MAXIM fitness guru ALEXA TOWERSEY explains why abs are only the beginning when it comes to your core workout…
Contrary to popular belief, your abs and your core are not one and the same. Your abs, which you ’re probably more familiar with, are the superficial ones that give you that coveted six pack look and are primarily worked by flexing the spine – think sit-ups and crunches. However, the CORE includes all of those abdominal muscles in addition to all of the muscles of the pelvic girdle, lower back and glutes. When the entire core works together, it has a corset effect and essentially works to stabilise the spine.
When it comes to the core, it seems there are two primary factions. On one side, there are the functional pundits hell-bent on creating a cult based on transverse abdominus activation, balloon breathing and dedicating entire days to pelvic clocks and glute activation. On the opposing side are the muscle tee wearing hard gainers that are adamant that they don’t need direct core work because they do heavy squats and deadlifts. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Here’s what you need to know
- The core has two major tasks. It prevents unnecessary movement protecting important internal structures like the spine and it transfers force between the upper and lower body essentially bulletproofing you for your heavy lifts.
- To train the core in its entirety, you need to include a variety of exercises that address all the key components – flexing the spine, extending the hips, twisting/rotating the torso and my personal favourite – holding the spine still or what we term “anti” movements.
- There is an optimal time to train these movements. To prevent injury, it is best to activate the core (including your glutes) BEFORE you even touch a weight.
Stimulate rather than annihilate your core. You’re chasing effective body position here not fatigue or failure.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to make a broad sweeping generalisation and assume that you’re one of a good proportion of the population sitting in front of a computer screen in a ball of flexion every single day. If and when you then head to the gym, your ab workout will probably have you performing more flexion. My approach is therefore going to be to counteract this – hammer “neutral” spine with appropriate motor control exercises, encourage more thoracic and hip mobility, get stronger and work on core stability. This shit doesn’t need to be over complicated – it’s not rocket science. At the most basic level try and include an exercise from one of these categories in every workout.
ANTI-EXTENSION: Resist extension of the spine i.e. arching the lower back. Think Planks, Body Saws, Roll Outs and Dead Bug Variations.
ANTI-ROTATION: True Anti-rotation exercises prevent rotation at the lumbar spine. Think Pallof Press variations, half –kneeling iso holds, half-kneeling chops and even Renegade Rows.
ANTI-LATERAL FLEXION: Preventing your body from bending sideways as you would do in a good old DB Side Bend. Think Side Plank Variations and Single Arm Carries – anything where you’re standing tall and having to offset the load.
GLUTE ACTIVATION: The collective role of the glutes is to extend the hip (lock out a lift, push-off into a sprint), abduct (bring your leg away from the middle of your body), externally rotate (turning your leg out), and internally rotate (turning your leg in) the hip joint. Think quadruped hip extensions, lateral band walks, sidelying clams, reverse hyper holds, hip thrusts and glute bridges.
The glutes should be the primary hip extender, done without losing neutral spine position. The quadruped position seen in exercises like the Bird Dog teaches athletes to set the core and fire the glutes. Being able to apply this combined function to big lifts like the squat and deadlift is exactly what we want to be able to do.
If you workout 3 x per week, here is a sample core focused warmup for each day:
20 x Contralateral Dead Bugs (opposite arm and leg)
30 secs Half Kneeling Pallof Press Iso Hold each side
30 secs Side Plank hold each side (against wall for alignment)
15 x Single Leg Glute Bridges each side
10 x Ab Roll Outs
10 x Standing Pallof Press each side
15 x Side Plank Hip Touch each side
30 secs Contralateral Bird Dog hold each side
30 secs RKC Plank (squeeze everything as tight as possible)
50m KB Suitcase Carry each side
10 x Half Kneeling DB Woodchop each side
20 x Banded Lateral Walk each way with KBs in Double Rack Hold
My favourite core cue is to “lock the ribcage down”. Place one hand on the upper abdomen and on the exhale, think about sending the ribs down towards the pelvis. You’ll feel the abs crunching together. This will help transform an anterior pelvic tilt (which is often associated with lower back pain), brace the mid section and activate parts of your core that have been asleep.
For the full article grab the January 2020 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.