Having a strong core is essential, but not just for good body aesthetics, but also for injury prevention and to improve your lifts and your performance in other sports. If you do regular core stability exercises, then you will find that you have better posture, better balance and generally feel stronger.
The core is made up of four main muscles – the rectus abdominus, the obliques, the intercostals and the serratus. You need to do stability exercises that target all of these if you want to have a strong and powerful core. A lot of people make the mistake of just doing straight sit-ups, which only target the central muscles, neglecting the obliques and the intercostals and ultimately leaves the athlete more vunlerable to injury.
How Often Should You Do Core Stability Exercises?
You can work your core often with core stability exercises. While a lot of people think that certain ‘big’ exercises such as squats should not be done every day, there’s nothing wrong with deadlifting regularly as long as you don’t max out and other core isolation exercises can be done fairly regularly as well. It all depends on how heavy you are planning on going with the lifts and what your usual level of activity is.
A good idea for a set of simple core stability exercises would include cable crunches, barbell side bends, standard crunches (with bent legs, to protect your lower back) and reverse crunches. These can all be done in the 12-15 rep range, and 3-5 sets, depending on how much time and energy you have.
The plank is another good exercise for the core. You can hold the plank for as long as you feel able and will get a lot of benefit from just staying tight and strong. Be sure to alternate between the basic plank and side planks on both sides in order to work the entire the core.
If you have access to a barbell, do deadlifts as well, but make sure that you keep your back tight and do not round it or slouch. The deadlift is a brilliant exercise, and one that works your back, glutes and legs. It’s a great strength exercise and one that will have a tremendous effect on any other exercises that you do.
Why You Need to Do More than Just Crunches
As you can see, there are a lot of core stability exercises that are important for building up a strong core. It’s important that you do more than just crunches – because crunches don’t really work your abs the way that they need to be worked for the best results. Your abs are designed to support the spine, stopping it from spinning, breaking or flexing excessively to one side. Crunching is a secondary function of the core, and when you do it you will put stress on the spine – so it doesn’t make sense to do it at too high a volume on a regular basis.
Effective core training means working the muscles in all directions relatively equally, to build a strong foundation for other exercises. Planks and side planks are brilliant for this, because they require the core to do exactly what it’s supposed to do – hold the spine in a ‘neutral’ alignment while it’s under load. Some other good exercises that might help you get a strong core include stomach vacuums, clam shells and the bird dog.
The stomach vacuum is one of the most overlooked exercises for the core. It works the transverse abdominals, which are the ones that hold your core strong while you are lifting things. A lot of people – especially those who have been sedentary for a long time, will find that their TVA relaxes, and that they struggle to engage it when they are exercising – which can be dangerous if they start lifting heavy weights. Weak transverse abdominals are a common cause of injuries when people try to move furniture or anything else heavy. Stomach vacuums are an effective way of ‘waking up’ those muscles so that you can start exercising more safely.
Clam shells are a good way of triggering your glutes and therefore ensuring that they are engaged properly when the rest of your core is activated. In some athletes, the glutes either fail to engage, or they don’t quite activate the way they should. This can cause the hip flexors to try to take over, and the hamstrings to become tight, therefore putting more pressure on the lower back. This makes lower body exercises more difficult – so people start avoiding them – making the glutes even weaker, and causing more compensation, making the problem even worse.
The bird dog is a good overall exercise for core stability, because it requires you to work on coordination, focuses on anti-extension and anti-rotation, and works the core itself, the glutes and the shoulders. It’s a mix of a plank and a superman, and it’s a good exercise for athletes who are looking to improve their performance at anything that involves cross/crawl movements. It’s certainly one of the best exercises in terms of return on time spent.
One thing you have to remember with the core is that if you build up the obliques and develop a ‘thicker’ core, then your silhouette will change. It’s hard to shrink core muscles through ‘lack of use’ because we do so many twisting motions throughout the day just by existing, unless you’re completely sedentary. If you want a nice V-taper, then of course you should still work your core, but you’ll need to put in some work up top as well.
Core stability exercises aren’t a complicated thing, but it is important that you do a reasonable number of reps of each exercise and that you are consistent with your efforts. Don’t skip certain exercises because they’re all there for a reason. Take it slow and don’t lift too heavy when you are just starting.
If you’re looking to get great looking abs, remember that you’ll need to watch your diet. Ab exercises will build up your core muscles, but no-one can see them if they’re hidden under a layer of fat. So, lift heavy and work hard, and see where it takes you, but count calories too. Not everyone feels comfortable at a body fat percentage where their abs are showing. Some people feel great and find it easy to maintain, and they still feel pretty strong too – but others find that they’re more comfortable at a lower body fat percentage where they may have a ‘flat stomach’, but their abs are not visible.
The ‘athletic’ ranges of body fat percentage where abs start to show are certainly not unhealthy. If you are eating a sensible diet, and are getting plenty of exercise then you should be able to maintain abs without any side effects, although they may start to ‘hide’ if you are retaining water, or if you overeat. There’s nothing wrong with this. Most men will start to show their abs at 10-12 percent body fat, but to get the chiseled look you would need to get down to around seven percent.
For women, they’ll start getting a toned core at around 20 percent body fat, and abs that start showing at around 15-17 percent. Women carry more fat for reproductive purposes, which is why their ‘healthy’ body fat percentages are higher. Indeed, the ‘essential’ fat level for men is just two percent (although even stage ready bodybuilders usually carry more than this and it is highly unsafe to cut to such a low level), but for women it is 8-10 percent. It is unsafe for a woman to spend time at even 10-12 percent body fat, because they likely will no longer be able to menstruate. Even cutting as low as 15 percent body fat, for a woman, could be considered risky. A lot of women at this level are unable to menstruate, and they are considered to be at risk of suffering from the ‘female athletic triad’ of conditions – including elevated risk of osteoporosis in the long term.
The best advice for most athletes is to focus on core stability exercises, eating right, and seeing where you end up physique wise. As you get leaner, stronger and more toned you should find that you feel more comfortable in your own skin, even if you don’t quite get the bodybuilder look that you were aiming for. Don’t put your health at risk just because you’re chasing a certain look. Remember that you only get one body – and a healthy spine, healthy bones, and being injury free is key to your long-term health. If you’re in good shape you’ll turn far more heads than you think – regardless of what your own idea of ‘perfection’ for your body is. We are, after all, our own worst critics.