‘Core’ is such a buzzword in the health and fitness world. But what muscles comprise it and what does it actually mean? We can all think of ‘core’ exercises (e.g. planks, crunches, etc), and we’re core-rect about that (sorry, couldn’t help it!), but we’re selling ourselves short if we are satisfied that these will get us the results we want. Let me also be clear, if the results you want are simply to look good, then planks and crunches will go a long way, but if you want a functionally strong core, then we’ve got to dig deeper.
Since this is a running blog, we’ll keep it in the context of running. Someone please stop me if this gets too geeky.
Think of your core as the place where movement initiates from and pivots. This can vary slightly from person to person. As you lift your knee to take your first step, a series of muscles need to fire to make it happen, this should start around the lower abdominal region, then the hip flexors, quads, tibialis anterior, etc. From there, every time your foot hits the ground, there is a force that travels up your leg (think Newton’s law: for every force there’s an equal and opposite force), as a result of your body weight striking the ground. As that force travels up your leg, your leg muscles should contribute to the shock absorption (think bucket brigade). When that force hits your hip and lower torso area, it should be able to be quickly and readily absorbed, which loads those muscles and allows them to push-off for the next stride. At this point, your upper body should be helping to leverage your lower half in order to make it easy for the next push-off.
So essentially, the forces of your body should pivot around your belly button when you are running. Quite often, this is not the case. Quite often, due to weakness in our lower core, that force has to travel further up our torso before enough other muscles are involved to effectively put the brakes on and send the force back toward the ground. When this is the case, what it can often look like is excessive arm swing, straining of the neck and shoulders, forward trunk lean, or a head that moves too much. Here are a few examples.
What these all have in common, is that their arms and upper bodies are tattling on their cores. Essentially, they have to use their arms and upper bodies differently to help absorb and leverage the forces that should be taken care of in the lower core. This amounts to decreased efficiency and performance and higher susceptibility to pain.
So, let’s pick on traditional core exercises again for a moment. What’s typically lacking is the vertical component for how the muscles need to work. This often means that key muscles (gluts, pelvic floor) don’t get strengthened in a way that actually translates to the demands of running. Can’t you just hear your six-pack muscles saying ‘thank you! can I get some help from below?!’ Here’s an example of a progression that engages your core in a way that translates to running.
There are several ways to modify this also. By using a 5-10# weighted object, that will increase the load, and make you work much harder. By taking bigger strides and going deeper into the lunge, that will increase the workout also. This can also be done as a run form drill, by holding in your arms in any of the 6 positions, based on what tendency you may be trying to overcome. What you should be feeling is the your hips and lower core region is working much harder to keep stability, since you are effectively taking your upper body out of the equation, or biasing it toward a direction of weakness.
Hopefully that all makes sense. Perhaps a more lengthy video with verbal explanations and demonstrations would be helpful. Please let me know if you would like to see this explained in more detail. Let me know how this goes for you!