Sunday, September 20, 2009

Exercising the Core

"Core" loosely refers to the area between upper body- ribcage, shoulders and arms, and lower body- pelvis and legs. The major muscles are the rectus abdominus(six pack muscle), transversus abdominus(horizontal muscle from back to front), obliques(wrap around the sides from ribcage to pelvis), quadratus lumborum(aka QL, connects pelvis to spine and ribcage), erector spinae group(along the sides of the spine), and psoas(spine to femur, across anterior pelvis). The best way to think of them is in the role of connecting and stabilizing between top and bottom, where the extremities are doing their thing, eg. lifting, running, throwing, carrying, throwing something that you're carrying as you run, etc.

A Functional Core
Considering the role of the core muscles, I consider the best way to work them is with exercises where a force is transmitted between the upper and lower halves of the body. This typically means that something is lifted, pushed or pulled with your hands while standing. Actually, I always recommend not isolating particular muscles, but involving as much of the body as possible(see Don't Sit Down), the possible exception being for rehabilitation of an existing problem. This is particularly true of muscles responsible for stability and connection.

Here's an example. While emphasizing(but not isolating) the chest, use an adjustable cable pulley machine(assuming you have access to one) with two weight stacks. Adjust the pulleys to shoulder height and up, stand between and in front of them, and do either a press or fly. What keeps your body from bending backwards? The core muscles. Now do the same exercise but holding only one cable(see Independence Day Fitness.) What keeps you from bending backwards and twisting around? Core muscles. A continuous chain of muscles from your hand to your feet is being worked, and being trained to work together. That's functional fitness.

For the posterior body, set the cable to shoulder height or lower, face the machine, and do a row(pull the grip toward you.) The core muscles hold the shoulder and upper torso steady, transmitting the force to your legs.

Using just your bodyweight
A great equipment-free exercise that engages the core is holding plank position(top of a pushup), and side plank is better because more muscles are involved, particularly the obliques and quadratus(QL). Make sure the pelvis doesn't drop but that everything from toes to nose stays in the same relative position as when you are standing. Side plank can be made easier by putting the foot of the upper leg in front of the lower knee for more support, or harder by elevating the upper leg. Really increase the challenge of side or regular plank by supporting either your hands or feet on an unstable surface such as a stability ball or TRX strap.

The Crunch
Since some folks will insist on ignoring my great advice above and working just the abs, here are a couple suggestions. Lie down and start a crunch, but instead of trying to roll yourself up into a little ball, lift the torso straight up toward the ceiling for just an inch. This is harder than it sounds. Remember that the abs connect the ribcage and pelvis, but the head and shoulders are separate. Don't strain your head, neck and shoulders forward, but keep them in line with the back. The spine keeps its normal curves, neither flattening nor rounding(at least not a lot.)

and another opinion...
In this short interview with "celebrity trainer" Gunnar Peterson he says his favorite core exercise is the wood chop, which involves holding a cable grip or weight in both hands and twisting as you pull or lift. Hmmm- transmitting a force from the hands, through the core, down to the legs- sound familiar?

He also gives his recommended multitasking move as a squat while curling and pressing dumbells, and the photo shows a client on a stability ball lifting dumbells with clearly engaged abs. Squats, free weights, stability balls... I'm not making this stuff up folks.

To recap, trying to work just the core will likely distort your posture and not prepare you to use any strength you might gain, but doing exercises involving your entire body and maintaining good posture as you do them will strengthen your core in a useful way.

Garden news: I've eaten the first green beans and they were delicious! All four of them!

There has been a dramatic difference between the ones planted in new potting soil with the maximum sun, and the others I put in with existing potted plants. The ones in my optimum conditions have grown three to four feet high, and that's with wrapping themselves around the supports. The other poor things are only eight to twelve inches tall.

I can't tell how much of the difference is from the soil, and how much is from the sun, but it's safe to say the putting beans in shady, depleted soil is bad.

Side plank photo by sleepyneko

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