TRAINER TALK – Safe and effective core training is essential to a healthy fitness program. Because the core muscles (29 in total) play such an important part in overall life quality, some folks train their core during every workout. Without a clear-cut understanding of how the core works, however, many core training exercises may do more harm than good. This article will explain a common core training mistake, why it’s dangerous, and a few simple core training solutions to keep in mind.
The False Core Training Assumption
The common core training mistake is based on a false assumption that flexing and strengthening all the muscles located on the front of the core, (pic 1. below – rectus abdominis, aka ABS) will bring great results for a healthy core. Since great results are highly desirable, many infomercial products promise to help you get there, but virtually every product reinforces the false assumption that great results come from intensely flexing the front core muscles (abs). This false assumption gives birth to the core training mistake.
What’s the Core Training Mistake?
The core training mistake is an overemphasis on frontal core exercises that involve spinal flexion and hip flexion, such as crunches, sit-ups, Roman chair sit-ups, (pic 2 below), knee raises, and other intense abdominal movements without an equal emphasis on appropriately activating:
1. The gut sucker – professionally known as the transverse abdominis (TVA) (see pic 1). The TVA draws-in the navel for a flatter stomach and stable core.
2. The butt toners and low back strengtheners – professionally called glutes and erector spinae. These muscles collaborate to support spinal extension and hip extension for core strength and mobility.
3. The love handle shrinkers – professionally referred to as internal & external obliques (see pic 1). These muscles support rotational movements.
This core training mistake of an overemphasis on ab muscle flexion exercises while neglecting the other three core regions mentioned, (especially the TVA) may result in low back pain and something even worse that pushes your belly outward – a major red flag!
What does this mean in simple terms?
In simple terms, it means that if you train the front core muscles (abs) too much without also training the most important core muscle, the TVA, as well as the back and side core muscles, you may hurt yourself, particularly your lower back and something else I’ll describe momentarily.
Why is it dangerous?
Overemphasizing ab exercises can compromise your health and fitness goals because it may do more harm than good, especially over the long-term. Harm can come in many forms.
1. Nearly 80% of adults experience low back pain and poor core training can predispose a person to low back pain or make low back pain worse in the long run.
2. A weak or imbalanced core compromises the body’s ability to function optimally. Having a weak or imbalanced core is like having a weak foundation for a home. Anything you build on top of a home with a weak foundation will not hold up long term or may have structural problems.
3. An overemphasis on ab flexion exercises can tear a small layer of connective tissue called the linea alba (see pic 1). The tearing of the linea alba is called diastasis recti. Many mothers experience this unfortunate occurrence and people who core train incorrectly can experience it too. When a person suffers from diastasis, their stomach will push out and without training the TVA, it becomes impossible to restore a healthy and flat midsection.
What are some simple core training solutions?
1. For safe and effective training, the TVA (see picture 1.) needs to be activated – first and foremost. The TVA is theorized to bilaterally contract and form a “corset” which not only works well aesthetically, but most likely increases the stability of the lumbar spine[i]. A weak TVA that results from poor posture or core training is detrimental to overall health and several researchers have found that decreased activity of the TVA correlates with low back pain.[ii],[iii][iv]
To engage your TVA, simply draw-in your navel. Sort of like sucking in the gut, but in a gentle way for up to 15 seconds at a time. You can engage your TVA now as you read to help your posture, when you drive, or during any exercise. Activating your TVA helps you stabilize your spine and research shows that folks with low back pain often have a weak TVA.
3. Include some lying glute bridges, floor cobras, or kneeling opposite arm and leg lifts. These types of core exercises keep the backside muscles of your core in good shape.
In summary, a balanced approach to core fitness is essential. By incorporating various aspects discussed in a safe and effective manner, you will not only avoid the biggest core mistake, but you will benefit your whole body’s health in the long run!
[i] Hides J. Wilson S, et al.: An MRI investigation Into the Function of the Transverse Abdominus Muscle During “Drawing-In” of the Abdominal Wall. Spine 31 (6): E1175-178. 2006.
[ii] Hodges PW, Richardson CA: Contraction of the Abdominal Muscles Associated with Movement of the Lower Limb. Phys Ther.77: 132-14. 1997.
[iii] Hodges PW, Richardson CA: Inefficient Muscular Stabilization of the Lumbar Spine Associated with Low Back Pain. Spine 21 (22): 2640-2650. 1996.
[iv] Hodges PW, Richardson CA: Neuromotor Dysfunction of the Trunk Musculature in Low Back Pain Patients. In: Proceedings of the International Congress of the World Confederation of Physical Therapists, Washington, DC. 1995.