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Core Conditioning

Core Training or Conditioning is a phrase used in gyms quite a bit the last few years. It's become so popular, McDonald's now offers a Core-Torso 15-minute workout DVD with their salads. When I saw that, I decided it was time to explain what core training is all about.

To start with, the core muscles include muscles of the trunk and pelvis that are responsible for maintaining spinal and pelvic stability. Your core is also critical in transferring energy from large to small body parts during sports activities. Think of it as the muscular corset that lends integrity and support to your body. The specific muscles of your core include the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, diaphragm, pelvic floor muscles, transversospinalis group, obliques and erector spinae. Some definitions also include the glutes, hip abductors and adductors.

Core Training focuses on "integrated multi-directional movements." Is that confusing? Let me explain.

Since the 1960s, equipment manufacturers have been building weight-training machines to develop specific muscles. There are machines designed to work the chest, back, biceps, triceps, thighs and quadriceps. As these machines were adopted by gyms worldwide, programs were designed that focused on muscle isolation. Traditional training is linear, with movements performed in a single plane focusing on individual muscles. The routines work. Isolation training programs build and improve the appearance of specific muscles.

The problem is, strict muscle isolation routines don't help prepare your body for everyday life because we don't use muscles one at a time. Common movements like walking, riding a bike or cleaning your home require the coordinated actions of many muscles. Training programs that only isolate muscles can lead to muscle imbalances as people, or routines, focus on one or two "favorite" body parts. How many of you have seen that tragic gym bunny with a highly developed chest and arms but the legs of a chicken?

Core training addresses most people's primary physical weakness: spinal instability. It does this is in two steps. The first is working to achieve muscular balance by equally emphasizing opposing muscle groups. The second is by training our bodies to operate as a collective unit rather than a bunch of isolated parts.

One misconception about core training is that it's primarily to strengthen the muscles of the trunk. That's secondary. The primary objective is to teach you how to activate stabilizing muscles and coordinate those muscles in sport-specific movements.

As important as core training is, the core muscles can be tricky to work. Basic core exercises involve static postures and uneven surfaces. Essentially you place yourself off-balance and force the smaller stabilizing muscles to kick in. Equipment that helps target core muscles include exercise balls, rubber band devices and balance boards.

As with any workout program, you should train progressively. Start slow and gradually increase in difficulty. A core training program should proceed in three steps.

  1. Basic isolation exercises. You should be learning how to focus on and isolate specific muscles without having to coordinate them with other muscle actions.

  2. Move onto compound muscle movements that involve core activation where you need to coordinate two different muscle groups.

  3. Finally, begin training with sport or activity specific movements. Some of these movements can include a balance requirement.

As you improve, make sure to include more complex exercises that mimic the dynamic movements of the activities or sport you engage in. Consider working out with a partner or trainer that can provide variable resistance. They can help you learn how to react more quickly to changing environments.

Train the core before training your extremities. Fatigue weaker regions first. If you're working the abdominal group, you should start with the obliques, move on to the lower abs and finish with the upper abs.

Finally, always train opposing muscle groups equally to prevent imbalances. If you give your abdominals a workout, remember to plan a workout for your lower back. A well-executed core training program can decrease injury risk and improve balance and muscular coordination. Now it's up to you.

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