I’ve written about this before, and I want to stress again that the true definition of the body’s core is more than just a certain muscle or muscles that you can see in the mirror. Your core is a complex system involving numerous muscles in different layers, as well as other soft tissues and the bony structures they attach to. This also includes body systems like breathing, as well as your strategy of contraction, recruitment and integration.
To try to accurately and comprehensively relay this information through a few words and pictures is difficult, but I strongly believe that a little awareness and understanding is better than none. To train the muscles in your mid-section without this awareness is like driving a car with a flat tire. You might get where you’re going, but you’ll have very little control and probably cause costly damage along the way.
Anterior Core Setting
In almost any movement you do, there is the potential for your body to be either strong and stable, or weak and unstable. Strong and stable is always better. This starts with good inner unit core activation, which provides stability for your pelvis and lower spine and initiates good firing patterns and sequencing for your muscles. On a daily basis, and before any core training or athletic activity, it’s good to practice this movement. Start on your back with your legs bent and heels on the floor. Place your fingertips flat on your lower abdomen so you can feel if it domes upward or flares wide. Take a deep breath in and exhale, allowing your abdomen to rise and fall. Once it has fallen inward, ‘set’ your inner-unit core system by contracting your pelvic floor muscles (as if you were gently trying to stop going to the bathroom). You should be able to feel your lower tummy flatten slightly. Now slowly perform a curl-up movement, leading with your lower ribcage rather than your head, while keeping your lower abdomen flat and narrow. Try to leave your legs (especially your hamstrings) relaxed as you go through this movement. Attempt 2-3 holds of 20-30 seconds, breathing comfortably and improving your core engagement throughout.
Doing a plank on the floor is an excellent exercise, and performing it on a ball adds a whole new dimension. Start with your forearms on a ball and your hips, knees and ankles flexed. Your spine should be parallel to the floor with neutral curves. Good core activation will hold you strong in this starting position, which is more than challenging enough for beginning exercisers. To increase the leverage, slowly push the ball 2” forward and back, moving only the arms, without losing any quality in your spinal position or core engagement. As you get stronger, increase the movement of the ball, and incorporate opening at the shoulders and hips at the same time. Perform 3 sets of 30-60 seconds in a smooth, controlled fashion. For increased instability and greater difficulty, try putting your hands on the ball instead of your forearms. As you get more comfortable, you can also increase the speed of the movements, or add side to side action to the ball. Always use your core engagement and neutral spinal alignment as your measure of quality and stop before you lose control.
Twisting Ball Crunch
When you’ve established the ability to maintain proper core activation, exercises like this ball crunch will be much more effective. Start by sitting on a ball and roll your hips forward until your lower back is on the dome of the ball. Have your feet hip to shoulder width apart and maintain a good core set. Place your fingertips behind your ears and lean back until your spine is in straight, neutral alignment. Crunch upward and twist to one side, moving your head, arms and shoulders as a single unit. Lower to the center and repeat to the other side. Perform 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions per side. If this is too challenging, try keeping your arms folded across your chest.