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The Great Myth of the Core Workout

Add the word “core” to any form of exercise, and people seem to jump right on it. “Core blaster”, “Core fitness class”, “Sit on a ball at work to stabilize your core”. It is a buzzword that is thrown around so much it has become meaningless. It appears in every fitness dvd and boot camp on the market. Core training seems to have become another example of something that the masses will sign up for in order to get out of doing any real work.
First, let’s get started on the flawed training model of these core workout classes. Some of these classes can last up to 60 minutes and focus primarily on stretching, “core” exercises, and breathing patterns–all with the promise that you will have improved posture, better stability and of course, washboard abs.( Who doesn’t want those, right?). The first of many problems with these classes is their tendency to focus on concentric and eccentric contractions. In reality, most of the stability in our bodies is isometric.

Another problem with these classes are the claims that it will stabilize your body. Grenier Kaycic has this to say about the complexity of trunk stabilization:

CONCLUSIONS: No single muscle dominated in the enhancement of spine stability, and their individual roles were continuously changing across tasks. Clinically, if the goal is to train for stability, enhancing motor patterns that incorporate many muscles rather than targeting just a few is justifiable. 

The passive human spine is an unstable structure that requires stabilization by the co-contraction of trunk muscles. In the fitness industry, they are often mistakenly referred to as the “core”, implying that there is a distinct group of muscles for stabilizing. The transverses abdominis (TrA) is usually the muscle that is being mentioned. While it does play a role in stability, it is a role that is synergistic with every other muscle that makes up the abdominal wall.
A simple way to test the reliability of the stability help that TrA offers is on pregnant women. It takes the abdominal muscle 4-6 weeks to reverse the length changes and undergo re-shortening. Believing the core stability myth, it would seem that a women undergoing the changes of post-pregnancy would have severe lower back pain. Yet the study found that postpartum women women had unexpected speed in their recovery time. How is it possible that the lower back has been strengthened in a time when the abdominal wall is weakened?

The answer is that the relation between the abs and spinal stability has been dramatically exaggerated.

Not to mention that there is no evidence that proves that sitting on a ball at work is going to help improve your spine. If anything, it is going to relax your trunk even more. I’m not sure how it “forces your core to stay tight” as the claims say. You know what would make your back feel better at work? Getting up, walking around, and doing some air squats.

Getting back to the topic of fitness, ab-centric workouts have no place in the training regimen of a serious athlete. Any elite athlete will tell you that to build a strong core (core being everything between your neck and thighs), you have to work the compound lifts. Squats, presses, deadlifts, and the variations of the Olympic lifts will work your core in ways that you have only dreamed. I do abmat & GHD situps  about twice a week, and my core is stronger than it ever has been. This is because I spend the majority of my workouts on compound movements with core exercises as a supplementation, not the main focus of my training.

Look at elite Crossfitters. Have you seen their stomachs? I don’t think they spend an hour doing 1/8 crunches on the BOSU ball.  Besides, a 6 pack comes diet more than training.

He uses the crunchercizer X-3000
Elite powerlifters and strongmen are squatting and deadlifting 800+ pounds. You think they are wasting time on those catapult-looking machines in the corner of the gym?
Stop wasting your valuable time in the gym focusing on your abs. All you have to do is work the compound lifts with excellent form, and your core will naturally strengthen along with everything else you are working. Abdominal definition will come from zoning in on your diet. You can do all the situps in the world and still have a gut if you are eating trash.
Just be a real (wo)man and keep lifting big. Only good things will come from it.
Kavcic N, Grenier S, McGill SM. Determining the stabilizing role of individual torso muscles during rehabilitation exercises. Spine. 2004 Jun 1;29(11):1254-65. 
 Lederman, Eyal. PHD. The myth of core stability.
  Hodges, P.W. and C.A. Richardson, Inefficient muscular stabilization of the lumbar spine associated with low back pain. A motor control evaluation of transversus abdominis. Spine, 1996. 21(22): p. 2640-50.
  Hodges, P.W. and C.A. Richardson, Delayed postural contraction of transversus abdominis in low back pain associated with movement of the lower limb. J Spinal Disord, 1998. 11(1): p. 46-56.
  Freeman, M.A., M.R. Dean, and I.W. Hanham, The etiology and prevention of functional instability of the foot. J Bone Joint Surg Br, 1965. 47(4): p. 678-85.
Jull, G.A. and C.A. Richardson, Motor control problems in patients with spinal pain: a new direction for therapeutic exercise. J Manipulative Physiol Ther, 2000. 23(2): p. 115-7.
  Richardson, C.A., et al., The relation between the transversus abdominis muscles, sacroiliac joint mechanics, and low back pain. Spine, 2002. 27(4): p. 399-405.

10 thoughts on “The Great Myth of the Core Workout

  1. Best article I have read in a while. I sometimes want to strangle the girls and guys who walk up to me and ask, “uhhhh, so like, what ab workouts do you do”…. SMH..

  2. Make certain health is in a claim that it is safe for you to function on your abs. Also, healthily together with exercise will be the greatest method for somebody to color their very own abdominal exercises and achieve their optimal how you appear.

  3. a program of basic strength training, i.e. squats, deadlifts, powerlifts, etc. will lead to abdominal,(or “core”) stability resulting in the inevitable “sixpack”, however it is a tough sell because one must leave the comfortzone and
    experience a world of pain…

  4. Very informative article!! Abdominal muscle is really looking very excellent. I am impressed to see the muscle. Abdominal exercise is a great way for the strong muscle. Thanks for your important info about the abdominal muscle.
    how to build your muscles

  5. Nothing like seeing an inked up bull-dyke lifting weights!

  6. From the physical therapist: 100% AGREEMENT. I wish the rest of my colleagues would get the message.

  7. I remember being asked on numerous occasions what I do for my abs. The answer of squats, deadlifts, running, etc. is not usually what they wanted.
    I used to do ab work back before I learned to train more effectively. The best exercise I have done to make everything around my middle feel like it had been battered was overhead squats on the wrong side of a bosu. Only 40kg being held overhead by slightly bent arms but hell I could feel that more than any amount of crunches etc. and I have done a good few.

  8. Agreed. As a PT I have had to explain countless times that the abdominal “core” musculature are designed as a brace, therefore should be trained as such. The core is much more a force transmitter & safety belt rather than purely force generating.

  9. Best ab advice I’ve ever seen:

    Front squat holds: Load up the most weight that you’re physically capable of holding on to, unrack it, take a step back, and hold it for time. To add some additional horror to this one, I like to suspend weights and kettlebells from elitefts™ Onyx Bands and try to keep the bar as still as possible. Also, using a 14-inch cambered bar causes the same effect.
    Suitcase deadlifts: Stand next to a barbell, get into your deadlift position, grab the middle of the barbell, stand up, and then repeat on the other side. Always use wrist straps and always make sure that you’re doing perfect, symmetrical deadlifts. Don’t let the weight pull you to the side and dictate your body position. If you feel some lean, drop the weight. I like sets of five for these with a weight as heavy as possible.
    One-arm farmers’ walks: Use the same suggestions as above. Stay in a perfectly upright, symmetrical position.
    Heavy carries: Load something on your anterior (e.g. a bar or dumbbells in a front squat hold position, a 100-pound plate, a heavy sandbag, a cow you plan to slaughter and completely devour after your training session) and just walk for time or distance. Nothing fights movement and the force of gravity like carrying something heavy in front of you while you walk around.

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