By Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC, Pre/Postnatal Performance Training Specialist
If you’re a client at Intelligent Fitness, hopefully you have come to realize when your Trainer says that you need to work on your core, it doesn’t mean we will have you on the floor doing a hundred sit-ups. In fact, for many of our clients, sit-ups may be the last exercise that is appropriate for their body. That might seem like a confusing statement, but let me explain.
The core is made up of a variety of different muscle groups, most of them including long, weird looking names that are hard to pronounce. One of them you should know by heart now: Transverse Abdominis, also known as TVA. The core’s main function is to provide the foundation for all the movements of the arms and legs and the stability to do so. When we move throughout the day, our core functions in a way that stabilizes our body in all three planes of movement. We don’t move in segmented, mechanical ways because we aren’t built like machines, so the core enables us to move smoothly (most of the time) through an assortment of odd, or functional, positions.
If our core isn’t made to just do crunches, what does it do? Deep within the core are several muscles that work to create intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine and also transfer force to the limbs. Other core or abdominal muscles work to rotate, bend, flex and extend the trunk of your body. One interesting thing to note about the core is the integration of many of the core muscles into fascia, a type of connective tissue. Because so many of the core muscles are brought together into fascia, this means that the core is best trained as a whole, not in isolated exercises, and that an issue in one area can effect other areas of the body. Consequently, “Dynamic stability is best achieved through training in functionally practical positions that mimic activities or movements in one’s particular sport or in life as a whole.”
Now that we know how the core functions, let’s take a look at how problematic it can become to simply perform sit-ups or crunches as a core strengthening exercise without balancing it out by involving the rest of the core. The rectus abdominis is the abdominal muscle that most people are familiar with—it is often called the six-pack and is the look that everyone would like to achieve. This muscle helps the trunk to bend forward, also called flexion. By overworking the rectus abdominis, its fibers can become short and tight. This will effect, not only the areas immediately surrounding the rectus abdominis, but eventually the whole body. Remember that fascia we talked about? It comes into play here. Because the rectus abdominis is connected to the abdominal fascia, there is a whole snowball effect that begins to happen—the entire trunk beings to flex forward; the hips are tilted anteriorly; the pectoral muscles of the chest are shortened; the clavicle (collar bone) is then dropped down; gravity slowly begins to pull on the shoulder joint as this forward flexed position of the trunk is emphasized; the scapula (shoulder blades) in turn will wing out to the sides and create a weaker mid back; the rotator cuff muscles are now put into a compromised position; the cervical spine will become overly curved and the head will move forward into a jutted position. What a mess!
I’ve clearly isolated the issue here to just one simple exercise involving one muscle, when other areas of the body can create their own set of issues and add to the problem. However, the point is simply that the core is more than what you may have realized. You cannot train your core to function by merely working in one plane of movement or by repeating the same simple exercises over and over. Our bodies don’t work that way in the real world, so we shouldn’t train them that way either. Thankfully, we do know how to train the core to work functionally so that you can move safely and effectively in both exercise and real life!