The notion that you don’t have to isolate your core because “we do core every day” is a dangerous fallacy. Skipping core work is a good way to decrease your overall capability, and increase your risk for injury by over-developing specific muscles while leaving others underdeveloped.
But throwing in the odd set of sit ups at the end of your workout now and again isn’t going to get the job done, either. Your core musculature works in just about every direction, providing strength, power, and stability for just about every movement you do, every day. To get the most out of it, and to armor yourself against the potential for catastrophic injury, you need to train all the capabilities of the core.
Here are five core functions and exercises that can help develop each of them.
Stability is one of the most common core functions we hear of in gyms. Though weight-bearing exercises require core stability, anterior pelvic tilt while stabilizing is often overlooked. Anterior pelvic tilt can lead to an over-arching of the lower back, making it more difficult to engage the abdomen.
To avoid this, I suggest training hollow holds and rocks. For the hollow position, start by lying flat on your back while pressing your lower back flat into the floor. Pull your hips into posterior pelvic tilt (by contracting your lower abdomen and glutes) while lifting your feet and shoulders slightly off the floor.
Core compression is when you bend at the hip, bringing your legs toward your face, or vice versa. There are many variations of compression, but my favorites are leg raise variations. While hanging from a bar with your shoulders blocked and relaxed, lift your legs up and towards your face. Many will be limited by their mobility, but full range of motion can be progressively worked toward. If you are unable to stand on a box and reach your wrists past your toes, then you are lacking in mobility and will struggle with the full movement until this is addressed.
There are many great exercises that I use to train core rotation. Russian twists, side plank twists, and twisting back extensions all work well, but our ultimate goal is to be capable of doing the L-wiper. In this movement, begin by hanging with your shoulders relaxed and blocked. With controlled, purposeful movement, begin to sweep your legs from 0 to 180 degrees, while keeping your legs straight, together, and in a pike position. In the end, your legs should appear to move similar to a windshield wiper.
Bowing is one core function I rarely see being trained outside of a gymnastics gym. Most people are weak and tight in their obliques. Bowing exercises help to both strengthen and stretch this muscle group. Side plank press ups are an excellent example of this. To do this movement, get into a side plank position, supporting yourself with a straight arm. From this position, bow your hip towards the floor and back up towards the ceiling, while maintaining square shoulders and hips, core tension, and posterior pelvic tilt.
This is a subset of stabilization, where your core resists being rotated. This can be practiced through a number of movements, like bear crawls and bird dog. I use the anti-rotation banded press most often. In this exercise, you will hold on to a resistance band attached to an upright, and walk out until there is some tension on the band. Once the band is tight, turn 90°, such that the band line is parallel with the front of your chest. With the band hugged against your chest, slowly extend your arms straight out, while resisting rotation from the band. Do the same while returning your arms back to the start position. Ensure that during this movement, your knees are slightly bent and tension is maintained in your entire core.
There are many different exercises for each of the core functions mentioned above. Regardless of which exercise you choose, make sure you are covering all core functions on a weekly basis. Your core can and should be trained often, for relatively high volumes. Some of the most common injuries in athletes that I come across occur as a result of compensation, when areas of the body are overdeveloped and others are underdeveloped. Build a well-rounded core to get the most out of your body for many years to come.