There are a lot of misconceptions out there surrounding core training! This is often because advice is given without context, ie what are we training the core for, and what even counts as core?
So to start, let’s define core. The technical old school definition is any muscle that connects to your torso. This older definition includes pecs, abs, back musculature, and even upper glutes and hip flexors because they connect to your torso.
When I refer to it for this article however, I am going to refer to the more generally accepted core muscle definition of the rectus abdominis, obliques, erector spinae, and deeper core muscles like transverse abdominis, psoas, and quadratus lumborum.
Next we need to decide what we are training the core for. Sport performance, injury prevention, or looking good at the beach. Because the training modalities will be significantly different for each of those goals. One exercise might be great for injury prevention, but it may have little effect on growing the outer musculature and giving one a ripped six pack.
This article is going to be focused on how to train core for size and definition. In other words, it’s going to be all about looking good when the swimsuits are on. After all, it’s summer, and this is what most people want. I’ll briefly touch on other moves you might want to add that are better for functionality and health too, so you have a complete picture of what core training should look like.
When training core for size and definition there are a few factors you want to look for.
Extension and Contraction of the Target Muscle
For size and definition, use movements that cause a significant extension and contraction of the muscle. Exercises that require you to bend or flex at the waist to a high degree are great. You should be able to feel a good stretch and lengthening of your abs and then a strong forceful contraction (like you are flexing them as hard as you can).
o Sit Ups (decline especially)
o Leg Raises
o Side Bends on the Hyperextension bench
o Ab rollouts
Use exercises you can load and progress effectively
Core muscles grow in response to greater and greater loads being applied, just like every other muscle. The exercises you pick should get very challenging and the target muscles should be very close to complete fatigue (the point where you can’t do any more reps) within 5-30 reps.
It is fine to start with bodyweight, but as you get more advanced you will need to make them more and more challenging. Decline sit ups are great for these because you can increase the angle of the bench and add resistance by holding a weight in your hands. Other great options are cable crunches or machine sit ups.
Crunches on the floor would not be advisable, because while they do cause a good contraction and stretch, there isn’t a good way to load or progress them effectively and even most beginners will be able to do 20-30 of them without reaching full muscle fatigue.
Use movements where core musculature is the primary mover
I see a lot of ‘core’ exercises out there that are far more taxing on other parts of the body than the abdominal musculature. Renegade rows for example often get touted as a core exercise, but they are far more challenging for the back, shoulders, and chest. If your abs are not getting tired before other bodyparts, then you aren’t going to get the desired result.
Core for Injury Prevention
Alright, so that is how you get ab GROWTH, but of course there are lots of other things to train your core for. Health and injury prevention is a big one, so you may want to include some additional exercises for that as well. Movements like the ones listed above for size and definition will strengthen motion of the spine, however to maximize injury prevention we must also include exercises that RESIST spinal motion. Some great examples of these include:
· Planks and plank variants (here you are resisting spinal extension)
· Pallof Presses (here you are resisting rotation)
· Offloaded Farmers Carries (here you are resisting lateral flexion)
· Hyperextensions (here you are resisting spinal flexion). A lot of posterior chain exercise like deadlift variants train anti-spinal flexion, so hopefully you have some of this in your program already.
Core for Function and Sport Performance
Finally, for functionality and sport performance some dynamic core exercises where you move quickly or mimic movements in sport or daily life can be beneficial. Examples of these include:
· Medicine Ball Slams
· Rainbow slams
· Gladiator twists
· Cable Chops
There you have it. Now you have a few examples of each type of exercise and what they are best suited for. Hopefully this clears up confusion surrounding core training and helps you decide what types of exercises you should focus on for your goals.
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