The job of the core is not to just simply create flexion or rotation (think crunches or twisting crunches), its main function is to resist motion. One of the main factors in having a properly functioning core is positioning of what we call the thoraco-pelvic canister or “box” during exercise. In more simple terms, we want the rib cage centered over the pelvis, putting the spine in a more neutral position, with the muscles basically locking the ribs to the pelvis. This allows for all of these muscles to properly stabilize and prevent motion of the core while allowing us to transfer force from the ground up through the core and into our arms and legs.
Now that we know the proper body position that must be held, here are 4 ways to best challenge this position:
- One of the newest forms of core training is breathing. By that we mean Diaphragmatic Breathing or Circumferential Breathing, which is the process of inhaling deeply through the nose filling not just our chest or belly with air but also expanding into our sides and back. We want the rib cage to expand in all directions, front back and sides. While this practice has been used in yoga for many years it has only started to get the attention it deserves within the fitness industry. Entire articles can be written on breathing, but I will simply say that proper breathing technique allows for the correct function of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is important because it has an important role in stabilizing the core. It forms the top of the core ‘box,’ working with the internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominus. There are numerous positions that can be held where you can train proper breathing. The key is being able to maintain proper breathing technique while stabilizing in these positions. If you get into a position and find yourself holding your breath the position is too advanced for you and you will end up using a high threshold strategy to maintain stability instead of demonstrating true stability by breathing correctly.
- Anti-Extension / Anti-Flexion exercises train the core to resist extension and flexion from the spine in the sagittal (front to back) plain. Again, there are numerous exercises that can fall into this category and the progressions must be scaled to the client (ex: Plank). If you cannot maintain proper alignment during the exercise, it’s too challenging and needs to be regressed. After breathing, controlling the sagittal plain is the first step in building a strong. You need to be proficient at stabilizing this pattern before incorporating the next two patterns.
- Anti-Lateral Flexion exercises train the core to resist spinal flexion in the frontal (bending side to side) plain. Having the ability to stabilize in the frontal plain correctly on both sides of the body is a vital component of avoiding back pain. As with all the core patterns, there are numerous ways to challenge the lateral stability capability of a person (side plank, suitcase carry). However, it’s easy to cheat on these exercises and compensate for a lack of stability so you must be diligent on keeping proper position while performing them.
- Anti-Rotation exercises resist rotation around the lumbar spine. Having proper rotational stability is needed to eventually demonstrate rotational power which is needed in rotary sports such as baseball, tennis and golf. Since repetitive and excessive rotation can be one of the most damaging motions to the spine (along with flexion) it is important to be able to use the core muscles to resist this motion (ex: Anti-rotation press, Birddog).
There are many different core exercises that train either one or more of the major core patterns, especially as they progress in difficulty. That’s why it’s very important to be screened prior to starting a core training program. This will ensure you are starting with the correct level of difficulty for your current abilities. Doing core exercises that force you to compensate due to an inability to stabilize correctly in whatever position you are in will not help you, they will only engrain further dysfunction. When choosing core exercises, you must train on the edge of your ability in order to progress, not past it.
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