Core training videos… core training classes… and thousands of core training exercises floating around the internet. What we need today are not more core exercises, but a filter for core exercises.
Functional core training is a filter for training the core. Because not all core exercises are created equal. And not all abdominal exercises are considered functional. In fact, I’d argue there are functional core exercises and dysfunctional core exercises.
And one reason that people find themselves doing dysfunctional exercises is because they are using the wrong filter when picking core exercises.
3 Mistakes of Picking Core Exercises
People gravitate towards core exercises for the following three reasons. They pick them based on F.A.Ds.
Feeling The first mistake is judging an exercise based on how it feels. If people feel the burn in their abs they assume it’s a good core exercise.
For example, take the superman exercise. When you do this you may feel a burn in your lower back but you’re also putting your spine under tremendous compressive loads. In fact, this puts 1,300 pounds of compression on the spine.
The notorious superman exercise
On the flip side, if someone can’t feel it in their abs or midsection, they assume that it’s not working. However, there are core exercises that don’t make you feel the burn of 1,000 crunches yet are building your core in a much bigger way. Even if you feel those muscles working, it may not be productive. Feeling doesn’t equal function.
It's hard to determine if an exercise is functional by appearance alone.
Appearance Many people will pick a core exercise because it looks functional. For instance, some people will see a core exercise that looks like a golf swing and assume that it’s going to help them hit the ball further. But this is not always the case. Sometimes a dysfunctional exercise looks functional. And sometimes a functional exercise doesn’t look functional. In fact, sometimes it looks wimpy – yet it packs a punch. So don’t judge an exercise by its cover.
Difficulty Last but not least is the mistake of picking a core exercise because of how hard it is. Holding a plank for 8 hours and 15 minutes like former marine George Hood did is unbelievably difficult. But that doesn’t make holding it for that long is functional. While it’s good to push the edge of your ability, harder is not necessarily better.
So how can you tell if a core exercise is functional?
The 3 S’s of Functional Core Training
When looking back at the best core exercises, the ones that have the most research behind them and the ones that have done the most good for myself and my clients boil down to the following three criteria. Use this as a filter to evaluate any core exercise. If it doesn’t meet all three, question how functional it really is.
Synergy The first criteria is the synergy of core muscles.
Meaning: multiple core muscles working together. Think of your core as a fortress and the abdominals are one part of the “outer wall”. But the “inner walls” of core muscles are just as important for a strong core. The problem is many core exercises isolate certain core muscles – especially the abdominals. But in reality, we want core exercises that strengthen many of the core muscles all at once including:
TVA (transverse abdominis)
And many others. Once again, these core muscles are meant to work together. So we want core exercises that strengthen these muscles together. Not in isolation. And when they work together they provide us with…
Think about hitting a baseball… throwing a punch… or hitting a golf ball. How far you launch that ball into the outfield is determined by how well you can transfer force through your core. Your core transfers force. It does not produce force. In other words, it creates stability at the torso.
Take an activity like shoveling the driveway (with proper form) and the same principle applies. The better your core does at transferring force, the easier heaving piles of snow will be. This is another demonstration that the core’s function is stability at the spine. Core exercises should do the same. They should create stability at the torso, not movement. And when you create this stability it also helps protect your lower back. A stable lower back is a healthy lower back.
According to world-renowned physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann in her book Movement Impairment Syndromes:
“During most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk…A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5- S1 level. "
Spine-sparing is a term from low back expert Stuart McGill. As the name implies, it means it should not harm the spine. Certain movements are extremely harmful for the lower back. In fact, it doesn’t matter how strong your lower back is. If you move in certain ways, it becomes vulnerable to disc injuries and other low back injuries. Some of these movements include:
Rounding the lower back: When you round the back it creates the compression on the discs in the back. This is a recipe for disaster when you pick something up with this rounded over position. And that’s why so many people have slipped discs or thrown their back out when bending over picking up things like a newspaper.
Rotating the lower back: Think about getting in and out of your car. Or twisting in your chair. For many people, these are examples of rotating from their lower back. The lumbar spine is not meant for much rotation (experts estimate it’s meant for only 13 degrees of rotation). Instead, you want to rotate from your chest.
Whether it’s rounding over excessively or rotating at the lower back, when you continually move from the lumbar spine it creates more mobility in that area. Like we mentioned a moment ago, this part of the body is meant for stability. Not mobility. We want to use core exercises that avoid these two motions and spare the spine.
Now let’s take a few examples and put them to the test.
Applying The 3 S’s of Functional Core Training:
Does it have synergy of core muscles? Sit-ups tend to target the abdominals primarily. It does not pass.
Does it promote stability at the lower back?
Here it misses the mark. It does not promote stability. In fact, it promotes mobility at the lower back, because you’re constantly hinging from the lower back. When you do this you are make this stable part of the spine more mobile.
Does it spare the spine? And that brings us to sparing and this is where sit-ups do not pass the test. That’s because to do the exercise you have to round the lower back.
Does it have synergy of core muscles? Planks target the abdominals, external obliques, internal obliques, and many others. So it certainly passes.
Does it promote stability at the lower back? Look at this exercise. You are holding your body in a static position. The lower back is not moving. This definitely promotes stability at the lower back.
Does it spare the spine? Since there is no movement in the lower back, this does spare the spine. The exception to this would be if someone was arching their lower back (which is something to watch out for during this exercise).
Does it have synergy of core muscles? Yes, bird dogs target the erector spinae (lower back muscles), internal obliques and glutes amongst others.
Does it promote stability at the lower back? This might be trickier to judge. When this exercise is done correctly it does create stability at the spine. Unfortunately, you’ll see many people kicking their leg too high and moving from the spine which would be counterproductive.
Does it spare the spine? Once again, as long as the form is correct this exercise does spare the spine. If the spine is rounding too much or arching too much then this is a different story.
Let's Do A Review
We covered the 3 mistakes of picking core exercises. This is how most people pick their core exercises.
Feeling: judging an exercise based on how it feels. Feeling it in certain muscle groups does not always mean it’s productive. Appearance: judging an exercise by how it looks. Functional exercises don’t always look functional. Difficulty: assuming a difficult core exercise is a superior core exercise.
The 3 S’s of Functional Core Training This is a filter for picking core exercises. Make sure that exercises meet the following three criteria:
Synergy: core exercises that work multiple core muscles at once, instead of isolating certain core muscles. Remember, the core is much more than just the abdominals. Stability: core exercises that create stability at the lower back, not movement. Sparing: core exercises should be spine sparing. Meaning: they should avoid harmful ranges of motion such as rounding the lower back or twisting at the lower back.
This is a thousand foot view of core training that it gives you a simple way to filter the core exercises in your workout.Are there better ways of filtering core exercises? Probably.
But this will allow you to sort through most of the bad ones and arrive at ones that typically will serve you well.