Would you like a six pack… or rather a strong core?!
De best read blog on HealthCreators is: "Anybody can get some guns, die hards get a six pack". It has been read close to 10 thousand times! But this particular blog is 4 years old, when Naomi was still emerged in natural bodybuilding and we were mostly interested in what bodies can look like.
Our focus shifted to: getting a healthy, strong body that is ready for life's challenges. We moved on, HealthCreators moved on.
Personal Trainer Tamar explains the advantages a strong core has over six pack abs!
'Core switched on!' Without doubt: those are the words I use the most when I am training people. But what does it mean? The last few years 'core training' has taken the place of the traditional '15 minutes of ab training'. Because just training the abs is not cutting it anymore. The whole core has to get stronger. Special programs (CXWORX, XCORE) are focussed just on that. Still, the words 'core' and 'abs' are still used like synonyms. Ask Google, you'll get '10 best core exercises for a six pack'. But getting a six pack is not and should not be what core training is about.
Core vs abdominal muscles
I have to be honest here, I do catch myself switching the word 'abs' for 'core' when I work as a group instructor. It's easier, for me. Everybody knows where their abs are and what it feels like to use them. The core is a more broad term and therefor a harder to find place in your body. What the core is, cannot be explained in one word. So just forget about finding your core the first time you try. The core plays hard to get. I regularly need a full hour of personal training, sometimes several hours, to explain to a client where their core is and let them feel how it feel when you use it. When you have 20 people in front of you... you don't even go there. Especially in my classes with elderly people, I choose to change the program in favor of building it up like personal training. I think it is important for them to understand how using their core will give them more stability and balance. Other group classes don't offer that flexibility of changing focus. In those classes I am very happy when people brace their abs... at least part of the core is working.
A strong core and a six pack do have some things in common. Abs are part of the core. But there is more: the pelvis, butt and back muscles are also part of it. That way the core is a powerhouse, existing of a network of deep muscle and muscles closer to the surface. You need the whole powerhouse to be on in order to move effectively. It's similar to the foundation of a house: without a strong base the walls will eventually crack, crumble and collapse. Same goes for a human body. The large majority of people have a weak core. They don't even realize they have one, so they don't use it. They develop bad posture. When exercising or moving, they use muscles that are not meant to be used that way (movement compensation). This leads to putting too much strain on those muscle leading to problems and injuries.
When we do use our core, we experience an enormous improvement in moving. When you train it is important to always tighten the core. With anything you do, not just when training core muscles. You'll notice that squats, chest presses an pull ups are much easier with a tight core. Your muscles will be able to handle more weight, your core does the work!
But how do you tighten the core? Because it's not just one muscle, but a complex group of muscles, it is hard to do this right. You won't get it right the first (few) time(s). Drawing in and bracing are the official terms used to describe that process. Pull you belly buttom towards the spine (drawing in) and tighten the abs, pelvis and lower back muscles (bracing). And do all this while breathing, very important!
When we tighten our abs, we tend to make a crunch. We tighten them, we lean forward a bit and hold our breath. Wrong! When you tighten your core, you will stand upright, relaxed and you can breathe. Even talk. There is a constant tension in the muscle but it's not straining.
I use different tricks and metaphors to help my clients find their core. Like forcefully blowing out air through your mouth. You will feel a deep muscle tension... in your core! Or imagine that your really need to pee, but not a toilet in sight. You will have to tighten your core. Or pretend like someone is going to punch you in the stomach, hard... in a reflex you will tighten your core.
Power from within
A wash board stomach is really just a shallow body armor. They are visible when well trained and the person has a low body fat percentage. But does it mean you have a strong core? No, not necessarily.
A strong core means power from within. Someone with a strong core but without a six pack can absorb a blow to the stomach without bending over. A strong core isn't visible... maybe that is why we failed to notice the core sooner. We tend to focus on the outside of our body, the wash board, while a strong core is way more useful in daily life. It will support good posture and healthy movement patterns. We will fall less and we will have less aches and pains. A six pack doesn't mean a weak core, of course. If a six pack is your goal, at least focus both!
Good exercises to strengthen the core are the ones where there is no (or hardly any) movement in the spine. These are exercises to lay a strong foundation.
Doing a back laying march you tighten you abs, pelvis, butt and back muscles. Without lighting up on the tension, you lift one foot and then the other. Seems easy, but it's really spicy if you do it right.
Same goes for the hip bridge. You push your hips up as far as possible while maintaining the tension on the core. You can alternate lifting up your feet to make the exercise more intense.
To do the floor cobra, lay flat on your belly, your forehead is touching the ground. Lift up your arms to the side and feel the tension between the shoulder blades, without lifting your head. There is no movement in the spine, just between the shoulder blades. Of course you focus on the core muscles while doing this.
And last, but not least: the plank! Lean your bodyweight in your under arms and toes, make a straight line with the rest of your body. Muscle tension in the core will prevent you hanging in your lower back. If this does happen, you can back up a bit by doing it on your knees. Plank work has tons of variations, to make it more spicy. You can alternate lifting your arms and/or legs. Or plank on a ball. The side plank targets... the sides! And from a high plank (on your hand) you can cross over into mountain climbers, spidermans or supermans.