The Med Gym
Are You Training ALL of Your Core Muscles?
Why you need a varied approach to core training to cover all of your bases - Part I
By David Drinks
The core is an extraordinarily complex and diverse part of the body. Speaking strictly from a musculoskeletal standpoint – let alone all the complex internal structures housed in the region – it is definitely one of the most important parts of the body.
Now, just to be clear, the word “core” really isn’t a strict anatomical term. Rather, it’s more of a catch-all word that encompasses the central parts of the body.
What you call the “core” and what I call the “core” might be entirely different things, so let me clarify my definition…
For our purposes, I’m referring to the core and the muscles of the core as every part of the body that is not the head, neck, or limbs. The core – in my definition – is composed of the torso and the pelvic/hip region.
In particular, we’ll focus on the area of the torso surrounding the low back or lumbar spine, and the hips. The abdominal/low back region, along with the pelvic/hip region makes up the majority of what we’ll refer to as the “core”.
Of course, the body is all interconnected, so you can’t really separate one part from another. It is made to function synergistically and not as individual components.
However, just looking at the region of the body that I’m referring to as the “core”, you’ll find that there are about 35 muscles that make up your lower torso and hip region (not including most of the muscles of the chest and upper back). Keep in mind that most of these muscles are also on both the left and right sides of the body, so that brings it up to about 65-70 total muscles in your core!
I lay all that out so that you can appreciate how complex this region of the body truly is.
What’s more, not all of these muscles function the same way. In fact, you can break down these many different core muscles into three major sub-categories:
Local stabilizers (the inner layer of the core)
Global stabilizers (the middle layer of the core)
Global movers (the outer layer of the core)
Understanding that your core is made up of different types of muscles, each with a different role to play helps us to understand that we need to adopt a varied approach to training the core.
You can’t get away with just doing one or two core exercises if you want to cover all of your core training bases…even if you do 100 reps a day!
So, to give you a better understanding of the different types of muscles that make up your core and how you can train each one of them to develop a complete core training routine, I’m going to break down each category.
To make sure that we can give each category of core muscles its due, we’ll break it up into a three-part series. Today, we’ll take a look at the local stabilizers, and in the coming weeks, we’ll overview the global stabilizers and global movers.
Local stabilizers are your “inner core”. These are deep and smaller muscles of the core which play two major roles:
Provide sensory feedback to and from the Central Nervous System
Provide stiffness in anticipation of movement to prevent injury
These relatively small muscles play a crucial role in injury prevention, body awareness & body control, and joint stability.
They are muscles that are located closest to the spine – many of which attach directly to your vertebrae. Because of their attachment to the spine, they perform the job of maintaining joint integrity within the spine.
Without these muscles functioning properly, you have much less of a chance at maintaining alignment at your spine and protecting yourself from a back injury.
If these muscles are doing their job, they stabilize your vertebrae and keep your back happy. If they’re not doing their job, they allow the opportunity for unwanted movement within the joints of the spine, potentially leading to pain and injury.
Without the proper functioning of your local stabilizers, your movement ability would be highly compromised due to a lack of joint stability. On top of that, you would be at a much higher risk of injury due to a lack of joint control.
Needless to say, these muscles play a very important role in your health and movement ability. However, they tend not to be the ones that most people think about when they think about core training.
So, let’s talk about that.
Some examples of local stabilizers in your core are muscles like the:
Transverse abdominis (also spelled transversus abdominis)
Pelvic floor muscles
The transverse abdominis, as an example, functions much like a lifting belt that wraps around your mid-section. It should engage to stabilize the lumbar spine during movement, and research has shown that people with back pain tend to have poor timing of engagement or a general lack of proper engagement of the transverse abdominis.
In this case, this crucial muscle is not kicking in at the right time to stabilize the spine prior to movement or while under load. This fine motor control of the spine – the ability of the transverse abdominis to buttress the forces on the spine and provide stability against unwanted motion – is crucial to preventing pain and injury at the low back.
So, to prevent back pain and optimize your core function, we need to develop ways to train muscles like the transverse abdominis and other deep stabilizers to perform their jobs.
How can you do this?
Well, to train these smaller, stability-oriented muscles you don’t need ab exercises that make your abs burn and your body shake. Instead, you need exercises that promote control against unwanted motion (i.e. stability) and exercises that incorporate a reactive component.
