If you want to improve your core conditioning, but you’re not quite sure how to go about it, this page will show you how.
You’ve read a lot about how important it is to have a strong core. But you’ve come across plenty of different opinions about the best way to get one.
Some say that the best way to train your core is to spend time on a Swiss ball, BOSU ball or other “unstable” surface. Others will tell you to do exercises like planks, wood chops or the jackknife.
What Is the Core?
The term “core” causes a lot of confusion, mainly because everyone seems to have a different opinion about what it is.
For most people, the core is just another name for the abdominals. But the term actually refers to a much larger collection of muscles that stabilize the spine. These muscles work together to keep the spine as close to neutral – its naturally curved state – as possible.
Neutral spine isn’t a single position that your spine never moves from. Think of it as a neutral zone, or a range that your spine can move within while remaining relatively healthy. A lack of spinal stability can lead to movement outside of this zone, which in turn increases the risk of pain and/or tissue damage.
“When we talk about stability, what we really mean is that we want the lower back – the lumbar spine – to move as little as possible when it faces a challenge,” explains Lou Schuler in The New Rules of Lifting for Abs. “This small range of movement is called the neutral zone. The smaller and tighter it is, the more stability you have.”
Why Is Core Conditioning Important?
When muscles contract, they create stiffness. Not only does muscular stiffness stabilize the spine and reduce the risk of tissue damage, it’s also a requirement as far as optimal athletic performance is concerned.
In the video below, Professor Stuart McGill, an expert in spine function at the University of Waterloo in Canada, explains why a “stiff” core is so important in sports that rely on strength, speed and power.
When the core is mentioned in this context (i.e. as a way of transmitting power) it usually refers to the muscles of the trunk and hips — basically, anything that isn’t the head, arms or legs.
Core Conditioning: Unstable versus Stable Surfaces
Does exercise on an unstable surface lead to greater activation of the core muscles?
Performing an exercise on an unstable surface, such as sitting on a Swiss ball or standing on a BOSU ball, is supposed to place greater emphasis on some of the muscles in your core, helping to improve your core conditioning, protect against back pain, improve athletic performance, and so on.
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Such exercises often appear a lot harder than their more stable counterparts. That’s mainly because you’re working so hard to stay balanced. And because of their high novelty factor, they often create the impression that they’re superior to same exercise done on the floor.
There is research out there to show that an exercise performed on an unstable surface leads to higher levels of core muscle activity than that same exercise performed on the ground .
Squatting with a light weight on a couple of inflatable discs, for example, leads to greater activation of muscles in the torso than squatting with that same weight on the floor .
The big limitation with many of these studies is that they involve the use of relatively light weights. Which is a problem, because most people can lift a much heavier weight when they’re standing on the floor than they can while wobbling about on an unstable surface.
What happens when you compare differences in muscle activity using loads that take into account the fact that you can lift more weight on a stable rather than an unstable surface?
That’s exactly what researchers from Eastern Illinois University wanted to find out . They looked at muscle activation in a group of 12 trained men who performed four different exercises – the deadlift, squat, overhead press, and barbell curl – at two intensities (50% of 1-RM and 75% of 1-RM) while standing on both a stable and unstable surface (BOSU ball).
Muscle activity in the abdominals and lower back was not significantly different when subjects performed the deadlift, squat, overhead press, and barbell curl using a light weight while standing on a BOSU ball rather than on the floor.
What’s more, there was no significant difference in muscle activity between the stable 75% of 1-RM and unstable 50% of 1-RM conditions for the external obliques and lower back across all four lifts.
But when the overhead press was done on a stable surface using a heavier weight, rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscle) was worked a lot harder than it was during the same exercise on a BOSU ball using a lighter weight.
Performed on a stable surface, the overhead press and barbell curl also delivered a decent level of stimulation (40-50% of their maximal voluntary contraction, or MVC for short) to the deeper abdominal muscles.
There is a time and a place for instability. As an example, some of the exercises in the video below (the Bird Dog and Stir The Pot) use instability to place greater emphasis on the core musculature.
And physical therapists have been using unstable exercise devices (e.g. Wobble boards and Rocker boards) for years to help with the rehabilitation of knee and ankle injuries .
But with few exceptions, training with a light weight on an unstable surface isn’t going to do a better job of improving your core conditioning than the exact same exercise done with a heavier weight on a stable surface.
Core Conditioning and Spinal Rotation
While I’m on the subject of core conditioning, I want to briefly mention the issue of spinal rotation.
Probably the most popular “spinal rotation” exercise is the broom handle twist, which is without doubt one of the most pointless exercises ever invented.
That’s not to say there’s no need to train the muscles that twist the torso. But there are far better ways to do it than twisting from side to side with a broom handle on your back.
Rather than rotation, think resisted rotation. And by resisted rotation, I’m talking about exercises that require you to resist forces trying to pull your torso around to the left or the right.
Let’s take the Single Arm Dumbbell Row as an example. Although this is primarily an exercise to work the muscles in your back, the external obliques (the muscles on the side of your waist) are also involved. That’s because they’re actively preventing your torso from twisting.
The same principle applies with other single arm exercises, such as the overhead dumbbell press.
I recently injured my shoulder, which meant I couldn’t do any heavy lifting with my left arm.
However, because of a phenomenon known as “cross education” (where training one limb has a small but significant effect on strength in the other), I wanted to carry on training my right side.
So I did some heavy single-arm pressing using just my right arm. The next day, I could really feel it in the muscles on the left side of my torso. That’s because they were working extremely hard just to keep me upright.
This is a much more efficient use of your training time than doing a bunch of side bends, which also fall into the “not a great use of your time in the gym” category.
The Long Lever Plank Shoulder Tap, demonstrated in the video below by Ben Bruno, is another good example of what I mean.
In the starting position, you’re resisting spinal extension (arching your back), which makes this a particularly effective exercise for working rectus abdominis. Removing one of the contact points (your hand) from the floor introduces an element of instability, which then requires your body to resist rotation.
If you find this exercise too difficult, keep your hands under your shoulders in a push-up position rather than out in front of your body.
Exercises that involve resisted rotation are a far better choice than those involving actual rotation, such as the Russian Twist or Windshield Wiper, both of which make me cringe every time I see someone doing them.
If you have a history of back injury, or even if you have a healthy, pain-free back and want it to stay that way, I’d highly recommend that you steer clear of any exercise that involves this type of movement.
Remember, many of the muscles in the torso can be trained very effectively by preventing movement rather than producing it. You’re still training the muscles involved in spinal rotation, but you’re doing so in a way that poses less risk to the spine. An exercise doesn’t have to involve an actual twist to work the twisting muscles.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid rotation altogether. But make sure the movement comes from the hip, and allow the hip and back to move together at the same time, almost as if they were fused together. Watch the video below to see exactly what I mean.
Building a core of steel doesn’t need to be complicated, time consuming or boring. Nor does it require exercising on a Swiss ball, BOSU ball or any other surface that isn’t the floor.
In fact, many of the muscles in your core work very hard to prevent spinal movement during exercises like squats, deadlifts, single-arm rows, rollouts/walkouts, and standing presses. These movements build not just core strength but whole-body strength as well.
Someone who can perform a standing overhead press with three-quarters of their bodyweight and deadlift twice their bodyweight will have developed a very high level of core strength simply by focusing on getting stronger in both exercises.
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