I’m not surprised that most people hear the words “core strength” and immediately visualize superhero-like rippling abs. But a strong core is about more than what you look like with your shirt off; it’s about what you can do and how you function both as an athlete and a human being.
The best explanation of the core I’ve ever heard compares it to an apple. Like an apple, the core goes from top to bottom and encompasses everything in the centre. To my mind, ‘everything in the centre’ translates to every part of our body that helps stabilize our spine and pelvis.
Major muscles in this group include:
• the pelvic floor muscles (helps us avoid urinary/bowel related accidents)
• the rectus abdominus (those six-pack abs)
• transverse abdominus (the body’s ‘weight belt’)
• internal/external obliques (side abs)
• multifidus (stabilizes the spine)
• diaphragm (helps us breathe)
• erector spinae (keeps the spine upright and able to rotate)
This is just a collection of the major muscle groups, but your glutes, lats, etc. all play an important role in overall core strength and stability too.
So, now that you understand the 3-D reality of your core, the next question is, how do you strengthen it? It starts with CrossFit. Almost every thing we ask you to do in class, if done correctly, will work a lot of the core muscles. Large multi-joint movements, especially those with loading not only require midline stability but they challenge it, too.
But WODs aside, there are things you can do to bulletproof your core. Here are my top four favourite ways to work your core:
Learn to breathe
Breathing seems so simple, right? Like the last thing you need to think about. But that may be the issue, because unless you have spent considerable time working on your breath through yoga, meditation, or mindfulness activities it’s likely that you breathe incorrectly, and by incorrectly I mean, shallowly. This tendency to limit our breathing to our chest rather than draw deep into our bellies and expand our lungs often gets worse during a workout when you’re breathing is challenged. Learning to breathe using your diaphragm (a.k.a. belly breathing) is a huge step in developing core strength. That’s because the diaphragm creates intra-abdominal pressure that supports the spine.
To get started in retraining your breath, try laying down on a mat or blanket. Take five slow breaths in which you focus on the movement of your belly expanding as you breathe in and contracting as you breathe out. Try and extend your inhales and exhales to six seconds each (one complete breath is 12 seconds). Once you’ve lengthened your breath, try and increase the time. When you’re comfortable around 20 seconds per breath, start applying this method to basic unloaded holds (stretching, squatting, planks etc.)
Do dead bugs
Healthy movement can be summed up as midline stability plus distal mobility (i.e., reaching out from centre), or the ability to create power and movement from a strongly positioned middle and translate that power to the limbs to create explosive/continual movement. The dead bug is an excellent movement for developing this power.
Start by laying on your back, your legs bent at 90 degrees (knees in line with your hips). Your arms are straight up, with your hands directly above your shoulders. Brace through the middle (squeeze abs and obliques) and draw your ribs down into your pelvis. Press your lower back into the mat. Make fists with your hands and squeeze your arms and legs. Keeping this tension in your body, extend the right arm straight behind you as you extend your left leg straight in front of you. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side. If you are shaking before you start your first rep you are doing it right. Try three to 5 reps per side. (Here’s a video, if you’re having trouble visualizing.)
Try Pallof Presses
Our core muscles are primarily designed to help our bottom half resist changes in shape. While we mostly work with flexion and extension, helping our body resist rotation of the spine is just as important. Pallof presses are a great movement for developing this.
Stand (or kneel) beside a pole with a band tied to the pole at around shoulder height. Grab the band with both hands and make sure that with your arms fully extended in front of you, your hands are in line with the pole. Brace through your hips, shoulders and midsection to resist the band pulling you towards the pole. Pull your hands into the middle of your chest slowly and then extend your arms back out. Repeat 20 times per side. Here’s a video to help you further understand the movement.
Work Your Weighted carries
You can do these in so many different ways. You can farmer’s carry (with one or two weights), front rack carry, back rack carry, waiter’s walk, bearhug, piggyback — you can even apply this thinking to carrying your groceries. The more variety you incorporate into your routine the better. The most important thing to consider when performing any kind of carry is your spinal position. By maintaining good posture in whatever version you choose, your core will work hard to resist the load pulling or pushing.
Duncan McNeill is a coach and co-owner of Alchemy CrossFit.