After taking nearly nine weeks away from regular and consistent exercise, I’m proud of myself for recognizing that I needed some accountability and support to make fitness a priority again in my life.
I’m three weeks into a strength and conditioning program at a gym where nobody knows my story. I’m a participant, not a trainer, and as such welcome getting feedback on form from the three coaches that lead the workouts.
While my overall strength and cardiovascular conditioning are already starting to improve (thanks to a lot of agility drills with hurdles, cones and ladders and speed work on the Bosu), I’m noticing that certain exercises and lifts are still weak.
During Saturday’s class, coach Mark commented on my execution of three exercises; tricep pushups, Romanian dead lifts and bent-over rows. My lower back started to curve after only three pushups (pushups should look like planks), my knees were bending too much during the dead lifts (bending the knees transfers the work from the hamstrings to the quads) and I was ‘bouncing’ at the bottom of my rows (in effective, using momentum instead of muscle to pull the weight back up).
We talked for a minute about what these three exercises had in common and came to the conclusion that my core was weak. Not only had I not been training it during my hiatus from exercise, I had also spent a lot of those nine weeks sitting around, hunched over my knitting and slouched in front of the television and computer keyboard.
He asked me what I was going to do about it (note to self: this is a great coaching question).
Although my three-times-a-week workouts do include some core work, he suggested that I needed to do a bit more, both to improve my core strength and to ensure that I kept progressing on my other lifts (it’s hard to squat, push, pull and lift more weight when your core is weak).
Knowing that he was right, I’ve decided to add two more days of core training to my week. I’ll be focusing on the important core exercises; the ones that are functional and relevant to training for daily life (i.e., NOT crunches, which is why you won’t see ‘flexion’ in the list below).
Core training: 5 moves for a stronger midsection
- static stability; basic plank and side plank holds require isometric contraction of the entire core (as well as the shoulders, upper back, glutes and hamstrings). I’ll be working up to 3 sets of 60 s in each position, focusing on keeping the abs and glutes tight and shoulders drawn back and down.
- dynamic stability; adding movement to basic planks and side planks forces the muscles of the core to work a bit harder to remain stable in the face of external forces. Side planks with cable and pulley rows and front planks on the ball while either pushing the ball slightly away from the body or ‘drawing circles’ with it are all examples of dynamic stabilization exercises. I’ll be combining one front plank static exercise with one side plank dynamic exercise on my first day of core training then switching to the opposite combo (side plank static, front plank dynamic) on the second day.
- rotation; rotational exercises typically target the external obliques. The muscles that cut across the front and back of your body, from hip to rib and enable you to rotate your torso without damaging your spine. My favourite rotational exercises are wood choppers (kneeling or standing, with a weight or a medicine ball or the cable and pulley machine) and Russian twists (on the floor or on the ball). Focus on slow, controlled movements over as large a range of motion as you’re capable of.
- anti-rotation; the ability to keep your torso (and spine) from twisting in response to an unexpected external force (for example, catching a heavy object, slipping on a wet surface, lifting a bag that was much heavier than you though it would be) requires strengthening of the inner obliques. Anti-rotation exercises are frequently absent from workouts shared on Facebook and Pinterest. My favourites include variations of the Paloff press, plank rows and kneeling cross-body lifts with either a medicine ball or the cable and pulley machine. (If you’re new to strength training and the names of these exercises are unfamiliar to you, check out the website BodyBuilding.com. They have high quality, good-form video demonstrations of almost every exercise known to man ).
- extension; most core workouts focus primarily on the muscles of the front side of the body (the ‘six-pack’ muscles and the obliques), ignoring the importance of strengthening their back-side-of-the-body counterparts. Anterior and posterior muscle groups work together to keep the body in front-to-back balance and alignment. In my case, a weak lower back is contributing significantly to my poor dead lift range of motion and my ability to perform more than four good-form tricep pushups. Lower back extension exercises don’t require any fancy equipment; yoga poses including cobra and sphinx can be performed anywhere, as can ‘super mans’ (on the floor or the ball, if you have one) and weighted hip thrusts.
Need a few more core exercise options? Here are two of my favourite core training videos:
Note that while there IS a crunch variation in the video below, elevating the feet and keeping the lower back firmly on the mat will ensure that flexion is minimized and the risk to the lower back is minimal. If you suffer from osteoporosis or osteopenia (or your doctor has told your NOT to perform any version of a crunch, skip it; the other 4 exercises are workout enough).