The core – not a slightly dodgy action movie from the 90’s, but an important part of any workout and something many people neglect.
So what actually is ‘the core’?
The core refers to ‘deep muscles’ that make up your lower trunk and pelvis. Their role is to provide stability and a centre point for almost all other movements – even something as simple as reaching for a high shelf requires core strength.
In this example, your core muscles subconsciously contract to enable you to reach your arm up – without them you’d have little arm movement and, to make matters worse, you’d probably topple over!
If the core muscles work automatically – why do we need to train them?
Core training is all about working from the inside-out. Your deep core muscles should be working almost all of the time to some extent – but as movements become more complex or challenging (skill or effort wise), then we start to ‘layer’ the muscle action. This means that the muscles over the top of the deeper ones start to work along with limbs.
The core and back pain
Various factors can impact the timing or quality of these contraction changes, with some studies showing a link between chronic (long term) lower back pain and delay in contraction of transversus abdominis (one of the core muscles). Whether this delay is secondary to the pain or predisposed to the pain is up for debate – the point is that contraction timing is important to wellbeing and for good and efficient movement.
The core essentially prepares the body for movement and ensures the quality of this movement. When trained in the right way, you can also improve your functional strength.
So how do I train my core?
Pilates, when taught well, is an excellent way of building up core strength and focussing on the quality of movement. Good personal trainers will also focus on quality of movement rather than just pushing you to do that “one last rep,” regardless of technique.
The core in action – an example
To demonstrate the importance of core strength, let’s take two example gym-buddies who approach their workouts in different ways.
The first spends all their time on the bench-press. They progress well and start to really build up their chest, shoulders and arms, great news for that beach body.
The second spends more time on the cable machine and using dumbbells and barbells. They lift smaller weights compared to the first person but focus on more than just the arms and shoulders.
In the first example, the bench itself does all the work that the core should be doing meaning it neglects any training to strengthen the core which provides a strong base to push from.
The second person has been busy doing this standing press and this gives them upper body strength along with core strength to push from. While the first person might be able to impress their gym buddies by lifting heavier weights, if push came to shove (literally), the second person will win.