By Nick Tumminello
Core training is always one of the hottest topics in fitness. But along with anything, there are several core training myths, that even some medical and health professionals from personal trainers and doctors believe due to the high amount of misinformation or misunderstanding about this topic. Often times these core training myths have become so common place and blindly repeated that they’re just accepted as truth.
This article debunks 4 common core training myths for you, so you don’t squander your time believing them, and gives you the real facts so you can make the most of your exercise efforts.
Core Training Myth #1: Crunches Aren’t the Most Valuable Exercise for Abdominal Activation
One of the staple principles of good weight training is to emphasize compound (multi-joint) exercises, and to supplement those movements with some isolation (single joint) oriented exercises.
Interestingly, rarely do you see the principle of using compound movements utilized when it comes to training the abdominals. In that, many of the most popular and commonly use core exercises are isolation oriented exercises like abdominal crunches.
However, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research sought to determine whether integration (i.e. compound) core exercises that require activation of the distal (away from the center of the body) trunk muscles (deltoid and gluteal) elicit greater activation of primary trunk muscles in comparison with isolation core exercises.
The results of this study indicate that the activation of the abdominal and lumbar muscles was the greatest during the exercises that required deltoid and gluteal recruitment.
The researchers of this study concluded that, “An integrated routine that incorporates the activation of distal trunk musculature would be optimal in terms of maximizing strength, improving endurance, enhancing stability, reducing injury, and maintaining mobility.”
In other words, a comprehensive core training routine, like every other muscle group, should emphasize compound exercises and supplement with some isolation moves as well.
Two compound core exercises, that incorporate the hips and shoulders, that you can immediately use to build a stronger and more functional core are One Arm Dumbbell Carry and the Dumbbell Plank Row.
One Arm Dumbbell Farmers Walk
Set Up: Stand tall holding a heavy dumbbell on the right side of your body by your right hip.
Action: Walk up and down the length of a room keeping the dumbbell by your hi and maintaining your strong, upright posture. Then switch hands and repeat by holding a dumbbell on the other side.
- Use a weight load that you can carry on one side for no more than 45-60 seconds. Rest roughly 30 seconds if needed before switching hands and carrying the dumbbell on the other side for another 45-60 seconds.
- Grip strength as well as core strength can be a limiting factor in the weight you’re able to carry, which also makes this exercise a great tool for improving your grip strength as well.
- Perform 3-5 sets.
DB Plank Rows
Set up: Holding a dumbbell in each hand assume a push-up position with your feet roughly shoulder width apart.
Action: Pick up the dumbbell in your right hand and row it into your body. Slowly lower it to the floor and repeat this action using your left hand. Continue to alternate hands until you’ve completed the reps indicated.
- Keep a strong and stable body position with a neutral spine throughout this entire exercise.
- Do not allow your body to shift from side to side as you perform each row.
- Do not allow your hips to rotate as you perform each row.
- Perform each row in a controlled manner by slowly lowering the dumbbell to the floor on each rep.
- To ensure the dumbbells do not roll; make sure you place your hands directly underneath your shoulders when performing this exercise.
Core Training Myth #2: The “Core” is More than Just Your Abs & Lower-Back
Although the study results discussed above are recent, the idea of training our core muscles along with the hips and the shoulders (i.e. compound core training, as I’ve coined it) is not at all a new concept.
In fact, the term “The Core,” in reference to the muscles of center of the body, was first coined in 1982 by Bob Gajda (1966 Mr. America) & Richard Dominquez M.D. in their book Total Body Training.
In their book, Gajda and Dominquez stated, “The foundation of Total Body Training is the core, which compromises the muscles in the center of the body. These muscles stabilize the body while in upright, antigravity position or while using the arms and legs to throw or kick. These muscles maintain the body’s structure during vigorous exercises such as running, jumping, shoveling and lifting weights. These muscles also control the head, neck, ribs, spine and pelvis”
Put simply, the “core” is not just your abs and lower back; it’s all of your torso muscles (shoulders, chest, glutes, abs, mid-back, lats, etc.) minus your extremities (arms and legs).
So, although you may not think of doing chest presses and back rows as “core training exercises,” they most certainly are.
