You’ve probably got a vague idea that core strength is something to aspire to: there are entire books, classes and even gyms devoted to it. But let’s assume that you don’t particularly want a six-pack and you don’t flop around like one of those wacky flailing inflatable tube men when you walk – do you really need any more core strength than you already have? How strong is strong enough for a core? And, now that we’re actually digging into it, what is your core, anyway?
Well, last things first: your core, in fitness terms, is the collection of muscles around your midriff, including not just your rectus abdominis, but also your erector spinae, obliques (the muscles around your sides) and lower lats (on your back). Together, they form a sort of muscular corset that keeps you strong and stable during any athletic movement, from a gentle walk to a judo throw. And that, really, is the key: having a stronger core makes you better and more injury-proof during almost any activity, whether it’s lifting up the sofa for a quick hoover or Olympic lifting your own bodyweight overhead.
Understanding all the above also helps you to understand how to train your core better. There aren’t many times in life, after all, when you’ll be expected to flex your abs dozens of times (which is basically what happens during a sit-up), but there are plenty of occasions when you’ll need to use it to rotate (like swinging a sledgehammer), brace (what you’ll do when you lift something heavy) or resist movement (helpful for any contact sport). That means your core workout ought to give you all three of the following:
1. Isometric strength
This is the simplest one of the three to train, and if you ever do a plank, you’re doing it already.
Pack more training into less time with what’s known as the ‘hard-style’ plank: get into a press-up position with your elbows on the floor directly underneath your shoulders and your fists clenched, keeping your body completely straight (the clue’s in the name).
From there, brace all your muscles, including your glutes, hamstrings and lats, and tense your abs as if someone’s about to punch you in the stomach – if you’ve got a flatmate/partner, this is a good moment for them to try to push you over. Do that for ten seconds, relax your muscles for ten seconds while keeping the position, then repeat…for up to a minute.
This also works with side planks, which work exactly like they sound – you’ll lean on one elbow, ‘stack’ your feet on top of one another, and otherwise keep your body straight.
2. Rotational strength
This is what you’ll use if you ever end up chopping wood or swinging a golf club, but it’s also handy for throwing balls, punches or (if you need to) people.
The easiest way to train it is with loaded throws: grab a medicine ball or other heavy, robust object, then throw it as far/hard as you can, twisting your body like you’re throwing a punch to give it more oomph.
If you haven’t got the space but do have access to a barbell, an alternative is the ‘landmine’ press: stick one end of the bar in a corner, load up the other end, then hold it near the top as you perform a punching motion. You should feel like you’re loading and then unloading your spine with each movement.
3. Anti-rotational movement
This sounds confusing, but isn’t: it’s about being able to resist being pulled out of position, so that’s the way to train it.
The easiest way to do it at home is to use the Pallof press. Tie one end of a resistance band to something stable, then hold the other end in both hands and stand side-on from the anchor point so there’s tension in the band. Brace your abs just like you would for a plank, then press your hands out and pull them back in, resisting the pull of the band – you should feel this in your obliques more than your arms. Do 30 seconds on each side, 3-5 times.
Everyone needs some core strength in their life, whether it’s there to help you stand up to a charging fullback or to stop you pulling a muscle when you pick up the shopping. There’s nothing wrong with doing a handful of sit-ups occasionally, but adding some of the movements above to your repertoire, and doing them once or twice a week, will improve your athletic performance no matter what you’re doing.