These days core strength seems to be up there with weight loss and heart health as regards what the general public want out of fitness. The fitness industry and a number of companies and corporations have being quick to capitalise on this, ergo countless devices and systems have been (and still are) released designed to promote core strength.
However, when certain facts are taken into consideration, many of these devices and systems fail. Some contradict themselves and yet the public still pays money for them, so desperate are they to improve their important core that they buy into the hype and are thus blinded by even the most illogical and ridiculous advertisements out there.
If your exercise program is good, and the exercises are done correctly, you don’t need extra work for the core. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that core strength and stability are unimportant. What I do believe, however, is that the devices and systems used to train the core are not the best way of doing so. Swiss balls, pilates, various ab exercises all have their uses in general fitness or the GPP stage of an athelete’s training program, but let’s take a look at some things.
Firstly, the core is supposed to be strong so it can act as a unit with the rest of the body. Unfortunately too many people train their core in isolation. Why? This just does not make sense to me. If you wanted to get good at Osotogari, would you leave your hands by your sides and perform the leg action, then next practise take a grip and do the proper arm action without moving the legs, but never using both arms and legs? Of course you wouldn’t. So why do so with the core? Train it with the rest of the body.
Secondly, many people like to train the core on an unstable surface. There are some who think that ANY exercise on a swiss ball will work wonders for their core. There are athletes who do hammer curls on them, even though they know hammer curls are for the bodybuilder, not the athlete. I’ve heard people claim that the crunch and bench press are “unfunctional” because you push things (or do a lot of things) in a supine position. So why is it good to do those on a swiss ball? It may be wobbly but you are still in a supine position. Balance and stability produced on an unstable surface does not translate to balance and stability on a stable surface and vice versa. In judo (and just about everything we do) we are on a stable surface, so we should train on a stable surface.
Before you start getting angry because I have downplayed the usefulness of swiss balls, wobble boards, Pilates, etc., think how much these things cost, then think how much money you could save if you could work the things you could apparantly work with these, but more effectively and without having to purchase any extra equipment.
So, what kind of exercises are there to strengthen the core that DO work. Well, there are many. I’ll name a few and how to do them to get the most out of your core.
Yes, the basic pushup. Such a simple exercise yet I’ve seen so few who can actually do one. There’s the head bobber, who is paralysed below the neck, Mr(s) “Does my bum look big in this position”. Yes, try not lifting it so high! My favourite, however, is the person who is in love with the ground. Upper body stays still, but the crotch just can’t hit the ground enough times! To do a pushup is simple. Get in a prone postion with the palms of your hands on the floor. Dig the ends of your fingers into the ground (or do fingertip pushupos if you’re strong enough), get on your toes and push yourself up. When you do so make sure your body is in good posture (it’s just like standing posture but you are lying face down). Tense any muscles you can in the legs as well as the glutes and brace your abs. They should move out. Don’t suck them in. When you lower yourself breathe in. During the concentric phase of the movement hold your breath for 3/4 of the movement, then forcefully breathe out during the last quarter. Also, make sure your arms go parrallel to your sides when they bend, rather than out to the sides, ergo making a “t” shape. That is how to do a pushup that will work the pecs, triceps, shoulders, forearms, legs and core! The tending of the lower body and the abdominal bracing and breathing can also be done in this way during the bench press.
The handstand pushup
Learn to do it leaning against a wall, thentry it between 2 chairs to allow a fuller range of motion. It’s fairly self explanatory on how to do one of these. Balance and strength are the key. As with the pushups, use the ab bracing and breath holding techniques. Use the wall to maintain balance, but if possible lift your feet off it at least during the concentric phase of the movement. Put them back if you feel yourself coming too far away from the wall. the amount of balance and stability required in this exercise really works the core. The military press is a good alternative for those who prefer weight lifting to bodyweight exercises.
There is already an article in this section on how to do the squat. I’m not writing another one. Again, correct breathing, ab bracing, and correct posture are essential. If using heavy loads (say, 90%+ of your 1RM) wear a tight lifting belt. The abs pushing against the belt will increase inter-abdominal pressure and increase the work done by the core, which will in turn help to protect the back. For people who enjoy bodyweight exercises, try the one-legged squat. All the way ass to grass if you can. For weight lifters, the best squat for developing core strength is the overhead squat.
This would require an article unto itself in order to describe how to do it and it’s variations. This is an excellent exercise and works the posterior chain very well. This chain includes the erector spinae, which is part of the core so anybody wishing to improve core strength should definately learn to perform this exercise.
My favourite exercises. These will improve strength, stability, flexibility, balance, speed, power and coordination tremendously. Each of these will require an article of their own to even cover the basics, but I will tell you now that the snatch, clean, push press and split jerk are without a doubt the very best method of “functional” core training out there. You are having to balance whilst moving at high speed with a heavy load into positions that are hard to balance in for a lot of people even without weight. Remember, breathe, belt and abs.
There are other exercises for the core but these are among the best. In fact, if you do these plus whatever martial art or combat sport you do, you won’t need any additional work on the core. These will give you all you need. Also, they teach you how to be strong and stable on a stable surface and the core works as a link of the chain that is the human body, just as it is supposed to work. These exercies and the equipment needed for them is cheaper than a month of Pilates lessons or a swiss ball (unless you steal one).
If someone asked me what a human being ought to devote the maximum of his time to, I would answer, “Training.” Train more than you sleep. Masutatsu Oyama