Why Strengthening Your Core Is Essential: 3 Key Benefits
When most people think about training the core, the large majority only thinks of one or two parts, the rectus abdominis (which you might know as “the abs”) and the obliques. For the most part, they only get attention for aesthetic reasons, like when you go out to the beach or to the pool, but they play a much more important role than that.
The main functions of the core muscles are to provide torso stability, help with balance, and to protect the spine from getting injured. A lot of the time, if you struggle with any or all of the above, it may be due to a lack of core strength.
Most recreational lifters leave the core workouts until the end of their training sessions, and if time is running short (or if they just want to leave the gym), it is quite common for them to skip these exercises, which is unfortunate. In fact, one physical therapist who works with the University of Texas-El Paso athletes, told me about how so many freshmen athletes can lift hundreds on the leg press, but struggle to hold a 30-second plank, which can be problematic when these young athletes are introduced to Olympic-style lifts.
Enhance Stability and Balance
With every new personal training client, for our first session, I have them performing split squats. Most of the training newbies struggle with this exercise because of their poor balance, instead of their lack of leg strength. After we have trained for a couple months, they are able to perform split squats, walking lunges, reverse lunges, Bulgarian split squats, and other variations of the split squat and lunge without any issue because every training session involved a number of exercises that required their cores to work hard, thus improving their core strength.
The interesting thing about having excellent balance and stability is that it requires a strong mind-body connection. As I tell my clients, think of the mind-muscle connection in the first couple of workouts as a highway where only one lane is open, and as we progress, second, third, and fourth lanes are opened, which means that the brain can communicate with the muscles a lot more effectively. A study by Vera-Garcia et al. (2015) found that strengthening the core muscles can enhance stability and balance by improving neuromuscular control, which refers to the ability of the nervous system to coordinate muscle contractions and movements.
Remember, the core muscles encompass all 360 degrees of those in the midsection. The stronger the core muscles, the better capable they are at supporting the spine. According to Hodges and Richardson (2013), the researchers found that strengthening the core can also enhance stability and balance by increasing joint stability in the lumbar spine, hip, and pelvis.
A common concern in the physical therapy community is that the more time students and adults spend sitting in front of a computer, while being sedentary during their leisure time, this diminishes core strength, thus leaving little strength to maintain postural control. A systematic review by Granacher et al. (2013) found that strengthening the core muscles can enhance stability and balance by improving postural control, which refers to the ability to maintain an upright position against gravity and other external forces. This can be combatted by being physically active and investing in a standing desk.
As we spend more and more time on our phones, and sitting in a desk and on the couch, we are seeing more young people with poor posture. I usually compare the way they stand with Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Nevertheless, bad posture can lead to potential back injuries and a lack of mobility, so it’s not just an aesthetically displeasing physical characteristic.
Strengthening the core can reduce spinal curvature, thus saving you from potentially developing a hunchback. In Park et al. (2016), researchers found that strengthening the core muscles can help reduce excessive spinal curvature, which can lead to improved posture. By equalizing the strength in all 360 degrees of midsection muscles, this allows the back to be able to maintain its natural curves, thus allowing one to stand tall.
Do you know how strong core muscles can reduce low back pain? According to Kolar et al. (2012), strengthening the core can improve muscle activation patterns, leading to more efficient movement and better posture. As they wrote, “A significant decrease in strength of trunk muscles, especially the extensors, in patients with low back pain has been established, suggesting that strengthening exercises of the trunk muscles may be an optimal rehabilitation strategy.”
One of my favorite analogies of core muscles is by Dr. Horschig, a physical therapist with the popular YouTube channel, Squat University, in which he likens them to guide wires holding up an antenna. When one or a number of those guide wires lose their tensile strength, it compromises its integrity and the likelihood of the antenna falling increases. In a systematic review by Marshall and Murphy (2013), they found that strengthening the core muscles can increase spinal stability, which can help maintain good posture and reduce the risk of injury.
Reduce Back Pain
If you are over 35, you may know by now what it feels like to have injured your back, and if not, you’re going to want to make sure you don’t skip out on training the core because back injuries SUCK!
When you see a building being constructed, think of the steel frame as the core. That steel frame must have a proficient amount of strength to hold the weight of all of the equipment and people that would be using the building, otherwise we would have a horrific situation unfold. To prevent you from suffering a bad back injury, your core muscles must be able to hold you upright, as well as whatever you might be carrying. A study by Kavcic et al. (2011) found that strengthening the core muscles can increase spinal stability, which can reduce the risk of back pain and improve its management.
Dr. Stuart McGill is one of the leading experts when it comes to back injury recovery. According to a paper he published in 2013, strengthening the core can help distribute loads more evenly throughout the spine, reducing the pressure on any one area and reducing the risk of injury and pain. The L4 and L5 region of the spine are the most common places where herniated discs pop up and it is because the region is most vulnerable to being affected by the torque when lifting. To prevent an L4/L5 disc herniation, observing excellent technique and bracing the core when lifting something heavy can help a lot.
It is important to remember that it’s not just core strength that can potentially save you from suffering a back injury, but you also need to make sure you train for core muscle endurance, too. A systematic review by Steele and colleagues (2015) found that strengthening the core muscles can improve muscle strength and endurance, leading to a reduced risk of back pain and improved ability to manage existing pain. Example exercises include contralateral or ipsilateral variations of lunges and split squats (where the weight between each side of the body is different), briefcase walk, and the Pallof press.
Hopefully, you now understand how important it is to maintain a strong core. Granted that strengthening the core doesn’t mean doing the workouts that get all the attention at the gym, it can save you from a lot of pain and discomfort. Always make sure that you are hitting all sides to maximize core strength, which is at the precipice of minimizing your risk of injuring yourself.