Crunches are not the solution to a strong and stable core
It’s hard to watch a fitness piece/program on television, read an article in a glossy magazine, or go to the gym and hear a trainer or group fitness instructor speak about fitness and not mention the word “core.” “Core training” has been all the rage now for several years; Pilates’ primary selling point is its emphasis on core training. My experience with the general population has been that no matter how much they say they understand the importance of having a strong core, and that they want a stronger core, what they are really saying is that they want a flat, ripped stomach. The problem though is that ripped abs don’t necessarily mean or equate to a strong core. I have seen muscle bound fitness enthusiasts, when tested by presenters at seminars I have attended, fail miserably when their core is functionally challenged. The six-pack that everyone so desperately wants represents a superficial muscle group of the core musculature. It is only one piece of the puzzle that is frequently over emphasized. Read this carefully, you cannot crunch fat off of your mid-section. More crunches or a better infomercial mouse trap are not the answer to a flat stomach, and I hate to break it to the Pilates faithful but drawing in from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep is not the solution either. Getting rid of your “spare tire” comes from weight loss or rather fat loss, realized through good nutrition and a full body comprehensive training program. By now everyone intellectually understands that you can’t spot reduce, yet they are still looking for the magic exercise to take the fat off. I’ll let you in on a little secret; the magic exercise is discipline. Core training then, is not about six-pack abs.
Now that I have discussed what core training is not about, it is time to address what it is about. There are many definitions of what the core includes, but without giving an anatomy lesson, I will define the core as the musculature between the hips and shoulders. It not only includes superficial muscle groups but also deeper musculature, critical in making human movement effective and efficient. Core training is about developing core stability, and the transference of force. The core’s ability to stabilize the spine is the limiting factor on how much force and/or power we can exert in an upright position. In other words, our ability to push or pull, to hit or kick, and to bend and lift an external object or opponent is dependent upon our core’s ability to stabilize the spine and transfer force to our limbs that are involved in the movement. Maybe the more important aspect of core training is core stability. Several years ago when “core training” became a hot topic, and fitness professionals began moving away from crunching movements that flex the spine, there was a big movement towards rotational movements. Shortly thereafter, the same exercise scientists that warned about the risks of lumbar flexion began to warn us about lumbar rotation as well. It now seems logical that what we probably need more of is not actual rotational movements of the spine but anti-rotational movements. In other words, exercises that ask us to fight against rotational forces may be more appropriate and effective in developing core strength or rather core stability.
All of this said, I am not saying to throw out all crunches and rotational exercises. What I am suggesting is, to significantly cut back on the volume of crunches performed; reducing the number of exercises, sets, and reps performed in each workout and throughout the week. As far as rotational movements, I try to focus more on shoulder and hip turn without rotating the lumbar spine alone. I don’t think the back is as fragile as some would have us think, however I think back to a description given by renowned strength coach Mike Boyle where he made the comparison of exercises that flex and rotate the spine to bending a credit card. When you bend a credit card it does not break on the first bend, but do it a couple of hundred times and eventually it will tear in half. Thus, instead of crunching and twisting the fat off, which I have already established is impossible; I focus my core training on strength through stability. The exercises I focus on are bridges and planks in a variety of ways: hip and glute bridges, prone bridges, side bridges, and bird-dogs are all apart of my core training regimens. I also throw in some band work for the musculature of the hips and some scapulae (shoulder blades) work (Y’s, T’s, W’s, L’s) to strengthen and maintain proper movement of the upper extremities. Most total body movements also challenge and strengthen the core, such as pushups, squats, lunges, medicine ball chops and throws, and one arm-cable rows in a standing position. These movements when done properly ask us to maintain good posture while using our extremities to move against an external resistance and/or gravity. Performed diligently, combined with proper nutrition and aerobic exercise you will not only get a strong and stable core, but you will in turn get that flat stomach you wanted without doing hundreds of crunches. For more details on exercises that you can perform to get started make sure to check out the companion youtube video.