The Real-World Benefits of Strengthening Your Core
As a trainer at Body Solutions I am in a pocket area filled with a physically fit, active and well-informed population. Most of my clients are from the Voorhees, Marlton and Cherry Hill region of New Jersey. My clients train with me and on their off days, most of them go to commercial gyms to exercise on their own. Even though my clients are well-informed, it is still difficult to know what exercises and exercise programs are safe for them. Core workouts are a perfect example. I am often asked for core exercise recommendations.
When my clients walk in to their gyms they see the same things no matter what gym they frequent. For core workouts there are ab wheels, crunch machines, sit-up machines and core classes utilizing different variations of leg raises, crunches and sit-ups. There are so many ab exercise machines in existence that I couldn't begin to count them all. If you type in "abs" on Google you will be inundated with hundreds of ab exercises, ab equipment and ab workouts that claim to give you the "perfect core" or "shredded abs". The other night I saw a commercial on TV for the ab skates. These are skates that attach to your feet and you actually skate your feet back and forth to do reverse crunches, knee curls and many other exercises that are advertised to give you a strong core.
Some of these products and exercises do strengthen your core in physical therapy in Voorhees; however, they are doing much more harm than they are worth. Besides being dangerous to your body, they are also inefficient. I will use a sit-up for an example. During this exercise there is only a small window of movement where you are actually using your core safely.This window is only a few inches. The rest of the arc of a sit-up is spinal compression and momentum.
Even though these products and machines are all different they are in essence the same thing. They all involve different variations of crunches, sit-ups or leg raises. Crunches, leg raises, and sit-ups lead to bad posture, neck and shoulder problems and back degeneration. Let's analyze a crunch for instance: a crunch usually involves crisscrossing your hands behind your head and crunching up roughly half way to your knees. During the "raising" phase of this movement the neck is being pulled forward by the hands on the head. The shoulders are rounded forward and the spine is flexed forward. This all occurs under a tremendous amount of force, over 400 lbs. of force to be exact. The result is a poor movement with virtually no benefit.
A sit-up is even more dangerous because the forward flexion is being completed to the top of the movement at the knees. This increases the compression forces on the spine tremendously. In fact, one study measured the compression forces on the spine during sit-ups at over 700 lbs. That is like putting 700 lbs. directly on top of your head! This measurement is for only one sit-up. I know people who have been doing as many as 50 sit-ups at a clip every day for years.
The same goes for leg raises. Leg raises are compressing the spine from the feet being brought toward the knees. It is essentially the same thing.
To effectively strengthen the core safely I recommend starting with simple body weight planks. They are very easy to do and can be done in three positions to hit different core areas. Start with side planks on each side for a period of time that is difficult but can be completed using proper form. After that do a set of front planks. Rest briefly between these sets and repeat the same process two more times. Planks can be performed on the floor or on an elevated surface depending on your core strength. They are much harder to do on the floor than on an elevated surface.
Starting with this simple core workout is guaranteed to increase core strength safely, effectively and efficiently.