“Engage your core” has become a byword in personal training and exercise. The papers, social media and couch experts all promote a strong core as being a key part of health and fitness. The core is indeed important, as is knowing the best way to make it strong and stable. We will look at what it actually is, why its role is so important and the top 8 best core exercises.
What is your core? Your core is everything between your neck, arms and legs. So if you chopped off your head, arms and legs what is left is your core. It is a complex series of muscles that connect everything to everything. Almost every movement in the human body uses the core. For example, on a rowing machine, the soles of your feet push against the footpads. Your hands pull the handle. Your legs and arms provide most of the force. But the thing that connects the two is your core.
Although this is an example of the core working to transfer force, its main job is to stabilise the body in movement; although it can also be an initiator of movement too. So most often it acts as a stabiliser and force transfer mechanism, rather that a prime mover, like the legs.
The core also acts to protect the spine and surrounding muscles, which is a vitally important role. So a weak core will increase the likelihood of back (and other) injuries, but it will also hinder performance. In the case of the rower, a weak core will not transfer as much force from the body to the rower handle. It will also increase the load on the spine and smaller back muscles.
How should we train the core? The core works in three dimensions or planes of motion. Many of our core muscles are also hidden deep underneath superficial muscles like the abs. People often train the core on just one dimension, doing crunches or back extensions. But these types of isolation exercises miss out the deeper key core muscles like the transverse abdominus; they also work in isolation, not as part of a chain as they would do in functional movement, like picking up a heavy suitcase or a dumbbell. So to become “properly” strong, the core should be trained not just in compound isometric (holding) exercises – like the plank – or in isolation by just training vanity muscles like the abs. Deadlifts, squats, push ups, inverted rows and many other closed chain exercises are much more effective. Traditional static exercises like the plank are great (and a safe place to start) but these other, multi joint, tri-planar dynamic exercises should also be included.
1 – The plank. Safe, compound, great for beginners and easily measurable to gauge improvement. Add in a leg raise, arm raise (or both) as a progression.
2 – Side plank. Again safe, good for all levels, compound, but a bit more challenging than a normal plank. Add in a leg raise, arm raise (or both) as a progression.
3 – Russian twist. Dynamic and in multi planes, the twist covers a lot a bases.
4 – Barbell landmine rotations. Trains the core both as a means to control force and as a means to generate it. Will also get the heart rate up. For intermediates and beyond.
5 – Barbell deadlift. But this is for legs, right? Yes, but it is one of the most functional ways to train the core.
6 – Push ups. But this is for arms, right? See above!
7 – TRX mountain climbs. Dynamic in combining strength, core strength and cardio. Great value.
8 – Kitesurfing. That’s right, kitesurfing. Attached to a powerful traction kite via a waist harness, feet on a board connected to the most unstable surface (the ocean), multi planar, dynamic, part static, creating movement, transferring movement and protecting your spine. One of the best core exercises, albeit a little niche. Do a 2 hour session and your core will know it!