Stop! Train your core the right way!!

This blog is for you if you’re in this for the long game. If you’re into technique, correct form, strong lifts and generally BOSSING it in the gym. If working out isn’t just about looks for you. If you want more.

Now you might be thinking – here she goes on another tangent. What has this got to do with core work? My answer…everything!!

The core is not just a unit that is trained alone. The muscles of the core will be recruited in pretty much every movement you perform in the gym. Now you might notice I am using the word ‘core’ instead of ‘abs’. The majority of people will be training just 1 or 2 of the abdominal muscles, doing various forms of planks and crunches to get the coveted V-cut and six-pack. 

In this blog, however, we’ll take a look at why training this way is detrimental to your core stability and protecting your spine and how it could affect any workout that you do. We’ll also look at the best starting point to ensure you aren’t making the most common mistake.

The basics

Let’s start off with the basics. In the body, we have muscles that are either what we call ‘Postural’ or ‘Phasic’ muscles. The Postural muscles help us (you guessed it!) with our posture, keeping everything in the right position when we are sitting, standing or even lying. This means they are constantly working. Most simply the muscles on your front and back will be firing in just the right ways to make sure one doesn’t pull you too far forward or back and you stay upright and not tilted forwards or back. Our Phasic muscles do something different, these are the muscles that work when we want to move, so they will be the ones contracting at the right time in the right way if we wanted to get up from a chair and walk, for example.

But why should you care?

Well let’s link that back to our core. The main function of the core is to provide strength and stability to our entire mid-section with muscles deep in our back, front and pelvis working with the diaphragm at the top to create a solid, stable cylinder. The main goal of the stability this section should offer is to protect our spine and keep it correctly aligned. This is what we call ‘neutral spine’ which means the least amount of stress is on the discs and other joints/tissues (which means fewer aches and pains like the all too common lower back pain). So all ‘sides’ of this cylinder need to be strong and able to support our spine and the rest of our body. 

As well as these muscles that are deep within our abdomen, back and pelvis which are postural muscles (key to stability) we have a couple of phasic muscles, those muscles that assist in movement called our rectus abdominis and external obliques. These are the muscles that will primarily be working when the average gym-goer performs crunches or plank variations and the muscles that you will see popping out when you have those coveted six-pack or V-cut abs.

You might be starting to see the issue here. There should be a synergistic balance between the postural and phasic muscles working together and working in their correct capacity too. When phasic muscles take on the postural role, this throws the whole system out of whack and the efficiency of this system is lost as well as an increase in the risk of injury and other issues that arise from this muscle imbalance. One cause of lower back pain is placing too great a stabilising role on the rectus abdominis (the 6-pack muscle) which decreases stability and causes pain in the lower back.

One of my main concerns as a trainer, when I see people starting to lift HEAVY, is that if they don’t have the correct strength and stability in their core to support a safe lift, imagine the damage that could do. Heard of a slipped disc? Ouch!

You might be thinking yehhhhh that won’t happen to me, I know lots of people who train like mad and won’t even be thinking of this kinda thing.

Well, as well as affecting your posture and increasing the chance of injury, you could also be affecting your technique and performance in the gym! I mean it’s a logical leap that the stronger and more stable your core is, the better you’re going to perform in any kind of movement, right? Could even help you lift MORE.

You’ll see bodybuilders with huuuge abs and think woah their core must be so strong, right? Not always! They might have really worked those movement muscles but haven’t paid any attention to those deeper, stabilising muscles. Combine this with wearing a weightlifting belt (basically acting like that strong, stable internal cylinder I mentioned earlier) and the stabilisers don’t even need to work, so they get weaker and therefore so does your core.

So, how do we fix this?

We should be moving away from isolated muscle actions and towards taking care of our overall strength and stability of the entire core unit. Things like pilates and yoga are excellent for this!

However, one of the biggest things for me is that we have gotten so used to tensing and contracting that rectus abdominis muscle at the front, so how do we identify and therefore contract the deeper muscles? There is a muscle that runs horizontally across our entire midsection that we need to be contracting to better our core strength and stability. It is called the Transverse Abdominis, TVA for short.

Let’s get physical!

To discuss how you can find this on yourself, we’ll first just pivot over to talk about breathing which will be an essential part of maintaining good core stability and we can also then use it to locate the TVA.

Stand or lie on your back with your spine in ‘neutral’ – so your pelvis isn’t tilted too far forwards or backwards, it is in its’ natural resting position. Inhale fully to expanse both your chest and stomach. Then exhale and while doing so, focus on pulling your navel to your spine. Repeat this. Then inhale again fully and on the exhale, pull in your navel as close to your spine as you can again, and this time draw up your pelvic floor as if you are trying NOT to go to the toilet. It can be useful to imagine you have a zip running from the back to the front and up to your navel. Repeat a couple of times making sure you are pulling your navel in and zipping up fully, drawing up those pelvic floor muscles (this bit can be really challenging!). When you have got used to that try holding that position when you inhale fully as well as exhale so not releasing it at all but keeping breathing all the time. We call this abdominal hollowing.

Now try this walking around the room. If you put your hands on your waist, the muscle you will feel activated is the TVA.

Activating these muscles in this way should be maintained through any ab/core exercises that you do as well as when lifting weights and any other activity. However, if you try holding this position for more than a few seconds while performing a plank, you will likely find it very hard.

Therefore, starting off with simply lying on the floor and fully inhaling and exhaling while keeping the navel pulled in and the pelvic floor drawn up for as many seconds as you can manage is a good place to start. Aim for 10 seconds, to begin with. The goal would be to manage 30 seconds before moving onto the next level of this and then by keeping up with simple drills like this the aim is to then be able to hold a plank properly with the right muscles engaged.

So, have a go at the above and see how you get on!!

Feel free to pop me a message to discuss other drills that can help develop your core strength and stability or if there are any other topics you would like me to cover in future bloggings:)

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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