Think you’ve got pretty OK core strength because you can do a bunch of crunches?
I’ve got news for ya, sister. Crunches are for chumps. Just about anyone can do a few crunches. It’s not a functional exercise. It’s a move people started doing because someone at the gym who looked fit was doing them. Because ‘six-pack abs’ is one of the world’s largest information industries (not to mention one of the easiest things ever to market to people who wish they looked cuter whilst naked) crunches have persisted – it feels like you’re practically brewing up your own six-packs like crazy while you do them. Meanwhile, the “real” core muscles of the world are neglected, weak, and wimpy. You can try this standardized ab strength test to see where you measure up. Warning: you might be unpleasantly surprised.
You see, most of us are roaming about our normal lives using (totally unscientific guess) about 60% of our core muscles. The rest of the muscles that ought to be contributing to your game and daily life are kind of like that shiftless roommate you can’t quite get rid of. They spend the day playing video games on your couch and using the last square of toilet paper without ever buying any. They drink straight from the milk carton with the fridge door open and put it back with just a tablespoon left sloshing about in the bottom. You and the other good roommates (aka your larger abdominal and back muscles) vacuum up their potato chip crumbs and cover their share of the rent when they can’t pick up enough shifts at the 7-11. Have I extended this metaphor too far? Probably. But keep reading anyway. Here come 5 ways to get your core in gear.
Pilates is the answer to the lazy-roommate-core conundrum. Pilates, although it may make you feel like going for a matcha latte and buying a purse dog, is truly the cat’s ass when it comes to getting your core in gear, and banishing the lazy roommate situation. The key is to get in with a great instructor, and splurge – correction – INVEST in a couple of one-on-one or small group sessions to learn the correct technique. A good Pilates instructor will spend a LOT of time talking about breath, alignment and proper positioning. Skim over this critical understanding of *precisely* how to do the moves, and risk a big waste of your time. The movements of Pilates often don’t feel very challenging, but they are secretly working away at those lazy-roommate muscles, subtly kicking them into high gear. Your small stabilizer muscles will be awoken and will start to fire as they should in your regular movements (and derby movements). Before you know it, those formerly layabout core muscles will be cleaning the bathroom and making you dinner with groceries they purchased all by themselves. You’ll be standing taller with better posture every day, and then you can stop talking about this really really long roommate metaphor.
Now here’s an ‘as seen on TV’ phenomenon I can get behind. A properly-sized* physio ball can be a full body workout in one piece of equipment if you know what to do. Here again, you’ll want to take the time to get proper instruction – maybe a physiotherapist you’re seeing for an injury will agree to spend an extra session with you to show you some moves on the ball, or you can nicely ask a personal trainer at the gym to show you the correct form. The secret of the physio ball is that the inherent instability of the equipment requires you to recruit the small stabilizer muscles (errr, the formerly lazy-roommate muscles…) you really want to work. Something as simple as sitting on the ball and “marching” – lifting one foot 2” off the ground and then the other, without falling over – can have a huge impact on your “true” core strength and stability. Plus, if you’re a gym rat type, you can do all of your free weights using the ball instead of a bench. Way more challenging, way more effective. Try dumbbell bench presses with your upper body supported on the ball and you’ll be surprised how much less weight you can lift (but how much more you’re accomplishing). Bet you never go back to the bench.
TAKING IT SLOW
What’s that now? You can do a jazillion bicycles in a minute? Congratulations, you’ve wasted a minute you’ll never get back in your life. Core work is effective only when working slowly and with deep control, not when flailing about like a four-year-old on Red Bull. Do you believe intuitively that the benefit of a strength move like a bicep curl is maxed out when you do the curls really-really-really fast? I didn’t think so. In fact there is a ton of research showing that all strength work may be most effective when done at an excruciatingly slow pace (just google eccentric training or negative training). Let’s all agree that goes double for core work. No spazzing. Keep it slow and controlled. Always “roll down” extra slowly, imagining you’re unfurling each vertebra individually along the way. Which brings us to…
ALIGNMENT and BREATH
Just the basics, yo. Keep your neck in a neutral position – don’t look down at your feet or crane your neck back to look up from a prone (face-down) position. Generally try to imagine a straight line drawn from the crown of your head to your heels, and make sure your shoulders and hips touch that line, no matter what plane you’re operating in (on your side, stomach, back, in a plank, etc.). Keep your belly button pulled in towards your spine. That doesn’t mean “sucking it in,” rather, it’s the elusive “engage your core” thing you may have heard a yoga instructor say. Practice while sitting in a chair. Pull your belly button in without inhaling. Make this second nature. Do it in your car at stoplights, at your desk at work, while you’re doing Kegels, whatever! Now the breathing – always breathe out on exertion. Meaning: on the way up in a situp, and again on the way (slowly) down. As you lift your hips in a bridge, and again on the way (slowly) down. The entire time you’re in a plank. Just kidding. But you get the idea. Take a pause in each move to inhale. See above re: going slowly.
BALANCE & TWIST
Unlike straight-on, both legs/both arms crunches, functional core moves – especially for roller derby where we need our core for balance, ninja-agility, and to power our hits – involve the obliques, the muscles on the sides of our torsos that move and stabilize us from side to side. So you should definitely be incorporating off-centre or off-balance movements that cause your muscles to work in opposition or out of plane. Standing on one foot while pulling a cable with the other arm… balancing in a plank on one arm and the opposite foot… doing a walking pushup… marching while in a bridge… throwing and catching a medicine ball while balanced on one leg… twisting your upper torso to one side in a lunge… the examples are endless. I throw lots of them into the workouts here on the blog too. Find ways to incorporate these into your routines wherever you can.
And with that, I leave you to go whip your core into some truly bad-ass shape – functional, derby-powering, real-life-enabling shape. Repeat after me: No. More. Crunches. BOOM!*how do you know what size physio ball is for you? When seated on the ball normally as if you were on a chair, your knees should be bent at 90 degrees. Try a friend’s ball, or some at the gym. The diameter is usually labelled somewhere (in centimetres).