The best Core Exercise

By Stuart Dicke – Lyno Body Engineer

To be honest, if you need to be spending hours doing ab-specific exercises, something in your training program is wrong. It’s likely you’re either spending too much time on machines, or – if you’re doing lots of ‘lifting’ squats, dead-lifts and the like but still need lots of ab exercises – your technique is off. I’m referring specifically to the uninjured here, as I advocate “core” training only for those who are either very unconditioned or dealing with specific injuries.

I work on the premise that your body doesn’t remember isolated muscles contractions; it remembers movement patterns. Think of these movement patterns as a recipe for a particular movement. The more times you practice the movement, the more proficient you become at it, the more subconscious it becomes and the less concentration you need (in other words your body forms certain habits and the more you do something, the more ingrained those habits become). Think of it like this: if you drive the same route home every day and then – one day – you know you need to stop for shopping, if you aren’t thinking consciously you’ll probably find yourself back at home before you realize you’ve forgotten to stop.

This brings me to the point of this article, which is that every exercise you perform should involve your core.

To quote strength and conditioning coach, Charles Poliquin, who has now trained and designed workouts for Olympic medallists in seventeen different sports and world record holders in ten different sports,“Despite hundreds of heavily marketed exercise toys that claim to develop the abdominals, the fact is an athlete can develop tremendous abdominals without ever performing a sit-up, crunch or anything involving fancy circus balls or other gimmicks. Core training, to use the popular buzzword, doesn’t have to be complex training. As evidenced by the muscular midsections of powerlifters and weightlifters, simply performing total-body lifts such as squats, power cleans and dead-lifts can develop impressive abdominals. Peer-reviewed research supports this real-world evidence.”

With almost every athlete (and even, weekend warrior) I meet, I see an obsession with “core” training and so I often find myself asking clients what they understand core training to be. I get pretty much the same answer every time – plank/bridging, side plank, crunches and all sorts of funky things done on a swiss-ball. But how much training of the core is actually being done during these exercises?

Firstly – as with any training program– you need to look at what you’re trying to achieve, physically. If you’re a bodybuilder and you’re seeking pure aesthetics, these exercises may work for you, although I’d have to say that there would be better ways of achieving the same results. After all, the better your core is integrated into your movements, the heavier you can lift.

If you’re an athlete and are looking for better overall performance, you have to ask yourself why – if you’re performing dynamic movements in your chosen sport – are you training your core with static exercises? At what point in your chosen sport (or during your day, for that matter) would you hold your body in a dead straight line – head to toe– and fire up your core with none of your limbs performing any movement (plank/bridge)? Even more bizarre is holding this pose for a long period.

It’s important to train like for like, and to create training programs that mimic the movements you perform in your sport. For example, if you’re a runner every time you take a step you’re doing a partial lunge (as you toe off), a partial torso twist, and then a partial one-legged squat (as you land). How are planks involved anywhere in any of those movement patterns and how would you integrate the strength gained from a plank into those movement patterns? The answer is that unless you were training the movements with your core fully integrated into them, you wouldn’t be able to achieve this.

You need to perform all exercises with a focus on core. Train the movement, not the muscle – in this way you’re educating your nervous system about how to perform better. I’m aware that people talk about “muscle memory”, but it isn’t your muscles remembering the movement; it’s your brain (nervous system). So, this is what needs the most training and is why very coordinated activities, like dance, require so much repetitive practicing.

A bodybuilder I work with from time to time does minimal isolated ab training, yet he won his weight division at nationals recently. He proves my point!

So, next time you feel you’re lacking in the ab department take the time to learn proper technique with your staple multi-joint exercises such as lunges, squats and any of the lifting exercises. You’d be amazed how this will have more carry-over into your sports than ordinary ab exercises will. If you don’t know where to start with all of this, book a session and I can start you in the right direction.