Whether your goal is to have flat abs, gain strength or be pain free, almost every exercise program contains a core component.
With all the different muscle names, exercises and definitions of core, it can be hard to tell if you are doing it right and what program is right for you.
The good news is that you don’t need to be an anatomy expert to master core moves. If you apply a few basic concepts to most core exercises, you’ll be on your way to a stronger, more stable, flatter midsection.
1. Ask yourself what is moving and what is stable.
In most strength exercises, we draw our attention to what we're moving. However, our deep core muscles are tonic muscles and have to be trained differently. Unlike large muscles like the quads and glutes, deep core muscles don’t move us. Rather they stabilize and prevent excessive motion in the joints of the spine.
To get more out of core work and keep the strain out of your back, you want to move from a place of stability. To do this, draw your attention to what is still, instead of what is moving. For example, you can focus on holding the space between your ribs and hips still while performing toe taps on your back or doing single leg lifts in a plank.
2. Mind your upper body placement.
Being mindful of your upper body positioning will help you perfect your core moves. As we fatigue in our midsection, our bodies can compensate in the upper body to try to maintain the position. Common compensations include shrugging the shoulders, letting the head fall forward of the spine or sinking in the mid back, so the shoulder blades squeeze together.
If you keep the shoulders broad across the back and the head in line with the rest of your spine, you will get more out of your ab exercises. With your upper body aligned, you can focus on using your core instead of your shoulder or neck muscles to perform the movement.
3. Fine-tune your pelvic position.
Our pelvis is our center of gravity. So, correct placement creates a better core connection and more functional movement.
Ideally, we use neutral pelvis as the foundation for core moves. This allows for deep core stabilizers to come online and minimizes spinal compression.
Neutral pelvis is where the ASIS, or the pointy parts at the top of your hipbones and pubic bone, fall in the same vertical line.
In exercises like situps, spine twists and planks, the goal is to remain neutral. Core moves like the Pilates roll-up can favor spinal articulation, but even these moves start in a neutral position before moving through flexion.
To find a neutral pelvis position, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Gently imprint the low back into the ground, so the low back curve decreases and the pubic bone moves above the hipbones.
Next, drop your tailbone the opposite way, so your low back space returns. The movement is small and you shouldn’t feel any low back strain.
Alternate between these two positions until you find the spot where your pubic bone and hips line up and you have a small low back curve. This is neutral.
Putting it all together
You can apply these concepts to your core program once you have a sense of neutral pelvis and are aware of your upper body position.
Notice if you're able to perform a situp or an oblique twist while maintaining a neutral pelvis.
You know you’ve lost your position if, as you curl forward, your low back pushes into the mat or your neck tenses up. You know you’ve nailed it when your hips and shoulder blades remain still and you feel your abs flatten in and down.
If you’re partial to planks, see if you can lift an arm or a leg without changing your upper back or hip position. You’ve found your core if you feel a little tremble or burn deep in your midsection.
Modifications: When starting out, it can be difficult to maintain a neutral pelvis. You may catch your low back arching off the ground or feel tension in your low back. You can modify by making your range of motion smaller or by gently imprinting the low back into the ground. This will allow for larger muscles like the internal obliques to assist deep core muscles in maintaining pelvic position.