Core training doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do countless situps and similar exercises that make your ab muscles burn like someone poured Tapatío sauce on an open wound. In fact, core training shouldn’t even be an emphasized in most training programs because your core is activated automatically whenever you move your body. Therefore, you shouldn’t be obsessed about it when you exercise.
Your abdominal muscles are part of the a neuromuscular system known as the core, which include your hips, spine, parts of your thighs, and shoulder girdle. The core both move your body while keeping it stabilized and balanced. It is turned in various degrees, from rolling on the ground like an infant to walking and running. In many ways, your core works in subtle ways that you often don’t even realize that they’re working.
Anytime you lift an object or reach overhead, your core is automatically engaged to brace your torso as you lift. Researchers at the Sogn og Fjordane University College in Norway experimented the different degrees of muscle activation in the abdominal muscles with different lifting positions and variables. They found that doing the dumbbell shoulder press has a higher core activation in a standing position than in a seated position. Training with one dumbbell also had a higher activation rate than training with two dumbbells.
Situps and crunches may not be the best exercises if you need a stronger core to help you accelerate and decelerate your body when you sprint, jump or land. Your core functions like a spring to absorb shock and distribute force throughout your body to lessen the impact upon your joints and organs. If you look at how the muscle fibers in the rectus abdominis run and how they are separated by tendinous intersections that gives the muscle the “six-pack” appearance, the muscle functions more like a shock absorber and less like a torso flexor.
In a study on muscle activation at the University of Tokyo that was published in the July 2012 issue of “Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology,” researchers found that the rectus abdominis and external obliques are the first abdominal muscles to fire 100 milliseconds before the feet land on the ground during a drop jump test. After you land, the sequence in which muscles fire move from distal to proximal.
Strength from the Ground Up
Martial artists and yoga practitioners have known this for centuries, and modern science has evidence supporting that strength and power stem from the lower body in which the core functions as a conduit to channel force into your upper body.
Researchers at Indiana State University measured how much influence do certain exercises have on the quality of force production in medicine ball throws. Among the five exercises tests — bench press, barbell squat, 40-yard dash, countermove vertical jump, and agility drills — the squat is the best predictor and indicator for upper-body power and strength. A stronger and more powerful lower body can make your upper body stronger, not vice versa.
Movement, Not Muscles
Just because you can complete the “30-Day Situp Challenge” doesn’t mean your abs are strong and functional in other activities. Your brain can get very specific on how you move. The only way to get better at what you do is to practice the actual skill repeatedly. This is based on the SAID principle — specific adaptation to imposed demands — which states that your body and brain will adapt and improve specifically to what you train it to do. Doing situps and leg lifts to improve your lifting and throwing power is like squeezing a rubber ball repetitively to play the piano and violin better. That’s not how your body and mind works.
A meta-analysis of 17 studies from the University of South Florida that examined the effects of core training and sports performance indicate that a better way to improve core function is with multi-joint movements with free weights rather than core-specific exercises with a ball or a similar device and traditional “core” exercises.
No need to get OCD with your core. When you move, your core will take care of you.