The traditional road to building ‘six-pack’ abs was simple: lose fat and do hundreds of sit-ups and leg raises. This was a practical approach that worked. For decades, it served as the foundation for abdominal development in top fitness models, bodybuilders, and athletes.
These exercises can destroy your back! They cause tremendous loads on the spine that can injure and rupture spinal disks and give you a lifetime of back pain. Also, they isolate only a few ‘look good’ muscles and do a poor job of building functional fitness in core muscles that link the upper and lower body.
Recent studies found that many popular, traditional exercises such as sit-ups damage the spine. As alternatives, spine-saving exercises build the core muscles without causing back pain. They tone muscles without damaging the fragile spinal disks and will give you a lean, rock-hard midsection and functionally strong core muscles that work together flawlessly and maintain a pain-free spine that will last a lifetime.
Core fitness is the key to an athletic, manly physique that will turn heads— and functional whole-body strength and power. The core includes the muscles and connective tissue in the thorax, or central part of the body. Powerful, fit core muscles look lean and project the image of a warrior. They allow you to transfer force from strong lower-body muscles to flexible, elastic upper-body muscles so that you can serve a volleyball, hit a golf ball, or roll a bowling ball with power and accuracy.
Hundreds of exercises build the core. This article will describe four. These simple exercises will build core muscle fitness without damaging the spine. Do them at least five days a week and you will have a lean, functionally fit, studly midsection.
The Core: The Key to a Sexy-Looking, Functionally Fit Body
The 29 core muscles in the torso provide a stable midsection that is vital to all motions and postures. The core muscles stabilize the spine and help transfer force between the lower and upper body. They stabilize the midsection when you sit, stand, reach, walk, jump, twist, squat, throw, or bend. The muscles on the front, back, and sides of the trunk support the spine when you sit in a chair, and fix the midsection as you use your legs to stand up. When hitting a forehand in tennis or batting a softball, most of the force is transferred from the legs, across the core, to the arms. Strong core muscles make movements more forceful and preserve a healthy spine so you don’t get back pain.
The torso region needs stability to transmit forces between the upper and lower body. During any dynamic movement, such as hitting a tennis ball or picking up a bag of groceries, the core produces force in some muscles, reduces force in others, and stabilizes the midsection. When specific core muscles are weak or tired, the nervous system steps in and uses other muscles to produce movement. This causes abnormal stresses on the joints, loads sensitive spinal disks, decreases power, and increases the risk of injury.
The core maintains body control by keeping the body mass over its base of support during dynamic movements. Core support works much like a camping tent. The spine is like the pole holding up the tent and the muscles are like the ropes that stabilize the pole. The tent is most stable when all the ropes are tight and adjusted at the same tension. The tent will fall over in a stiff wind if the ropes are loose or if one rope is tighter than the others. The core muscles lie in layers— some are deep and some are superficial— which increases central body stabilization. The ‘layer effect’ works much like the layers of plywood to increase strength and stability. The entire core is strongest and provides the most support when all of its elements are fit and strong.
Core muscle endurance is more important than strength for stabilizing the spine and thorax. Muscles with good endurance are able to hold the spine in place and serve as a stable platform for large body movements. You lose stability as individual muscles fatigue, which places abnormally high stresses on other muscles.
The core muscles support the spine and promote movement best when they are equally fit and developed. Other muscles must take over if even one of the core muscles is fatigued and not doing its job. For example, weakness in the transverse abdominis— a deep muscle in the abdomen— decreases pressure inside the abdomen when you move, which creates an unstable spine and stresses muscles and joints in the upper and lower body (the knee or shoulder, for example).
An essential principle of core training is to train movements— not muscles. Core training teaches the muscles to work together. Muscles don’t work in isolation. Rather, they help each other: while some shorten to cause movement, others contract and hold to provide stability, lengthen to brake the movement, or send signals to the brain about the movements and positions of the muscles and bones (proprioception). Core muscles work together to support the midsection and provide a platform of support for movements such as jumping, throwing, and changing directions rapidly. The ideal exercise program helps the muscles in the pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen to work in harmony to provide graceful, pain-free movement.
The core helps control the center of gravity, which is the point where your weight is balanced in all directions. Strong, fit core muscles help you balance and move effortlessly and fluidly. Build core-balancing capacity using static postures (e.g., planks, side-bridges) and dynamic exercise (e.g., unsupported weight-training exercises such as kettlebell swings). Dynamic core training prepares your body for unexpected movements that are often implicated in knee and ankle injuries. It also fine-tunes ‘neuromuscular control’ that allows you to turn muscles on and off quickly as needed when playing soccer, running for a bus, or hitting a golf ball.