Photo by ValeriyLebedev/iStock / Getty Images

by Boko Suzuki
© 2016

Just about everyone who works out talks about training their core (“I gotta do some core exercises. Not sure why, but I gotta do it!”) but hardly anyone knows what that actually means. It might be easier to start with what core conditioning is NOT:

It’s not about getting a six pack.

Hey – I’m as vain as the next guy and a six pack sure does look nice. But anyone who has ever watched Olympic lifting or a strongman competition knows that some of the people with the strongest cores in the world have a ONE pack. And some people in the gym with a gorgeous six pack (you know the guy: “I need to wipe the sweat off my face but I forgot a towel. I’d better use my shirt”) actually have weak cores and are highly susceptible to back injury. If getting a six pack is important to you, you’d better be prepared to do lots of high intensity cardio and eat a REALLY clean diet. Or choose your parents wisely so that you win the genetic lottery.

Here’s the problem: Training your rectus abdominis (the six pack muscle clearly displayed in the above illustration) is training your most superficial core muscle. It’s an important muscle, but when you train your outermost core muscle without first training your deep core muscles, you set yourself up for movement dysfunction and back injury. Imagine your spine is a fragile pipe that needs reinforcing with layers of duct tape. If the first few layers of duct tape are wrapped very loosely, it doesn’t matter what happens with the outermost layer; the pipe is going to be prone to breaking. If, on the other hand, you wrap the pipe up tightly with the innermost layers, you’re going to have a reinforced pipe. The transversus abdominis (TVA) is the innermost layer and must therefore be trained first. Here are some exercises for activating the all important TVA:

Bent leg raises: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Pull your belly button down like you’re trying to touch your spine with it. Without holding your breath, pull one bent leg slowly toward your chest and then lower it back down. If you feel your belly button come up and your back start to arch, go back to practicing activating your TVA by pulling your belly button down and flattening your back against the floor. Once you can alternate pulling your bent legs toward your chest while keeping your back flat, you can progress to both knees coming up at the same time.

Leg lowers: Start the same way as the bent leg raise – belly button pulled down and bent legs pulled toward your chest. Now straighten your legs and point them straight up in the air. Slowly lower about ten degrees and hold for a slow ten count, then bend your legs and lower. If your belly button comes up and your back arches, stop and go back to the bent leg raises before you strain your lower back. If you have any pre-existing low back injury, do NOT do any of these exercises without the supervision of a medical or fitness professional! 

If you can successfully perform the leg lower, progress by bringing your legs lower bit by bit. Once you can hold your legs a foot off the floor without your back arching, you have good TVA activation. Remember that activating and strengthening your TVA is a process that can take time. But once you have your TVA activated, you can move on to more advanced core conditioning. If, on the other hand, you don’t have your TVA properly activated, I strongly advise against adding external weight to your exercises.

The next two layers of your core anatomy, working from the inside to the outside, are your inner and then outer obliques. These are responsible for both creating rotation (think of how your torso rotates when you throw a ball or swing a golf club) and resisting rotation (think of keeping your body stable as you run or ski). Here’s a great way to activate your obliques:

Hip crossovers: Lie on your back with your arms extended to the sides in a letter “T,” your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Gently roll your knees left and right, keeping your shoulder blades in contact with the floor. You should feel a gentle stretch in both your shoulders and your sides – your obliques. If you can perform this version of the exercise with no problem, you can progress to doing the same exercise with your feet in the air, supported by a stability ball. The next progression would be with your feet in the air, not supported by a stability ball, legs bent at a 90-degree angle. That’s plenty challenging for most people but when you get really advanced, you can try the windshield wiper version with your legs straight (but beware: windshield wipers are not for the beginner!).

More on core conditioning progression in future articles, so keep checking this website. E-mail me with your questions and feedback and I’ll do my best to help you on your fitness journey!