We often hear the question in CrossFit of “What do you guys do for abs/core work?” Truth be told, we do everything with the core in mind. As athletes and people striving to be fitter, faster, stronger and healthier, we train to develop using core strength as the source of our physical capacity and strength. What most people think of as core based exercises are hardly so.
Sit ups and leg raises are not actually “core” exercises. They are abdominal exercises and abs are only a small part of the musculature that makes up the “core”. Having tight, washboard abs and a weak low back is not a strong core. What people think of as core exercises are hardly that, in that they work only a small part of the midsection. So what really works the “core”?
How about some overhead squats? Try locking out a heavy load overhead and attempting not to start noodling around underneath it. That massive contraction you have to put forth to lock in the lower back, thoracic spine, shoulder girdle and abdominal cavity is a major kick to the core crotch. Or how about squats? How do you think you maintain a lordotic arch in the lower back at the bottom of the squat and what is it that helps generate and transmit power as you drive up out of the hole at the bottom. Have you ever noticed that your obliques can be pretty damn sore the day after heavy front squats or cleans? When the load is shifted forward of the spine and the lever arm on the lower back is thereby increased, and you fight to stay upright in the torso, the only thing keeping you from resembling a human pretzel is your “core”. Heavy presses hit home pretty good too. Again they hit the spinal erectors, obliques and serratus muscles.
All the crazy barbell exercises that are typically shunned by the “experts” are actually incredible for developing core strength. Even more beneficial, dependent upon the movements, are dumbells. Now you have a unilateral load that really makes you fight for stabilization in almost every plane of movement. Where does the primary strength to balance that instability come from? The midsection. Don’t be afraid of picking up a barbell to develop midsection strength. The massive involvement of so many muscles working in unison under serious muscular strain to maintain form and stability creates incredible strength.
For a real treat, there are Kettlebells. Anterior and posterior core muscles get a serious working over with KB Swings. Maintaining form, while creating momentum and drive on an external weight, making sure you stay tight at the top of the movement, and really lock everything in place at the bottom of the swing as you prepare for reversal of the KB momentum. Yup, all major midsection work.
The “experts” would have you doing crunches and movements on Swiss balls. Crunches are realtively worthless in that they are an incomplete movement creating little if any new motor recruitment patterns and motor units, which means they contribute nothing to you in an athletic sense. They generate muscle activation from only a small portion of the abdominals and due to their incompleteness, they serve no real purpose other than to “feel the burn”.
Swiss balls have a place in rehab as they can help people with severe injuries overcome movement and balance problems, but in a training environment they do nothing for us. There is almost no complete ROM that can be done on a Swiss ball that I can think of. Lousy ROM means lousy adaptation and fitness. Doing weighted movements on a Swiss ball is not a great idea either. Sure there is a balance component, but then there’s the “ball popping under heavy weight and I break my arm while doing DB presses” component – just ask the Sacramento Kings basketball team… dumb….
Additionally, while balance and stability is all great, it lends no realism to what we really do in daily life. Very little, and I mean VERY little, of what we do involves lying, standing, or doing anything on an incrediby unstable surface. Sure it’s great for the “what if” factor, but so is buying arms on the black market and starting my own militia…just in case…
If you have a Swiss ball, do yourself a favor and fill it with water. Then try carrying it around. This will, 1) be a great use for a Swiss ball, and 2) be hell on your core as you try to stabilize and walk around with a ball of heavy Jello. No kidding, this is a great training tool and a hard task.
Planks and other static holds are also great for developing this type of excellent midline strength. An isometric contraction (locking muscles in to hold a static position) is tremendously powerful for creating strength and motor unit creation and recruitment. Take a look at gymnasts for an example of this concept. A lot of isometric holds and they have a tremendous strength to weight ratio. Some superman planks held for as long as possible for several sets will hammer the midsection, front and back, and leave you shaking like a dog trying to pass a peach pit.
Sit ups, leg raises, back extensions and the like serve a purpose, as long as they are full ROM and are used in conjunction with other exercises that supplement the core work. Combine them with overhead movements and BB/DB work and you can be bullet proof. Mix them up in variations like Russian twists, medball throw/chases, partner drills, etc. Also, realize that a lot of people who are usually doing “core” work all the time with their trainers at the local globo gym are also suffering from all kinds of back pain and tweaks. Why is this? Because of strength imbalances and subsequent felxibility issues created by overused, overtrained, and overcompensating muscles – abs being the primary culprit here.
So in closing, “Core” work is more than just the simple looking stuff we always think it to be. Instead, it is all encompassing and is created and maintained by a myriad of exercises. Don’t limit yourself and always remember, the midline is what makes us powerful and athletic. We create power at the “core” and transfer it out to it’s destination. Hence the reason CrossFit focuses on these “core to extremity” movements. Without proper development and strength of these core muscles, we limit our growth and ability to become fitter, faster, stronger and healthier.