This Core Training Mistake May Do More Harm Than Good

Dave_TrainerTRAINER TALKSafe 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.

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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!

Picture 1. The TVA (transverse abdominis) (LEFT SIDE, 2nd from the top). Notice the location of the TVA and how it is very deep within the core. 2. The linea alba (RIGHT SIDE, 2nd from the top).

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.

2. Be careful with excessive frontal core training exercises such as hanging leg raises, weighted ab crunches, and Roman chair sit-ups. These exercises overload the hip flexors, which is commonly associated with low back pain.

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.

4.  Consider adding various oblique exercises such as the side plank.  These types of exercises will not overload the hip flexors or abdominals, which is healthy for core toning, safe for lower back conditioning, and smart for diastasis prevention.

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!

References

[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.

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About Dave Barnas, M.S., CES, NASM-CPT

Dave is a true health expert. He is the founder and owner of True Health Unlimited, LLC, a personal health and fitness company in Tolland, CT. Dave earned both a Bachelor's (1998) and Master's Degree (2000) in Nutritional Science from the University of Connecticut, and also holds certifications as a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer, National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, Aerobics and Fitness Association of America Group Instructor, and Nutrition Specialist. He's also the lead author for four published works. Dave has over 18,000 hours of combined experience in nutrition counseling, dietary supplement advising, personal training, corrective exercise training, health coaching and public speaking. In addition, he's spent over 20 years studying spirituality, meditation, and personal growth strategies. Dave's clients are all ages: youth, college championship level athletes, folks in their retired years, and everywhere in between. He's worked with three of the nation's leading physicians as a dietary supplement advisor and been a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Yale University, UConn, St. Joseph College and various church groups, health clubs, and high schools. In 2013, he was invited to Whole Foods Market to share his Real Food Therapy Guide. And in 2015, Dave's funny "Snowga" (yoga in the snow) video caught the attention of The National Weather Channel, who aired it to shake off cabin fever and bring laughter. In 2016, Dave & Hollie (his beloved) began writing evidence-based Wellness Newsletters to spread a message of health and happiness to various small businesses throughout Connecticut.

2 Responses to This Core Training Mistake May Do More Harm Than Good

  1. John says:

    I am a male 58 year old with a linear alba separation. Whenever I eat, even a small meal my stomach sticks out and it does not look good. I’ve always been in decent shape but being vain it bothers me.

    I’ve tried the vacuum exercises and I read they can do more harm

    Besides loosing weight which I have what exercises can I do to strengthen the core muscles somewhat?

    I know sit ups and leg raisers are out since it will cause more separation.

    Thanks
    John

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