by Matt Basso | December 2011

Core Strength. “Six pack abs” The great seducer of all men and woman

What is the core? When did we even start using this term “core”. It seems that “abs” was the preferred term for so long. Then all of a sudden it became core. It’s apparent to me that most people, and sadly many of those people are trainers have no clue what the core actually is. The most painful part of this mystery for me is watching infomercials that make claims like “use this machine, ball, or whatever for 10 minutes a day and have a stronger core.” Put anyone with a chiseled mid section on a commercial and your product will sell. Most of those products actually hurt people. The people that design them have no concept of what the core is. The term “core” was developed because through actual lab testing and quantifiable evidence based research we have learned so much about how the human body functions. As it turns out, what we thought were simple functions performed by an obvious  3 or 4 muscles are actually very detailed symphonies of movement performed by many muscles interacting with each other.

What this means to you.. MORE THEN JUST SIT-UPS!

Our new understanding of the body makes it imperative to include your glutes, hip rotators, and even your rotator cuff muscles in a successful core program.  The list of musculature that I could write to describe the real core would only confuse you. So I would like you to think of your core as the symphony of movement that occurs from your neck to your butt and in between your shoulders. All of that is what makes up your core.

For training purposes we need to respect our core as our foundation. Just as a building needs a strong foundation to build upon, so does our body. If we fail to create a stable foundation all else will crumble. Whether we are simply stowing our lap top in an over head compartment or attempting to reach new weight lifting goals at the gym we need to have a strong healthy core.

 The core is so vast and dynamic that it’s quite easy to improve upon. Thats what amazes me most about many training programs, they over complicate things. Diagnosing pains and muscular imbalances is difficult and should be kept to the professionals.

Exercising your core... That’s easy and should be done everyday.

For most preferred core exercises you don’t even need equipment. All you need is very little floor space and some basic techniques.

The truth about the core is that it doesn’t respond well to excessive spinal flexion (sit-ups), extension (prone supermans), or rotation (twisting). In fact recent lab work indicates these kind of movements can cause more harm than good. I use those movements very sparingly with most of my clients and very specifically with my athletes. For years, trainers and trainees have been doing sit-ups in every direction. In many cases even loading up with dumbbells and medicine balls to increase resistance. The results are in. The spine doesn’t like it. Excessive movement with extra weight is very hard on the spine. Sheering forces created by these movements can, and often do cause fractures and dislocation. You may be reading this and saying to yourself “I’ve been doing these exercises forever and I feel fine.” You may be fine. However these types of spinal injuries occur over time, unless of course there is blunt force trauma like a bad fall, or car accident. Continued stress on the vertebra usually adds up to some kind of spinal injury. I’m sure you’ve heard the common story...” I was just bending over to tie my shoe and SNAP!... I couldn’t move.” That injury wasn’t caused by tying ones shoe. I can’t say for sure it was caused by doing sit-ups , however I can say very confidently that stress over time caused that injury.

Imagine what happens when you combine a weak core with improper exercise technique...Your almost certainly headed for spinal malfunction.

Due to a rise in spinal injuries occurring all over the world there has been a wealth  of research done in laboratory settings to further our ability to fight back injuries. Having a training philosophy that integrates the core in every aspect of my programming has forced me to develop core training protocols based on current data collected from these training facilities. The integration of these conclusions in my training programs has awarded me with a zero injury rate among my clients. In fact when my programs are executed diligently over time many malfunctions of the core, and nagging aches like low back pain go away.

I’m sure by now your asking yourself “whats the secret.” 

Drum roll please.... The answer to a stronger more functional core is...


Anti-flexion, Anti-extension, and Anti-rotation.

Yes thats correct instead of repetition after repetition of sit-ups you should be doing planks (see in this vid If you stop to think about this it makes perfect sense.

Try to recall and analyze your movements throughout the day.

You may have flexed your spine a few times to tie your shoe or put sox on but thats it. I’m hoping you aren’t bending over to pick everything up! Lift with the legs....Right? So considering this as how you should be moving, your core mostly acts like an anchor for your levers or as they are more affectionately called, your arms and legs. Your entire body is really a system of levers but to simply understand the concept of anti-movement core training it’s best to use the arms and their connection to the core as examples.

If I’m sitting at a desk typing on a computer and I reach out to the side of me to grab a book, my core activates to allow controlled movement of my arm.

When I grab the book with my hand there is instantly more weight on my lever. If my core isn’t stable and strong then my arm will have no chance at lifting and moving the book. I will simply collapse because the anchor and pivot point for my lever is weak.

Do this experiment.

Keep your upper body straight, reach out to grab something of moderate weight and feel your mid section. It will tighten so you can use your arm effectively.

Our bodies are complex lever systems moving through space all day. If you practice keeping your spine stable by doing planks, you will activate the correct muscles in your core while preserving your spine.

Of course there’s more. Remember I said earlier there are many muscles that make up the core. In order to work our cores completely we need to integrate techniques to keep our hips and our shoulders stable. Planks certainly help to do this, however other movements like squats, hip movements in all planes of motion, shoulder movements, and rotator cuff exercises are necessary as well.


 Bottom Line:

Stop Isolating Your Abdominals and Start Integrating Them!


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Filed under: Training