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Core Exercises: What is the Core and How do You Activate it?

Core Exercises: What is the Core and How do You Activate it?

Matthew Szelog, ATC, CSCS

 

Beyond the traditional sit-ups and crunches, learn about four valuable core strengthening exercises. From the NSCA's Performance Training Journal.

The Core as a Key Component 

The core is a key component in building an athletic base. Many common misconceptions of how to activate the core can lead to wasted time and possible injury. Targeting specific muscle groups effectively can build core endurance, increase strength, and reduce injury. 

A majority of athletes describe core exercises as “doing crunches or sit-ups.” While these exercises do activate muscles in the core, they are not necessarily core exercises. The core can be considered the surrounding muscles that support your spine, provide stability, and help generate power during athletic movements. They consist of not just a specific muscle group, but a multitude of muscles that work together to provide optimal support and function. 

Activating the Core

The primary muscles consist of the rectus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, transverse abdominis, iliocostalis, and multifidus. In order to activate these muscle groups, one must perform a variety of exercises that target the muscles efficiently. Athletes must also be aware that traditional “core” exercises (e.g., crunches) may increase injury risks. Following the exercises below may help reduce those risks.

There are four important exercises that can be integrated into any practice or workout that provide core activation.  

These exercises are:   

  1. The curl-up 
  2. Alternating quadruped 
  3. Lateral bridge 
  4. Plank  

The curl-up (Figure 1) is a modified version of a traditional crunch.  

  

Figure 1. Curl-Up 

Electromyography studies have shown that the rectus abdominis, internal obliques, and external obliques are activated during a curl-up with limited hip flexor activation, which can overcompensate during a traditional crunch (1). Research has also found that the curl-up minimizes spinal loading when compared to a traditional crunch or sit-up (1, 2).  

To begin a curl-up, lie supine with the hands supporting the low back. Bend the knees so that the feet are flat. Concentrate on contracting the abdominal wall and bending the thoracic spine without bringing the neck or chin forward. Leave the elbows on the floor and slowly lift the head and shoulders off the ground a few inches. Slowly return by eccentrically using the core muscles, which studies have shown is a great benefit to core strength (3). 

The alternating quadruped exercise (Figure 2) concentrates more on developing the back extensors while minimizing loads on the spine (1).  

Figure 2. Alternating Quadruped

The alternating quadruped exercise begins in the position of all fours. Begin the exercise by raising one arm straight and simultaneously extending the opposite leg until they are both parallel with the floor. Return to the starting position in a controlled manner and repeat on the opposite side. It is important to concentrate on controlling body position and not let the hips hike, rock anteriorly, or rock posteriorly. It is recommended that a coach be used the first few times to monitor any excess motion and help correct poor technique.   

The lateral bridge (Figure 3) is another important core exercise that targets the internal and external obliques (1). 

 

Figure 3. Lateral Bridge

There is also a component of shoulder stabilization, but in certain athletes, this can cause discomfort. The starting position of the lateral bridge begins with the athlete on their side, forearm and elbow on the ground, and the feet slightly staggered. From this position, pick the hips and legs off the ground, keep the hips extended, and minimize rotation of the torso. If shoulder pain occurs, try the exercise with the knees bent, or add a soft pad under the forearm/elbow.   

The last important core exercise is the plank (Figure 4). 

 

Figure 4. Plank 

The plank can target a variety of core musculature including the rectus abdominis, internal/external obliques, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, deltoids, and triceps. The plank position begins with the forearms on the ground beneath the shoulders. Athletes should be on their toes and lift the stomach, pelvis, and legs off the ground. The upper and lower body should be completely straight like a plank of wood.  

Again, it would be appropriate to have a coach present to help correct any problems such as lumbar extension or flexion of the torso or hips. Athletes can place padding under the forearms if there is irritation from the floor or ground. 

Adding these four core exercises to any routine will help ensure that athletes are working the correct core muscle groups. It can also help prevent unwanted forces through the spine, which can cause pain or injury in the future. It is important to remember that endurance is an important factor for training the core (1, 2). 

It is also important to remember that each individual is different and that these exercises may not be appropriate for every athlete. The training program in Table 1 provides a general recommended program that should be adjusted according to the goals and abilities of each individual.

Table 1. Planes of Motion and Core Musculature (3)

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday 
Curl-Up 3x30

60 s rest between sets
Curl-Up 3x30

60 s rest between sets 
Curl-Up 3x30

60 s rest between sets 
Curl-Up 3x30

60 s rest between sets 
Curl-Up 3x30

60 s rest between sets 
Alternating
Quadruped 3x15 each side

60 s rest between sets
Alternating
Quadruped 3x15 each side

60 s rest between sets 
Alternating
Quadruped 3x15 each side

60 s rest between sets 
Alternating
Quadruped 3x15 each side

60 s rest between sets 
Alternating
Quadruped 3x15 each side

60 s rest between sets 
Lateral Bridge 3x30 s alternating sidesLateral Bridge 3x30 s alternating sidesLateral Bridge 3x30 s alternating sidesLateral Bridge 3x30 s alternating sidesLateral Bridge 3x30 s alternating sides
Plank 3x30 s

60 s rest between sets
Plank 3x30 s

60 s rest between sets 
Plank 3x30 s

60 s rest between sets 
Plank 3x30 s

60 s rest between sets 
Plank 3x30 s

60 s rest between sets 

 

References 

 

  1. McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. (3rd ed.) Backfitpro Inc; 2006. 
  2. McGill, S. Low back exercise: Evidence for improving exercise regimes. Phys Ther 78(7):  754-765, 1998. 
  3. Miller, M, and Medeiros, J. Recruitment of internal oblique and transverse abdominis during eccentric phase of the curl-up exercise. Phys Ther 67(8): 1213-1217, 1987. 
  4. Mayer, TG, Gatchel, RJ, Kishino, N, et al. Objective assessment of spine function following industrial injury: A prospective study with comparison group and one-year follow-up. Spine 10(6): 482-493, 1985.

http://www.nsca-lift.org/Education/E-learning/Core-Exercises--What-is-the-Core-and-How-do-you-Activate-it-/