Your core is the foundation for all movement. Without it, you’d regularly suffer from unbearable pains — day in, day out. The core musculature comprises a series of muscles that help your body stabilise, contract, and move without risking serious injury. In other words, it’s essential for all movement. Core training is widely considered an integral part of athletic development; however, I believe it’s crucial for every single person, including you, to make core training a daily habit, here’s why.
Much of the limited research on core training links it to be an integral piece to the puzzle of excellent health and fitness. It is not so clear why, largely because core exercise and its specific movements are rarely done in isolation — it’s more something we form as part of a comprehensive training programme to complement our everyday actions.
But a lack of core strength and stability certainly causes many of the non-severe physical discomforts you may experience throughout your life, such as back or knee or hip pain.
For example, runners often experience detrimental effects due to weakness and dysfunction of core musculature—more than most sports. There is a significant risk of injury to spinal structures during a run as the spine is loaded repeatedly with every step. Running requires the absorption of forces 2–3 times that of our own body weight, over and over again with every step. A weak core will negatively impact running biodynamics by forcing other muscles to compensate, muscles unable to do the job.
The more you force the wrong muscles to bear heavy loads, and the less you work on those weaknesses, the tighter or lazier your muscles and tendons become, and the more likely you are to suffer acute or chronic injury.
What is the Core?
We’ve all seen six-pack abs — and the subsequent rave for them — but just because someone has a glistening set of chiselled abs, it doesn’t mean they have a great core.
Far from it.
The six-pack (rectus abdominus) has one function: flexion of the spine. In other words, bending forward. Sit-ups will only get you so far, and it’s not a healthy movement to do in the first place.
Your core is everything between your hips to your shoulders—something we developing from around three months old.
Core training used to be called “Abdominal training” in the 90s. But our knowledge of what it means to train your core has improved significantly since then.
Your core protects your spine in three ways:
It bears, or transfers, all forces from an impact between one extremity and another. It can initiate movement itself, but its job is to prevent dysfunctional and poor-quality movement.
A weak core with poor neuromuscular control causes poor movement patterns — and thereby consistent patterns of injury.
Your core moves in three distinct dimensions, called planes of motion:
- The sagittal plane — forward and backwards, e.g. Squats.
- The Frontal Plane — side to side, e.g. Side Lunges
- The Transverse Plane — Rotational, e.g. Russian Twists
Straining yourself in any of these directions, for long periods of time, is what causes you pain. Much of your daily movements are done on the sagittal plane — and that’s the problem. As human beings, you’re not supposed to move in one dimension; you move in three. But the way we live today (sitting down in an office, sat in traffic, sat on the sofa, lying in bed) hurts our capacity to stay flexible and move without pain.
It doesn’t matter what age you are. You should be able to move freely, without pain or ache. Core training helps you to do that.
I suffered for years with patellofemoral pain, inflammation around the knee that hurts when bending or climbing stairs. I also suffered from back pain from a young age as a junior athlete throughout my school life.
This problem came about because I was overusing my muscles during training — or straining the wrong ones — and it created serious pain whenever I walked on inclines or struck pressure through my knee or back.
I found core training much later. And It taught me how to develop my glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. With a physiotherapist's help, I made a programme that integrated simple exercises to alleviate this chronic issue. It completely healed my pain in a little over a month.
How to train your core correctly
If you’ve visited a physiotherapist, you’ll notice that core training is the solution for 99% of your physical problems.
No matter what you’re recovering from, core training is often prescribed.
It’s your core’s responsibility to keep you stable when you move and divert energy from crucial body parts. Core muscles are not prime movers, meaning if you always used your low back to initiate movement whenever you walked or climbed stairs, as I did, they won’t cope with the forces and, eventually, you’ll succumb to immeasurable pain.
Many people treat their core by focusing on pure isolation, such as doing sit-ups and crunches. These exercises alone don’t pose great benefits. But as part of a comprehensive programme, they can be effective.
There are three types of core exercises:
- Stabilisation: static exercises with minimal movement, e.g. planks.
- Dynamic Stabilisation: stability exercises that replicate everyday movement, e.g. lifting your arms without curving your back.
- Integrated Stabilisation: full-body exercises, e.g. sports, or even carrying groceries from your car to the house.
There are also five crucial elements of core stability:
- Motor control
Without motor control and function, the other three elements are useless. You could be the strongest fish in the pond, with the very best endurance, but once you’re out of the water, flapping about, you won’t get very far.
The 6 core exercises you should do daily
The staple of good core stability is a good ability to prevent painful movement.
You don’t need to think about much during these exercises other than keeping your stomach tight and controlling your breathing. The literature is still inconclusive, and therefore, you should focus on getting familiar and consistent with proven exercises that work, like the ones below.
1. Glute Bridge (anti-extension)
Not only does this improve your posture, but it also lessens low back pain and helps you perform your everyday activities with less fatigue. When you spend a lot of your day sitting, your glute muscles can loosen — or weaken — while your hip flexors get shorter as they tighten. Over time, this can cause slouching and pain around the upper back and neck.
2. Plank (anti-extension)
The plank is a solid anti-extension exercise that teaches you to maintain good posture. Focus on maintaining a straight line — from your shoulders to your ankles. Squeeze your glute muscles slightly and resist the temptation to lift your hips for relieving tension. To make it easier, place your forearms on an incline and work your way towards ground level.
3. Dead Bug (anti-extension)
Keep your low back firmly pressed against the ground, resisting any extension of your lower back. Extend your opposite arm and leg in a slow and controlled manner. To make it easier, keep your knee bent or bend at the elbow. You could also try moving your legs only as your starting point.
4. Fire Hydrant (anti-rotation)
Fire hydrants are designed to strengthen the glute medius — the outer glute muscle that stabilises and strengthens your knee. It is one of the most effective exercises at fixing knee pain. Focus on keeping your back flat as you bring your leg to almost parallel to the ground.
5. Superman (anti-extension)
This will help strengthen both your glutes and the back muscles. With this exercise, the key is to effectively engage both your glutes and your lower back muscles simultaneously, as you don’t want to rely too much on either.
6. Bird Dog (anti-rotation)
This is an excellent exercise that helps promote a stable core while movement occurs in the surrounding joints. Aim for as little movement as possible throughout this exercise. The key to this is preventing your back from bending and holding a good posture. As you slowly extend the opposite arm and leg together, try to resist any rotational movement. You can try placing a light dumbbell or water bottle or foam roller on your back as feedback — try to keep it from falling off. To make it easier, extend your arm or leg individually.
Something to remember
It’s in your own interest to carry out core training each day to help you move and live without pain — and prevent any future pain from arising. In the long term, it’s best for everyone to create a habit of regular core training, whether in the morning or during a work break or just before bed.
Much like an exercise in general, the reality is it’s all about the long game; you shouldn’t commit to exercising just for short-term benefits. Exercise is a lifelong journey of continuous improvement, and you should treat it that way. Take your time. Ramp up slowly. Your body will thank you for many years.
I’ve written a 51-page eBook with 30+ core exercises that will improve your posture and strength while minimising injury. Check it out here.