Want a strong core? Stop doing sit ups.
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
When we think of someone as having a strong core, we’ll often visualize 6 pack abs. Unfortunately, the ability to see someone’s rectus abdominis (the muscle that people refer to as the “six pack”) says very little about their overall core strength. And having an over developed rectus abdominis can lead to muscular imbalance and increase the risk of low back pain or injury. Most of us already sit for long periods of time and our core is flexed forward. If the only core strengthening we do are sit ups, we make the problem (being in a forward leaning position all day) worse (repeatedly leaning forward (sit ups).
Your core is so much more than your rectus abdominis. We have three more layers of very important muscles: External abdominal oblique, internal abdominal oblique and transversus abdominis. And that's just on the front! On the back we have our erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, psoas major and minor. Our diaphragm sits on the roof of our core and our pelvic muscles create a basement. Plus, we have our vertebrae, joints, ligaments and fascia. There's a lot we need to think about when it comes to our core!
Ultimately, a healthy core needs two main things: strength and mobility. This is what makes it functional. A functional core will keep you upright and maintain proper posture, support you safely through your daily movements and protect your organs. It also allows you to breathe, sneeze, cough, poop and pee. In addition, your risk of herniation (both disc and organ) will also decrease with a healthy core.
We’ll start with mobility. You should be able to do the following with no pain, discomfort or restriction:
Touch your toes
Lean to your right and left
Rotate to your right and left
Cat and Cow
Get off the ground without using your hands
Once you can do all of the above, we can work on functional strength. I've broken my favorites down into the follow categories:
Plank – 1 minute
Side plank – 1 minute each side
Standing rotation with weight
Side bends with weight
Plank while alternative knee to elbow
Single arm kettlebell swings
Single leg deadlifts
In addition to the above movement progressions, generally moving more than you are sedentary is a great way to keep the core healthy. Your spine is surrounded by cerebral spinal fluid and most of your joints have synovial fluid. When you move, your joints can be lubricated, your blood pumps more efficiently. Motion is lotion. When your muscles and joints move, they will feel and function better.
Low back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Being able to do the above movements is one of the best ways to treat or prevent current or future low back pain.
Will doing these movements lead you to your “six pack”? Yes, but not in the way you might want it to. We all have a rectus abominis and many other core muscles that will be sufficiently worked and developed through the above movements. You just might not see it. Our abdomen has a layer of fat on it to further protect our organs and provide calories in case we ever find ourselves without food. Your best bet to chasing the elusive “six pack” is to clean up your diet which will decrease unnecessary fat storage and will allow you to burn the access. You can’t out exercise a poor diet, so this part of the equation must happen in the kitchen.
Just remember a functional core is much, much different (and more important) than a visible rectus abdominis muscle.