Every Sunday I FaceTime with my parents, and as they fill me in on their week of working out and the weather in Western PA, I ask if they’ve tried the new exercises I sent them using links to You Tube videos.
Dad: What's youtube?
Me: You can also find the link on my blog.
Dad: What's a blog?
Aside from encouraging my parents to do more core training, I also get this request from many clients looking to lose belly fat. And it's a fair assumption that doing more exercises that target that area, or feel like they target that area, is the solution.
Core exercises aren't going to slim down the waistline though. That comes down to nutrition and reducing your stress. But core training is important for many other reasons, not the least of which is helping to protect your spine as well as improving your overall balance and stability. Yesterday a client mentioned to me that her goal for the summer is to get out of her kayak without help.
The solution? More core training.
But training the core isn't the same as training the abs.
When many of us think of core training, we think of training the ab muscles (the transverse abdominus, the rectus abdominus, the internal obliques and external obliques) which are the muscles that make up that traditional six pack. While it's important and feels good to strengthen those muscles, it's also important to train your obliques (the muscles on your side) and your erector spinae, which is a group of muscles in your back. When you strengthen all of these muscles in a 360 approach, it contributes to better balance (catching yourself when you slip on the ice), better squats, and most importantly, when these muscles are stronger your body doesn't have to rely solely on your bones for support.
Thanks to the research of Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, we now understand that too many crunches and sit ups, or too much flexion of the spine, can cause damage to the spine. Rather than doing the traditional sit ups, crunches and side bends ("you can do side bends and sit ups, but please don't lose that butt..") - training the muscles that protect the spine for endurance is what could really make a difference in overall back and spine health.
Do this test right now. Get down on the floor, and using your forearms instead of your hands, press yourself into a front plank position. Like so:
Can you hold that position above for at least 30 seconds? If so, that's great. Continue working on it. If not, then that's a good sign to include more front planks into your workout routine. For more information on how to perform the front plank, check out the video below which I recorded when my arm was supposed to still be in a sling, so don't mind the fact that it's just sort of hanging there.
Equally important to the front plank, is the side plank or side bridge.
The back muscles used in the side plank, the erector spinae, multifidus and longissiums thoracic are used to stabilize your spine, which in turn prevent it from bending to the side. To perform a side plank, make sure your elbow is properly stacked directly underneath your shoulder (not up by your head) and using your knees, press your hips up from the floor. Squeeze your butt cheeks and work on maintaining a straight spine.
If this position above doesn't feel challenging enough perform the same movement, but raise both your knees and your hips off of the floor as well.
An additional modification if the short side plank (from your knees) is too easy, but the full side plank is a little too challenging, is to use your top arm for support:
Do your planks and side planks.
In the case of both exercises, perform them for breaths as opposed to time, which I explain more in the plank video above.
And enjoy your St. Patty's Day weekend.