
“Runners are possibly the biggest beneficiary of a strong core and so are swimmers and cycling a little bit as well,” says Pattison.
He’s coming from experience too after training marathon runners and finding strengthening their core stopped them from twisting their arms across their body. This meant they could hold themselves more naturally and became more efficient in their stride.
Pattison adds, “If they’re fatigued in their mid-section their pelvis can roll forward slightly and even that slight misalignment can lead to your back getting stiff and your hamstring getting stiff which can lead to injuries.”
The good news is you don’t need to slug it out with hours of core exercises to get the benefits. And if you’re a Les Mills lover, there’s some extra good news. A 2019 study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that recreational runners who added three 30-minute CXWORX classes into their weekly training regime smashed their running time and increased their speed. Sounds like a pretty good deal to us!
What does it actually mean to activate your core?
You’ve probably heard the terms engaging or activating your abs. You’re also not alone if that leaves you scratching your head. Pattison has done us all a favour and clarified that basically it means flexing your mid-section.
“A quick test is to take a deep breath and don’t try and fill your chest, instead try and fill your belly with as much air as possible. Automatically by doing that your diaphragm goes down and you’re then activating your core and increasing stability,” explains the personal trainer. Essentially, it’s all about stabilising your mid-section and minimizing curvature through your lower back.
Let’s get to werk, werk, werk, werk, werk
Although Brittney spears circa early 00’s would have you believe, working on your core doesn’t require doing 1000 sit-ups a day (yikes!)
Core workouts absolutely lend themselves to small spaces, so if you’re stuck at home you can definitely build your abdominal muscles up using just your bodyweight before you get back to the gym.
But if you’re not super keen for core specific workouts, Pattison recommends engaging your core while you work out especially if strength training is more your jam.
“Compound movements are great for this, where you’re lifting weight above your head, doing shoulder presses or lifting a medicine ball. You need to keep yourself stable,” he says.
And if you want an extra challenge, the personal trainer recommends offset loading and single-sided exercises where you’re engaging your obliques. He adds, “even doing movements where you’re in a half kneeling position, you’ll automatically need to stabilise your core to do the move efficiently and effectively.”
BRB gonna go get our core in tip top shape.
Chris Pattison is an Aquanation personal trainer and has a Cert III and IV in Fitness, Level 1 and 2 Padwork for boxing and a Beck Health Certificate of Nutrition and Diet. Learn more.