The Best Core Exercises EVER
Thanks for coming back to my website for article number two! As I progress in my writing, I plan to have several categories of content available on the blog. Think of them as sub-divisions of awesome (hopefully) and informative (definitely!) content. My first post, “Don’t Fall Over the Waterfall” was more health & wellness oriented. Today’s post is more exercise/fitness oriented. Keep your eyes out for future categories in the blog, and let me know if there are specific topics you really like (or really don’t like), as well as if there are any requests for future posts. And without further ado, enjoy this week’s post!
I do hope the title got your attention. But unlike the popular fitness magazines and websites that offer “The 10 Best Core Exercises to Save Your Life, Turn You into Superman, and Make Any Supermodel Want to Date You!” I will be talking about some principles for training the core muscles, because that will actually help you. You do need a strong core in order to prevent back injuries, and improve performance in sporting events and regular life. Unfortunately, many try to develop a strong core with exercises that compromise spine health, rather than training it properly. So how can core training done the right way help prevent back pain? I’m glad you asked.
Before I answer that question, though, take a second and guess what percentage of the population will suffer from spinal pain at least once in the course of their lives…nope, you’re wrong! Estimates are that 95 percent of the population will have at least one serious episode of spinal pain in their lives…95 percent! This may seem like a very high statistic, but take one look at most people’s standard movement patterns and this number becomes easier to believe. Then take a look at the core exercises which are done by most gym-goers that put the lower back under a huge amount of stress.
It doesn’t end there, however. Sure, the way most people move throws the low back under the bus, but the way they stand and sit also plays a role. Poor posture leads to chronic changes in the position of the spine which affects the structure it is designed to hold. I love technology, but computers have led to some new challenges in human biomechanics. Many people sit hunched over in front of the computer for up to ten hours per day, sending their body a repeated signal to adapt to a kyphotic posture (i.e. the rounded upper back in the picture below). Your back does not like this!
My back will soon yell at me for this:-)
So what can you do to prevent being one of the 95 percent? Well, as I alluded to earlier, you can properly train the core muscles to protect the back. At this point I know what you’re thinking, “I do my sit-ups, crunches, and twists! Twice a day every day!! When I go to the gym I’m really good. I hop on that ab cruncher machine and pound out about 1000 crunches!!!” Okay, maybe you’re not thinking that, but I know for a fact that this is what most people think of when they hear the term core training. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thinking that has led to increased back injuries, and has made the fitness industry into a culprit for increasing back pain rather than preventing it.
The low back does not like all of these archaic exercises because it does not like to be flexed and extended repeatedly. In fact, this is the mechanism that leads to back injuries such as bulging and herniated discs. However, the reason these exercises are still popular is because people are thinking about the core muscle’s anatomical function and not their true function. What do I mean by this? Let me explain.
The anatomical function of the muscle is what I learned in anatomy class. The biceps flex the elbow, the quadriceps extend the knee, the hamstrings flex the knee, etc. The anatomical function is basically what happens when the muscle contracts concentrically (i.e. muscle shortening during contraction).
Contrary to what is usually emphasized in anatomy class, this not the only function of each muscle. Muscles contract concentrically to flex joints, but they also contract eccentrically (i.e. muscle lengthening during contraction) to control lengthening joints, and isometrically (i.e. muscle staying the same length while contracting) to stabilize joints against movement.
The true function of a muscle is whatever its role is during real life movement. It can perform a combination of concentric, eccentric, or isometric contractions not only to move, but also to stabilize a joint during human movement. An example of this is when you stand up out of a chair. Your leg muscles are doing much of the work to actually move your body out of the chair, but your back muscles have to contract isometrically to stabilize your spine; otherwise your upper body would simply collapse.
To relate this concept to the core muscles, their anatomical function is basically to flex, extend, and twist the spine. This is what they do when they contract concentrically. As you can tell, this is how most people train their core by doing exercises that repeatedly flex, extend, and twist the spine. On the other hand, the true role of the core is to stabilize the spine against excessive motion so that it is not put in dangerous positions and injured. In other words, the true role of the core is anti-flexion, anti-extension, and anti-rotation. Isometric contraction to stabilize the spine, is the most important function of the core muscles. That is how it should be trained.
Because of this, at the UMedGym, it is rare to make it through your first workout without hearing “neutral spine” from one of the trainers at least a couple times. We are adamant about teaching individuals to first find neutral spine, where the spine is not flexed or extended but is right in the middle with its natural curved structure. After they find neutral spine, we teach them to brace their core around the spine to hold it in a safe position. This is the true role of the core. A person cannot stabilize their spine effectively if they cannot find its neutral position and hold it there during movement. By teaching people to resist excessive movement at the spine rather than create it, we can prevent many injuries. Click the highlighted link to see a video of Dr. Stuart McGill providing his insight into these concepts (also to see his awesome mustache!).
So, now you know that proper training of the core can prevent injuries, and that’s a good thing. But proper core training has another benefit as well. When it comes to movement in a performance or athletic context, proper core stability can be critical to optimum performance. If you think about how force is produced in the body, it usually begins with the feet pushing into the ground and ends with the hands pushing, pulling, or throwing something. But, a key piece that is in the middle of those two is…you guessed it: the CORE!
The force your feet put into the ground cannot be transferred up the body effectively if the core is not doing its job. The force that starts at the feet, has to be transferred through a stiff and stable core in order to reach the upper body effectively. If the core cannot reactively stiffen and stabilize in a neutral spine position, there will not only be force leaks in the chain, but also greater risk of injury. So, proper core stability is essential for not only preventing injury, but also enhancing performance by effectively transferring force. For more on this concept, check out another Dr. McGill video (seriously, he’s a pro).
As you saw in the video, if you’re an athlete, you need to be able to rapidly contract and relax the core muscles to stabilize the spine. All the sit-ups and crunches in the world can’t train you to do this. In fact, even if you’re not an athlete, you must be able to do this. In order to pick things up and move them or create any kind of force with your body, you need to be able to properly stabilize your spine to save your back.
If you want to train the core properly, then, start with the exercises you saw in the first video. These will teach you to find neutral spine, and stabilize there. Once you master that, then you can progress to lifting heavier things, creating powerful movements, and other athletic endeavors without the risk of injuring your back.
We can prevent back injuries and save many people from the problems that come along with them. But we have to move away from core exercises that are causing these back problems. So, do me a favor and stop doing exercises that flex, extend, and twist the low back. Instead, work on stabilizing the core in a neutral spine, and start spreading the word about proper core training. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough crunches, sit-ups, and twists. It’s time to start training our bodies the same way they work in real life. The magazines and websites that offer the “best core exercises” don’t always offer the best core exercises. I know, I was shocked at first too.