To perform well at virtually any sport, you need a strong core. This is a no-brainer for rowing, golf and dancing, but it’s also true for less obvious activities: Your core gives you the stability you need to play darts, for example, and the power you need to play Ping-Pong.
A stronger core makes everyday life easier, too, resulting in fewer injuries, better posture and balance and less back pain.
Yet fitness experts say most people get core training wrong. In fact, the core may be the most misunderstood muscle group in the body — and core exercises are often the most dreaded part of a workout, what with the endless situps and planks.
“Breaking this stigma of thinking that you have to do 100 crunches and that’s going to make back pain go away and get the core strong, that’s the misconception,” said Jon Hernandez, a physical therapist and associate athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Rams.
Here’s a look at what the core is and what it isn’t, along with a well-rounded workout to help make it stronger.
The core is more than your abs.
If the goal of your core workout is to walk away with a chiseled six-pack, you’re missing the point. In fact, the abdominal muscles are just one of the major muscle groups that constitute the core; it also includes deep muscles in your pelvis, hips and back; smaller stabilizing muscles along your spine; and the diaphragm.
The core stretches from the pelvis all the way up to the neck and it surrounds the trunk — the central part of your body that houses most of the internal organs.
Think of the core as a cylinder, said Brian Catania, a physical therapist at ChristianaCare Rehabilitation Services in Newark, Del. “It wraps 360 degrees, and all of those muscles interact with each other in a systematic way.”
The core is your body’s power source.
It’s in the core that forces are transferred from the legs to the upper body, adding oomph to a tennis serve or allowing you to hit a softball out of the infield. “You’re going to explode from your legs and rotate, and the momentum has to pass through the core. If you don’t have a strong core, you’ll lose strength and power,” said David Behm, a professor and exercise scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who has been researching core fitness for 20 years.
Picking up a heavy box, or a kid, requires not just core strength but also endurance, he added. If core muscles are tired or weak, then the ligaments in your back take over and can get strained, causing back pain.
The core gives you stability, too.
To improve core endurance, Sivan Fagan, a Maryland-based fitness trainer, has her clients do exercises like side planks and dead bugs, which work deep muscles of the inner core like the pelvic floor muscles; the transverse abdominis, the innermost abdominal muscles that attach to the ribs, pelvis and spine; and the multifidi, an important set of back muscles that run along the spine and are key to spinal stability.
When these muscles are strong enough, she said, the pressure of exertion (from lifting a suitcase or digging in the garden) gets distributed throughout the core, which spares the spine from carrying too much load.
“You don’t want the lower back to do all the work,” Ms. Fagan said. “You want the core muscles to work together to stabilize the pelvis and the spine.”
While people commonly associate situps and crunches with the core, Ms. Fagan said they work only the external abdominals and none of those inner core muscles.
“Crunches don’t help with pressure distribution and core stability,” she said. “You can find people with a nice pronounced six-pack, but tell them to hold a plank in a good position and they can’t.”
Rotation exercises are key.
One critical component missing in most core routines is rotation, Mr. Catania said. Many athletic activities, including tennis, baseball and Premier League penalty kicks, involve rotating the body. So do daily motions like loading the dishwasher and shoveling snow, along with walking and running.
It’s the oblique muscles, which connect the lower rib cage to the pelvis on each side of the body, that rotate and flex the trunk and spine.
A small study conducted by Mr. Catania and Travis Ross, another physical therapist at ChristianaCare, found that core exercises incorporating rotation strengthen the obliques better than more traditional exercises like situps and planks. Rotation exercises also strengthen the multifidi, which is important because strength in these muscles protects against back injury, Mr. Ross said.
Mr. Ross and Mr. Catania designed a set of seven core rotation exercises which Mr. Hernandez has incorporated into pre-practice and pre-game training with the Rams.
“What rotation exercise allows you to do is build up your body’s foundation, build that deeper layer that you can’t necessarily see,” Mr. Hernandez said. “I guarantee you will feel better, whether it’s less strain in your lower back or feeling more stable and sturdy.”
Mixing up your routine helps, as well.
Core exercises are hard work; you don’t have to hold a plank long before the burn starts to creep through your body. Plus, Mr. Hernandez pointed out, they can be boring.
But there are ways to work your core without actually doing a core workout, Dr. Behm said. For example, you could try a high-intensity run. In a small 2009 study conducted by Dr. Behm and several colleagues, researchers placed electrodes on participants’ key core muscles, such as the multifidi, the obliques and the transverse abdominis. Then they measured the muscles’ activity during a 30-minute, high-intensity run and again while the participants did situps and planks. The researchers found that intense running activated the abdominal muscles the same amount as the targeted core exercises did — and engaged the back muscles even more.
Squats, deadlifts and push-ups also work the core, along with any exercise that requires balance, Dr. Behm said. Do your bicep curls while sitting on a yoga ball and you’ll be targeting the biceps and the core.
And when all else fails and boredom strikes, embrace distraction. Watch TV, listen to music or binge a podcast during core training, he said. “Time will fly by when you’re not focusing on the pain of doing a plank.”
A few exercises to get started
The plank is a classic exercise that requires little coordination and no equipment (which may be why celebrities keep challenging Jimmy Fallon to do one). Lie face down on the mat. Push up so you’re balanced on your elbows, forearms and toes. Keep your back and body straight and your hips level and slightly tuck in your tailbone. Breathe. Start by holding the position for 10 seconds and work your way up to 60 seconds. Works the abdominal muscles, obliques, deltoids, pectorals and triceps.
Lie on your back with your legs in the air and knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Raise your arms so they’re pointing to the ceiling. Keeping your spine flat against the floor, extend your left leg and lower your right arm behind you until both are just above the ground, then return to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Exhale as you extend and inhale as you return to the starting point, Ms. Fagan said. Start with two sets of five reps. Work up to three sets of eight reps. Works the transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, obliques and pelvic floor muscles.
Pick up a free weight (something that feels just a little heavy to you) and hold it in one hand, keeping your body tight, your spine straight and your shoulders and hips square. March in place or walk for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat with the other hand. Do this three times on each side. Works the transverse abdominis, obliques, multifidi and forearms.
Side-lying thoracic rotation
Lie on a mat on your left side with your legs bent and a pillow or ball between them. Squeeze the ball between your legs and rotate your upper body until your left arm is reaching toward the ceiling and your right arm is reaching for the opposite wall. From that position, lift your shoulders off the mat. Lower and return to the starting position. Do this five times and then repeat on the opposite side. Start with one set of five reps. Work up to two sets of eight reps. Works the external obliques and abductors.
Lie on your back with your legs in the air and knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Place your right hand on your left knee and your left hand on your right knee. Straighten and extend your right leg while you reach back with your left arm. Return to the starting position. Do this five times and switch to the other side. Start with one set of five reps. Work up to two sets of eight reps. Works the obliques, glutes and abductors.
Jumps and hops
Milliseconds before you jump, “anticipatory” muscles in your core turn on to prepare your body for the takeoff and landing. Add some vertical or lateral side-to-side jumps to your workout. “It doesn’t have to be N.B.A.-style vertical jumps, just hops,” Dr. Behm said. “You’re going to use your core muscles to stabilize.” Works the internal obliques, erector spinae, transverse abdominis and the muscle groups that stabilize the vertebrae and pelvis.
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