Maverick Life


Hardcore: Real core strength exercises are so much more than working on chiselled abs

Hardcore: Real core strength exercises are so much more than working on chiselled abs
Core exercises. Image: Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

Core muscle strength and stability plays a key role in movement and health. But an effective approach to core strength training goes beyond targeting the abdominal muscles – it requires training for optimal functional movement.

“When it comes to core and core stability, we’ve had it all wrong for a long time. Even the professionals like myself – the biokineticists, the physios, the personal trainers, the doctors, the surgeons – many of us still have it wrong,” says Cape Town based biokineticist, exercise and rehabilitative specialist, Jonathan Joshua, whose specialty lies in the field of pain and injury management. 

So what is ‘the core’, exactly? 

In a 2013 paper titled, “Core stability training for injury prevention”, the author, an associate professor from the Arizona School of Health Sciences’ Human Movement Program, writes, “A universally accepted definition of core stability is lacking. Generally, core stability comprises the lumbopelvic-hip complex and is the capacity to maintain equilibrium of the vertebral column within its physiologic limits by reducing displacement from perturbations and maintaining structural integrity.” 

The “lumbopelvic-hip complex” the author refers to are some 29 to 35 muscles attached to the spine or the pelvis, including trunk muscles such as abdominal muscles to back muscles to glutes through to some hip muscles. This is the muscle which is most generally referred to as “core”.

An illustration of the muscle systems referred to as the core muscles. Image:

“Colloquially speaking, without going too deep into the anatomy, I would suggest thinking of it this way: anything that isn’t the arms, the legs or the head, can be considered core,” says Joshua, simplifying the above-mentioned definition of core. 

He also cautions against merely training the core as an isolated group of muscles – as one might imagine they’re doing during exercises targeting abdominal muscles, such as sit-ups, but rather to think of core strengthening within the context of functional movement.

The myth of the isolated core

“The control of the trunk (and body) is whole. There is no evidence that there are core muscles that work independently from other trunk muscles during normal functional movement. 

“There is no evidence that individuals can effectively learn to specifically activate one muscle group independently of all other trunk muscles,” writes renowned osteopath and author, Prof Eyal Lederman, in his paper, “The Myth of Core Stability”, published in 2010 in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies

Lederman sought to re-examine prior findings and the ideas that grew around them and eventually informed training for “core stability” – a concept which he says “arrived in the latter part of the 1990s” – and in combination with generally held beliefs about the importance of abdominal muscles, as well as influences from Pilates, which led to a number of assumptions that would prevail in core stability training. 

These include the idea that certain muscles in the trunk [torso] can work independently and are more important for the stabilisation of the spine than other trunk muscles; that weak abdominal muscles lead to back pain, and therefore strengthening just the abdominal muscles can reduce back pain.

As for targeted core stability exercises, these “are no more effective than, and will not prevent injury more than, any other form of exercise or physical therapy”. 

To be clear, in the context of Lederman’s paper, this is not to say that the strength of certain muscles is not important, but rather that the assumption of specific core muscles – such as the abdominal muscles – getting stronger in isolation from the rest of the trunk muscles and being singularly beneficial is incorrect. 

Hence, it is important to think of core strengthening holistically as a way to strengthen all the various muscle systems that make up the trunk. 

Functional movement is great for holistic core strengthening

“When you do functional movements, you are working the core anyway. For example, if you and I never did a single sit-up in our lives, and we just chopped wood every day, we’d be working the core, and we’d be working it very hard,” explains Joshua. 

He cites the examples of rural communities where people might work in the garden, do household chores such as sweeping and mopping without the aid of electric appliances or, as is often the case locally, carry buckets of water on their heads. 

“In these cases, core strength becomes a by-product of being strong in functional movements,” he adds, stressing that when it comes to exercise, instead of viewing the muscles as separate from each other, we should rather think of the body’s musculature as interdependent, and its movement as continuous lines of tension, or functional lines. 

As an example of a functional line, he cites the movement our bodies make when we walk or run:

“The muscle activation is like the shape of an X – when you move your left foot forward, your right arm goes forward, and vice versa for your right foot. Whether you’re chopping wood, sweeping the floor or bowling in cricket, our bodies work along this similar functional line, where the opposite sides of the lower and upper body work together. 

“Functionally, there isn’t really a part where one thing ends and another begins, like the way we would understand the body in the context of anatomy books… it’s about continuous lines of tension. 

“When my foot lands during a run, and then pushes off against gravity, that tension travels all the way up through my legs and torso to my arms. This becomes an interconnected line of tension.

A illustration of functional lines. Image: Anatomy Trains

“And that interconnected nature of functional movement is why we want to facilitate a functionally strong body throughout our lives. If you can facilitate a functionally strong body as you age, then by default you will develop a strong core,” says Joshua. 

