Get Your Core Right…Finally


By Kyle Arsenault CSCS


“Keep it TIGHT!”

“Brace it, Brace it, Brace it!”

“Suck it in and clamp it down!”

“Take a deep breath and push!”

If you walk into any gym, high end training facility or pop in a DVD based on “the proven science” of muscle confusion, high intensity interval training or any other sexy lingo, you have likely heard one of the above expressions being barked out by some over caffeinated trainer.

And what is “it” that they are bellowing about?

You may have heard of the “CORE,” and you may actually be sick of hearing about it, and I can’t blame you. You may also be as confused as a chameleon in a bag of skittles (just picture it) when it comes to understanding what the core actually is and how you should go about training it.

With all of the conflicting information and numerous “experts” telling you that core training is one thing and then another, it is no wonder that you are a little frustrated in trying to understand and implement the best “core” program.

Although there are more than enough definitions on what actually constitutes the core, it is universally agreed upon that the core involves the muscles that play a role in stabilizing the spine and hips and allow force to be transferred throughout the body.

I would like to expound upon this for a second and suggest the core includes all of the muscles, connective tissues, etc. that are found between the points of contact where the force is being transferred.

For example, if you are throwing a baseball from your feet your core includes everything between the feet and hand, as force is being transferred from the ground to the ball. If you find yourself throwing the baseball from the knees (a catcher per say) the core changes to include everything from the knees to the hand as the structures below the knees are not playing a significant role in stabilizing or producing force and movement. So really, the core can change depending on the movement/activity and from which position the movement is taking place.

But, let’s keep it simple.

The one thing that you can understand is that the core (or what I would rather refer to as your base…but that is for another blog) allows you to transfer force throughout the body and will at least involve the muscles between the hips and ribs.

And while there are a wide array of exercises that will “work” these muscles, proper core training for performance and looks is much more than a good exercise…it is knowing which “core” muscles should be working, what they should be doing and how it should feel.

To sum that up, remember “that it is not the exercise that matters, but how the exercise is performed!”

So with that in mind, here are a few tips when it comes getting the core right.

1)      A properly functioning core should allow you to maintain a neutral posture: You should have a natural lumbar (lower) and thoracic (upper) curve to your spine. You should also have hips that stay level and are facing forward.

For a majority of us, in order to obtain and maintain these neutral positions, especially during training/activity, we have to get out of lumbar extension (an excessive low back arch) and thoracic flexion (excessive rounding of the upper back)…posture B from above. A great way to think about achieving this is to “tuck your tail” and “get a proud chest.” It is difficult to achieve both of these at the same time, so try to first lie on the floor and gradually move to the wall to use them as feedback…you should not feel your low back come away from the floor/wall.



2)      You can’t shut muscles off, but you can use redistribute the load share (which muscles are working): Many of us are what we call rectus dominant (we use our rectus abdominus muscle, our 6 pack muscle, to try and stabilize our hips and spine). While it plays a role, the issue with being rectus dominant is that the rectus muscle is not the best for proper stabilization of the spine and hips. Rather, it is our oblique muscles (specifically our inner obliques) that will allow us to perform exercises and activities while maintaining proper position. In order to work away from using the rectus so much, and instead calling on the obliques to do more work, you can think of engaging the core a bit differently.

  1. Do not try to clamp down (crunch) your rib cage to your hips. Rather, concentrate on bringing your hips to your rib cage. If done properly, you will be able to maintain a “tall” upper body while engaging your “lower” core. If done improperly you will end up looking more like Quasimodo.
  2. When using the obliques vs the rectus, you should feel your “lower and side abs” doing the work rather than your “upper abs,” but again, you can’t shut muscles off completely, just redistribute the load share. These muscles, along with a few others, are referred to as you “inner core.” It is the inner core that truly stabilizes the spine and hips.
  3. Along the same lines, a few more cues to help are to “tuck your tail,” “bring your zipper towards the ceiling,” “get skinny as if you were trying to fit into a pair of tight jeans/pants,” and imagine your “belly button moving up and in towards your spine.” All of these cues help to posteriorly tilt your hips to achieve a neutral alignment (as long as you are part of the majority living in lumbar extension).

3)      Achieve a flat stomach look: Have you ever watched the World’s Strongest Man Competition? You know, the dudes that strap 747s to their backs and drag ‘em while trying to keep their eyes from busting out of their skulls! Have you ever noticed that although a few of them are absolutely shredded it looks like they are lugging around a “beer belly”?

A picture of Maruiz Pudzianowski (right)…a strong man champion. Notice the shredded midsection but “pooched” belly!

This is because when they train they are predominately using rectus. So if you want to achieve the “flat, ripped stomach look” you must make it a main focus to not allow your belly to “pooch” out during training/activity. Which leads me to my last point.

4)      Planks, anti-rotation presses, chops and lifts are great exercises to train the core, but only if you stay “long and tall.”:This is old news, or I hope it is…crunches are out for the majority of athletes (yes, general population athletes especially). There are a few individuals that may benefit from spinal flexion (“crunching”) such as MMA fighters, but for most of us we want to reduce our time spent in the “crunched” position. And although you would think that performing a plank would be a great exercise (and it is when done correctly) you will see many athletes “crunching” through the plank.



So when you use these exercises make sure to keep in mind all of the previous cues mentioned, and think about keeping yourself “long and tall”…just make sure keep your “tail tucked” when getting long.

As you can see there are a few more things to consider when you are training the core (which you can now refer to as yourbase). If you find yourself merely performing “core” exercises without focusing on where you should be feeling the work happening (the “lower” abs vs the “upper” abs), not only are you setting yourself up for possible injury, but you are not helping yourself when it comes to performance enhancement and pain prevention, as well as obtaining that “sleek and sexy” midsection.

In conclusion, the main objective is to get back to neutral, which means that for many of us we need to reduce our lower back arch as well as our upper back round. So don’t worry about “tucking your tail” as you won’t look like a coward as long as you keep a “proud chest,” and please stop listening to each and every guru, magazine article, DVD, etc. that comes your way promising a “sexy 6 pack in no time” with new core exercises!

Did you find this useful and know that others will as well?! Leave a comment below and SHARE it on Facebook.

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