The term “core stabilization” is thrown around with reckless abandon within the contemporary fitness landscape with little regard for what it truly is and why it is important. When I say core stabilization, or core strength, what do you automatically think of? Abdominals, the tummy, the 6-pack, right? Wrong! Abdominal strength is merely one component of a strong core, in fact no less than 10 muscles are responsible for stabilizing our core.
Before we can talk about how to improve core stabilization and why it’s important, we have to know what it is. Technically speaking, core stabilization is synonymous with torso (your entire trunk) and pelvic girdle (your hips). Anatomically and biomechanically speaking, it is the ability of the musculature of the torso and pelvic girdle regions to co-contract (contract at the same time) in an isometric (contracting without shortening or lengthening to stabilize) fashion to stabilize both the spinal cord and the scapula (the shoulder blade). I apologize for the verbose definition, but it is important you understand what is meant by core strength. There are a lot of anecdotal, gym-lore-type, accounts of what core strength is, but most of those accounts are flat out wrong.
In laymen’s terms, core strength is the ability of the muscles that are on the front and backside of the trunk and hips to contract in a stabilizing fashion to maintain a rigid, tight and relatively immobile spine (and therefore torso), shoulder blades, and hips when performing the dynamic activities of life (whether in the gym, cleaning the house, or otherwise). This inherent ability of the collective core stabilizers is critical to prevention of chronic lower back and shoulder pain, as well as prevention of acute injuries to the spine and extremities. Furthermore, absolutely every movement you do in the gym – whether it is resistance or aerobic training – is predicated on having strong core musculature. The capability of these muscles to perform their stabilization function is what facilitates safe and effective movement. Conversely, if these muscles cannot perform this function, movements become unsafe and ineffective.
You have actually seen poor core stabilization without even realizing it; in fact, you may have even experienced it yourself. Think about the person on the Elliptical Trainer who can’t seem to stand up straight (they’re all hunched over) – that’s a core strength deficit. Or, imagine the person who takes the bench press bar off the rack but can’t seem to keep it still above his or her chest, again a weak core. How about that person who complains of lower back or shoulder pain all the time? You guessed it – weak core musculature. Almost without exception, the technical biomechanical breakdown of any movement or exercise for novice (and sometimes even advanced) trainees occurs because the stabilization strength of their core muscles is not proportional to the strength of the big strong muscles of the torso and the limbs. This strength deficit in these muscles is often the limiting factor to optimal adaptation to resistance training programs designed to enhance muscular size, strength, power, or endurance. Why is this the case? Well, either the mechanical aspects of the movements cannot be performed correctly, or the load used must be reduced to such a point (in order to maintain proper technique) that it is no longer adequate to elicit any type of adaptation. Furthermore, core strength deficits typically manifest themselves in the chronic overuse injuries associated with repetitive forms of aerobic activity like swimming, running, walking, biking or playing recreational sports. However, individuals who possess strong and robust stabilization in their core musculature suffer fewer chronic aches and pains associated with increasing frequency and intensity of exercise, report fewer acute injuries, and exhibit a much more rapid training adaptation when compared to individuals with poorer levels of core strength.
To avoid a long anatomical or biomechanical dissertation about what muscles, joints, and body segments I am referring to, let’s just say core strength can be broken down into three regions: upper torso, mid-torso, and lower-torso/hip.
In the upper torso, the key to augmented core stabilization is mobile and flexible pectorals (chest muscles), anterior deltoids (front of the shoulder), and internal rotators (the two muscles that rotate the arm inward), along with strong and well-developed musculature between the shoulder blades (muscles called the mid-traps and rhomboids that are active on a movement like a seated row), strong external rotators (they do the opposite of the internal), and strong posterior deltoids (back of shoulder). Pectoral stretches with the arm extended back behind the body work well to improve mobility through the chest and shoulder regions, and resistance training movements like the seated row (with the elbows up) are very effective at improving the strength of the muscles between the shoulder blades.
In order to have strong core stabilization through the mid-torso, flexibility in the spinal erector muscle group is critical. The spinal erectors are the muscles of the lower back responsible for (as the name suggests) erecting your torso or extending your spine. These muscles can be easily stretched by performing a cat stretch with a rounded back and also by sleeping flat on your back with a pillow underneath your knees (this flattens out the lower back, stretching it). Beyond just having mobile spinal erectors, strong abdominals (the 6-pack muscles) and obliques (the musculature on the sides of the torso) are integral to stabilizing the mid-torso. In fact, it is the rectus abdominus (the ab muscles you can see) and the obliques that co-contract along with the lower back muscles to stabilize the mid-torso and the base of the spine during all movement you do throughout the course of your life (exercising or otherwise). To strengthen the abdominals, perform crunches at a very slow tempo (like 3 seconds going up and 3 seconds going down with at least a 2 second pause at the top), and really concentrate on contracting the lower portion of your abdomen, below the bellybutton. You can contract this region by placing your finger on it before you start crunching and pushing up on your finger by contracting your abdominal muscles. Try about 3-4 sets of as many reps as you can handle; if you are going slow, at the tempo I suggested, you won’t be able to handle very many at all. To strengthen the obliques, perform the same crunch I just explained, except add a slight twist at the top. To strengthen the lower back, lie flat on your stomach on the ground with your arms extended above your head and simultaneously lift both your legs and arms off the ground as high as you can, hold that for one to three seconds, and slowly return to a resting position with your limbs on the ground; after one second, repeat the same motion. Do this 10-15 times per set and perform three to four sets.
The last area that must be addressed in order to maintain a strong core is the pelvic girdle, or hip region. From a flexibility standpoint, the primary concern is stretching the hip flexor muscles. These muscles (that are involved in actions like kicking a soccer ball or a football) on the top portion of the front side of the hip are notoriously tight and immobile in most people because they are chronically in a shortened position during sitting. Stretching these muscles out and loosening them up is a key to a stable core. You can stretch your hip flexors by grabbing your right ankle with your right hand pulling your heel toward your butt. After your hip is as close to your butt as you can get it (you may want to hold onto something with the opposite hand so you don’t fall over), begin to lean your torso slightly forward and pull your heel up toward your head until you feel a stretch in the front of your hip. As far as strengthening the hip region goes, we primarily focus on the gluteal group (the muscles of the butt). Strengthening these muscles can best be accomplished by performing squats and lunges to a depth that permits your hamstring (the backside of your leg) to come to a parallel orientation with the ground at the bottom portion of the movement, followed by a strong and forceful drive upward, focusing on contracting the muscles of the glutes.
Integrate these strengthening and stretching exercises into your routine, and you should notice vast differences in your technical ability to perform resistance training movements in the gym, marked reduction in chronic lower back and shoulder aches and pains, and finally, and most importantly, accelerated training adaptations.