Build functional strength

While there are a number of exercises that activate muscle tension along these functional lines, Joshua encourages the incorporation of functional movements into daily life as the primary way to maintain and build functional strength. 

With the exception of people who might be dealing with pain or injury, or those who have specific conditions that require professional help, Joshua advises making “our lives harder. We need to incorporate more manual activities in our daily lives. 

“Carry the bucket, carry the cement bag; don’t get the wheelie case, carry your luggage, carry a backpack; be proud of carrying your shopping bags to the car instead of using the trolley. Don’t use the parking spot closest to the entrance – park further away. 

“If you have the time, rather don’t get that automatic vacuum cleaner that moves around the house on its own. Add some lo-tech to hi-tech life; get a broom and sweep your house. Do the gardening, get dirty; play with your kids, throw them in the air and catch them. 

“This is the stuff of life – these are the functional movements that help us maintain the functional strength we need as we age,” says Joshua. 

“Our bodies love movement and thrive in it; we are very resilient animals, and not as prone to injury from common movement as we think.” 

At the gym, maximise functional movements

This does not necessarily mean one should ditch the recommended weekly minimum of 150 minutes of exercise. According to the World Health Organisation, adults between 18 and 64 should:

  • Do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity activity.
  • For additional health benefits, adults should increase their moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes per week, or equivalent.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities should be done involving major muscle groups on two or more days a week.

America’s “Move your way” campaign breaks it down further, recommending swimming, cycling, dog-walking, gardening and recreational sporting activity as a way to complete the 150 minutes. The campaign recommends doing muscle-strengthening exercises two days a week. 

“The minimum 150 minutes a week is a good guide, but keep in mind that most of its benefits relate to cardiorespiratory health, and overall health,” says Joshua, clarifying that when it comes to muscle strength, there are “exponential” health benefits to be had from incorporating complex functional movement into daily life, or to a formal exercise routine at the gym. 

Additionally, for many an urban dweller, the demands of daily life – be it work or looking after a family – place limits on the amount of physical activity they can incorporate into daily life. 

Formal exercise programmes such as the gym or yoga classes might be the best chance at maintaining a strong and healthy body. 

In which case, Joshua stresses the importance of complexity in movement during exercise: “For example, an arm curl is not a complex movement. A sit-up is not a complex movement and it doesn’t necessarily result in functional strength. As human beings, we sit, we stand up, we twist, push and pull. 

“Start by identifying movements that incorporate these things that the human body does – movements that require the activation of multiple muscles at once; pushing, pulling, sitting, standing, twisting. 

“Because that’s the key to longevity – that’s going to help the muscles and joints age well. Then find ways to add layers of complexity to them for strength.”

Among the wide range of exercises that would fit the bill, he recommends the Turkish get-up, an exercise widely validated as one of the most functional exercises. 

“It’s a beautiful, complex movement, comprising a number of functional beneficial movements in one exercise. I could give you 10 exercises that will take longer, and you wouldn’t get more from them than doing the Turkish get-up,” says Joshua.

As illustrated in the video below, the exercise starts with the body lying  on the floor, and through a series of movements done while holding a kettlebell, ends with the body standing upright. 

For yoga and Pilates, here too Joshua recommends finding classes that incorporate strength. 

“Yoga is fantastic… there can be quite a lot of functionally complex movements depending on what kind of yoga one practices. So I would recommend that people ask their teachers about the strength exercises that can be incorporated into their particular practices. 

“The same goes for Pilates. If it’s just mat-work and you’re mostly on your back, I can’t argue for that. But if you’re moving and on your feet or on all fours and doing a variety of movements, then you’ve got something to work with.”

McGill’s Big 3 exercises for real core strength

“Good technique in most sporting and daily living tasks demands that power be generated at the hips and transmitted through a stiffened core… 

“Pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying and torsional exertions are enhanced using this basic technique of hip power generation, but are compromised when the spine bends,” writes Dr Stuart McGill, an author and professor emeritus who spent 32 years at the University of Waterloo, some of which he spent as professor of spine biomechanics. 

Much like Lederman, McGill takes a more holistic view of the core; one that is inclusive of various muscle systems that come together to make up the trunk. And like Joshua, he too pays specific attention to how exercise benefits and should be inspired by functional movement. 

McGill developed a set of exercises known as the Big Three, which he explains in careful detail in his book, “Ultimate back fitness and performance”. 

The exercises have also been studied and positively reviewed in academic papers such as this one, for their efficacy in the rehabilitation of back pain. 

These may be familiar to you, as they have been incorporated into many workout programmes over the last decade. DM/ML

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