What is the Best Way to Improve Core Strength? by Matthew Romans
Posted March 31, 2020 by Matthew Romans
A very popular concept that has been bandied about in the mainstream fitness world over the past couple of decades is that of the importance of core strength. What exactly is your core, and why is strengthening it considered so important? According to the Mayo Clinic, the core muscles include, "...Your abdominal muscles, back muscles, and the muscles around the pelvis." Although the Mayo Clinic mentions the muscles of the back and those that surround the pelvis, my experience is that most people associate "core" solely with the abdominal muscles. How important is it to strengthen these muscles, and should we make them a higher priority than other muscles of the body? What is the best way to strengthen these muscles? These are questions that we often answer during initial consultations at Total Results.
The muscles surrounding the spinal column can perform four movements: flexion (bending forward at the waist), extension (leaning backward), lateral flexion (bending to the side), and rotation (as in turning to check your blind spot when driving a car). All of these actions are things that we do in everyday life. There are many muscles, both superficial and deep, that work in concert to perform these functions. Trunk flexion is performed by the Rectus Abdominus muscles, which are superficial and most visible to the surface. Trunk extension is performed by several groups of muscles. The most superficial group is called the Erector Spinae (sacrospinalis), which is made up of the Iliocostalis, Longissimus, and Spinalis. If we go a little deeper, we find the Transversospinalis group of muscles, which include the Semispinalis, Rotatores, Multifidus muscles (the Multifidus runs nearly the entire length of the spinal column). Also contributing to the performance of trunk extension are the Interspinalis, as well as the Internal and External Intercostal muscles. Lateral trunk flexion is performed primarily by the Internal and External Obliques, Quadratus Lumborum, and Erector Spinae, with some assistance by the Rectus Abdominus, Semispinalis, and Iliopsoas. Finally, trunk rotation is performed by the Internal and External Obliques, Multifidus, and Rectus Abdominus muscles.
Now that we have a better understanding of which muscles perform which functions, we should ask if certain muscles are more important to strengthen than others. Your body is not just a collection of different muscles and body parts; rather, it functions as a unit. You are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and muscular imbalances can lead to an increased risk for injury, whether you are a professional athlete, weekend warrior, or just a regular person trying to function every day. While most people place a higher level of importance on the abdominal muscles (partly because they are more visible in a mirror, and many of us romanticize the idea of the so-called "six pack"), lower back pain is still the leading cause of missed days from work. Most of us have seen in fitness and bodybuilding magazines exercises that will target the abdominal muscles, but there are very few exercises that can adequately address the spinal erector muscles, and even fewer properly designed exercise machines that can safely build strength in that area. Unlike many, I am not a believer in the concept that you strengthen your lower back by performing abdominal exercises. In my opinion, the best way to reduce lower back pain and improve function is to directly address the spinal erectors.
What is the best way to improve core strength? In my experience, it is important to perform an overall balanced exercise routine, with an equal emphasis on the upper and lower body musculature and equal amount of pushing and pulling movements. Your abdominal muscles are certainly important (ask any woman that has had a Caesarian section), but they are involved in every exercise that is performed in a Total Results workout, as you can tell by performing the torso slump on exercises like the Pulldown, Chest Press, and Overhead Press. We do perform direct exercise for the abdominals, such as the Floor Crunch and Linear Spine Flexion, but performing a lot of specific exercises for this muscle group is neither necessary nor optimal. In order to address the trunk extensor muscles, especially the deep muscles, we use the MedX Lumbar Extension (low back) machine. By immobilizing the pelvis, using knee restraints, and properly positioning the legs, we can effectively target the spinal erectors while minimizing the involvement of the hip and leg muscles. This translates into a more effective exercise stimulus for these difficult to address muscles. I have seen no other machine that accomplishes this as effectively as our machines do.
Increasing strength in the core muscles of the trunk will lead to greater stability, as well as an increased resistance to injury. In addition to working to strengthen these muscles, it's important to be conscious of and try to practice good posture and avoid sitting too long at one time. If you are an athlete or weekend warrior, it's important to practice the skills specific to the nature of your sport or activity; this will also enhance stability. Regular Total Results exercise performed on properly-engineered equipment will keep you strong, fit, stable, and resistant to injury. We look forward to working with you!