A focus on stability and reactive engagement of these muscles will teach them how to properly engage and stabilize your spine to optimize movement and avoid pain and injury.
There are many exercises and drills that you can use to accomplish this goal, but here are a few great progressions to start with:
The Bird Dog
Bird Dogs are a very effective exercise for promoting low-level engagement and stability work all the way up and down the back, as well as in the smaller muscles of the shoulders and hips.
Taking away the opposite hand and leg from the ground at the same time while reaching out trains your core muscles to reactively stiffen and stabilize to avoid unwanted movement – whether that’s avoiding falling over, or simply avoiding collapsing or rolling at the spine.
Here are a few progressions for you to try out:
The Kneeling Chop & Lift
The diagonal chopping motion combined with setting up properly in a tall or half-kneeling stance really emphasizes the need for stability and control at the hips and core against an outside force.
As you use the upper body to chop or lift the cable or band, the deeper core and hip muscles must reactively stabilize to avoid falling over or losing your posture during the movement.
This is key for training these local stabilizer muscles, as one of their primary jobs is to engage and promote central stability of the body against pressure from an outside force.
Here's a video showing you some different options for the chop and lift:
The Dead Bug
The Dead Bug is a nice core exercise because you can use a lot of variations to either increase or decrease the amount of challenge you’re providing to the core muscles.
At a very basic level, however, the dead bug represents an opportunity to learn how to engage all of your core muscles, and use them to control against unwanted motion.
Check out this video to learn how to perform the dead bug:
As you move the limbs, you’re introducing relatively low-level extension and rotational forces to your spine that you need your local stabilizers to be able to control against. If you are properly engaging the core muscles and maintaining that engagement throughout the entire movement, you’re effectively training the core to stabilize the spine as you move your limbs.
This is a skill that babies must learn in order to coordinate their movements, and they first do this by laying on their back and kicking their legs and swinging their arms around…kind of like the dead bug!
Babies also develop coordinated stability of their spine while moving their limbs when they start rolling and crawling. Speaking of crawling, that brings me to the next exercise that can be very effective for training your local stabilizers – The Bear Crawl.
The Bear Crawl
This is a great option for building on the bird dog and making it more dynamic and challenging. As you crawl you must dynamically stabilize the spine and hips against unwanted side to side or up and down motion by using your local stabilizers.
Narrowing your base of support by bringing hands and knees closer to each other, and slowing down the movement to focus on control over speed are keys to really kicking up the core stability challenge.
Check it out:
Pallof Press Variations
As I said, there are many exercise options for training the local core stabilizers, but the last one I’ll show you today is the Pallof Press and some variations of this great core stability drill.
Similar to the chop and lift exercises we went over earlier, the Pallof press is an exercise that forces your obliques along with many of the local core stabilizers to kick in and resist rotation against a rotary force applied to the arms.
You can start by simply performing it standing and pressing straight out with a band or cable, as you’ll see in the video below. Once you master that, there are many options for varying your stance and even varying the movement with your arms.
Here are a few options for you to try:
So there you have it! A number of excellent core exercises to train your local core stabilizers. Again, these are smaller, more central muscles that play a key role in both your movement and the health of your spine and other joints.
The problem is that because you can’t see these muscles when you look in the mirror, you don’t often think it necessary to focus on them in your workouts.
However, if you just try to strengthen your global stabilizers and global movers (we’ll talk about these in the coming weeks), it’s like building a house on a faulty foundation.
It might look great for a while and function just fine, but over the course of time it will break down much quicker.
So, don’t skimp on the foundation for your core training just to get to the cool-looking exercises that you really “feel the burn” on.
In fact, I often hear clients who are used to doing 100 crunches a day complain that they don’t feel their abs working when performing some of these exercises to train their smaller stabilizers.
Consequently, they try to overdo these exercises or start adding in other variables just to make it harder so they can really get that ab burn.
But they’re missing the point.
Often, they have back pain or movement and stability issues precisely because they have skipped over building this foundation of local core stability first.
Once we take a step back and build the foundation, only then can we safely progress to the bigger, “cooler” core exercises.
And don’t worry, we’ll get to those in the coming weeks of this series…stay tuned!
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