One of the big things these days is core strengthening. For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind is doing sit-ups, or crunches. This exercise targets the abdominal muscles that can produce the oft-times desired “6 pack” of rippled muscle in our midsection.
But there is much more to our core than just the abdominal muscles, and there is much more to core strengthening than bending forward endlessly while laying down in order to get a strong midsection.
Let’s back up a minute. The reason core strength is so important is basically because a strong core protects your spine. In addition, a strong core makes for strong movements in the your arms and legs because they are working from a stable, protected base. To be clear, “core” really refers to your torso, from top to bottom, front to back.
As many of us can attest, if your spine gets out of whack anywhere along the length of it the result can be very painful and debilitating. On top of that, often there is not a quick fix for this. So, it behooves us to do our best to take care of it.
As it turns out, some types of sit-ups can actually harm your spine, mostly in the low back area. A full sit-up, where you end up pretty much sitting upright, puts a lot of compressive forces on your lumbar vertebrae, which can lead to bad things. In addition to that, many times people unwittingly pull on their necks on the way up, rather than concentrating on using abdominal muscles to complete the exercise.
Even the smaller version of this exercise can produce some of the same problems. The smaller version is the basic crunch, where you may be flexing forward 30-45 degrees instead of going all the way up.
There’s another thing about doing abdominal exercises exclusively. Recall that the definition of “core” is your torso, top to bottom, front to back. Recall also that a STABLE core makes for better movement in the arms and legs. That includes hips and shoulders.
So, guess what? In order to do a good job of protecting your spine and getting better movement, you need to:
- Train for STABILITY in your core.
- Train all of it—front to back, side to side.
- Throw in some training for stability WHILE YOU ARE MOVING.
- Don’t neglect training the sides of your torso for stability. In our lives and in sports, side bending takes place more often than we realize.
Sound like too much? Here are two exercises that can hit all 4 areas. The first one is what you may see in many programs and can be done in lots of settings. The second one takes more space, looks a bit weird, but is really effective. One caveat: If you have shoulder pain or difficulties, you should skip these exercises.
The Side Plank
Lay on one side, propped up on that side elbow, with the top portion of your arm vertical and going directly down from your shoulder. You can either bend your knees (easier) or extend your legs. Keep your body in a straight line. Lift your hips off the ground and directly up to the ceiling. Hold for 3 seconds or so, and come slowly back down. Repeat 10 times. Do the other side.
One Arm Dumbbell Press
Take a dumbbell of medium weight for your capabilities (or kettlebell, if you are familiar with these) in one hand. Standing up as straight as possible (think of extending your spine), extend the weight up to the ceiling as far as you can and keep your arm as close to your head as possible. Now, WALK! Walk around your house, around the gym, or around the block (if you don’t mind having people wondering what you are doing). Keep your excellent form the whole time. It is hard! Do the same distance with the other arm up.
So there you have it. There are plenty more ways to do this, but these two are efficient and effective.
Should you still do sit-ups or crunches? Full sit-ups are not recommended, for reasons stated above. The smaller version, where you flex forward 30-45 degrees, is OK, but remember that this is just a part of the picture.
Your abdominal muscles are predominantly there to help you maintain posture. Training them by doing abdominal crunches correctly will get them stronger, but training for stability as in the two examples will be more helpful for you and your body as it moves through your days.
How do you like to train your abdominal muscles? Please leave a comment below.
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