When customers come in for their initial Pilates consultation, a lot of them have the goal to strengthen their core, which can be a great goal for a lot of people, but most of them point to their abdominal area which is actually only one part of the core. The problem with only strengthening the abdominals is kind of like only having one kid on the seesaw… You need the balance of all the core muscles to work as a functional unit.
What is the ‘core’ if it’s not abdominals?
Your core consists of 3 main parts. The muscles that flex your trunk (abdominal muscles), the muscles that side bend your trunk (oblique muscles) and the muscles that extend your trunk (back muscles). Think actions like bending down towards the floor, reaching across for something or extending your back to push up off the floor just to name a few things that these muscles might help with.
Now lets take one of those actions; the forward bend. Lets pretend that you are picking something up off the floor… The abs help to get you down towards the floor, but the back muscles are also making sure you don’t flop down towards the floor. Once you pick the item up, especially if just using one hand, your side muscles then have to make sure to counterbalance you so you don’t fall to the side. As you start to stand up the back muscles are shortening to draw your spine back to the start position against gravity and with load. So from this picture the abdominals really didn’t do much at all, and this is one of the most common activities we do. Think how many activities you have already done today that have required some form of squatting or bending.
But won’t doing lots of ab crunches give me a 6 pack?
In short…no. Most of us already have a 6 pack just from doing day to day tasks, the problem is, it’s sitting under a layer of fat! Some people can more naturally obtain a low enough fat percentage to expose their 6 pack but many people, especially women (yes this sucks I know!) can’t, in some cases it is even dangerous to drop their body percentage this low, in other cases it’s going to take a whole lot of dietary dedication, lots of cardio and a well balanced strength program! Some of you may have also noticed the switch from crunches to planks and other form of lengthening ab exercises such as Pilates. This is because most of us don’t want to ad bulk to our abdominals, especially if there is a little pocket of fat already on top, it’s only going to make our tummies look bigger! Think of what happens when you do bicep curls over and over… your biceps get bigger, right? Well it’s the same when you train the abs over and over, they are going to get bulkier too! Don’t panic there are some great exercises to get you started at the end of today’s blog!
So can’t I just do lots of planks then?
Well you could…Planks, side planks and reverse planks are all great exercises. But any one on their own is going to take away from the core balance we talked about at the start of the article. If you have no pain around your back, trunk or hips and have not already been doing loads of ab exercises, chances are your core muscles are already balanced. So for you, just start with the exercises at the end of this blog or just a regular old gym program that involves some squats, some sort of pushing exercise and some sort of pulling exercise. Nice and simple. If you have pain somewhere or have been working your muscles in a unbalanced way you may wish to test your core to check if their balanced before moving forward.
Dr. Stuart McGill is the expert in this area. Here at Waverley Myotherapy Clinic we use his method of testing the core. We test how long you can hold a flexion position, how long you can hold a full side plank both on the left and right sides, and we test how long you can hold a neutral back extension position. You can make an appointment with us or do this through a personal trainer or physiotherapist if you’d like to be tested. Make sure you mention Dr. Stuart McGills name so you know you are going to be tested properly. According to his original research people who suffered from low back pain were more likely to have lower endurance times for their back muscles compared to their flexor muscles and side muscles. Since then he has done a lot more research which you can check out by clicking here but it’s all still pointing to this notion of balance in the core and functional fitness of joints moving correctly and so on.
I’d like to get started, what can I do?
Hopefully I’ve convinced you to move away from the traditional ab curl and look for balance around your mid section. If you’d like to start strengthening you core the right way, try these exercises as recommended by Dr.Stuart McGill. I would recommend starting with low reps and just one set to get your technique right, perhaps do it in front or side on to a mirror to check if you are lined up. Or even better do it with a professional Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor, Myotherapists etc… to get them to watch and improve your technique. Remember, if in doubt, have it checked out!
Bird Dog – Start with 5 reps each side (build to 20 reps over time)
Side Plank – try 10 seconds each side to start with, build slowly, it should not feel like strain or struggle. You can make it easier by doing it on the knees instead of the feet.
Neutral Spine Curl Up – start with 5 each leg and build it up to 20 each leg over time.