That big takeaway from this is: If you want a truly strong “core,” you need to be strengthening all of the muscles of your torso.
Core Training Myth #3: Do Push Ups Instead of Regular Abdominal Planks!
If you’re already doing push ups in your workout, it’s unnecessary to perform basic planks in your workouts because you’ve already done them (whether you were aware of it or not) when you were doing the push-ups. In that, from a body position and core muscle activation perspective the push-up is an abdominal plank because your torso is in the exact same position in both instances. The only difference is in the push up you’re also involving your chest, shoulders and triceps (in additional to the core muscle activation), therefore giving you more muscle activation, which makes your time more beneficial and productive.
Even if you’re unable to do basic push-ups, and you can do a basic abdominal plank for at least 30 seconds, I’d say it’s time your stop boring yourself with them any longer and progress to more advanced plank versions like theDumbbell Plank Row described earlier or the long-lever posterior-tilt plank.
According to a 2013 paper published in the NSCA Strength & Conditioning Journal, “The long-lever posterior-tilt plank (LLPTP) is an advanced version of the traditional prone plank designed to impose a greater stimulus on the core musculature and thus provide better utility for those who are well trained.” (1)
The authors of the article state, “The longer lever length and narrower base of support associated with the LLPTP makes the exercise less stable as decreased stability has been shown to significantly increase core muscle activity during performance of various core exercises, including the prone plank.”
To perform the LLPTP, assume an elbow plank position (prone, hovering over the floor on forearms and toes with your body forming a straight line from your head to feet) with you elbows spaced approximately 6 inches apart at your nose level. Contract your glutes and posteriorly rotate your pelvis. If you imagine your pelvis is a bucket of water, a posterior pelvic tilt involves tipping the bucket so the water would spill out of your back. Try to work your up to 2-3 sets of 30 seconds holds
Core Training Myth #4: A lack of core strength or stability has NOT been shown to be a cause or contributor to low back pain.
In my article, The Cause of Low Back Pain, I discussed several ways the scientific evidence questions conventional wisdom surrounding the cause of low back pain (LPB).
From a core stability perspective, it’s often recommend to draw in the belly button to engage the transverse abdominis, as a weak transverse abdominis is claimed by some to be a cause or contributing factor to low back pain. However, this claim is unjustified in the research. According to Mark Comerford, author of Kinetic Control: The Management of Uncontrolled Movement, “The Transverse Abdominis (TvA) has never been shown to be off or weak, even in patients with LBP. It’s only been shown to activate 50-90 milliseconds late only in people with LBP. Even in the presence of back pain when TVA is delayed, it automatically activates within 50-90ms of starting to move the arm, leg or spine. There are almost no situations in the gym when load will be taken faster than this, giving no need to consciously pre-contract TVA before performing resistance exercises.
Additionally, Stuart McGill, Ph.D. and professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, says that “Focusing on a single muscle (like the TVA) generally results in less stability.” He goes on to say that “True spine stability is achieved with a balanced stiffening (co-contraction) of the entire trunk musculature, including the abdominals, the latissimus dorsi and the back extensors.”
In regards to core strength, as it’s often claimed that a weak core is a cause or contributing factor of LPB. However, in this research, core strength has not been shown to be the direct cause of the sufferers’ LPB. According to Dr. McGill, “The differences between those with chronic, recurring back issues and matched asymptomatic controls,” or, people in the studies who have no pain, “have been shown to be variables other than strength or mobility.”
The takeaway here is that core strengthening may or may not help you relieve or prevent LBP anymore than basic exercise. And, often time the relief people experience is from simply removing exercises that can cause painful flare ups. For example, according to Dr. McGill, “flexion-intolerant backs are very common. Eliminating spinal flexion exercises (like sit-ups, crunches, and burpees) particularly in the morning when the disks are swollen after bed rest, has proven very effective with this type of issue.”
It never hurts to strengthen your core muscles along with the rest of your muscles simply for better health and performance of daily activities. But if you have lower back pain, improving the quality and efficiency of how you move versus just improving strength can help you to avoid overusing your back. In other words, exercise technique and form is crucial, especially if you have LBP.
What other core training myths make you cringe?
- Integration core exercises elicit greater muscle activation than isolation exercises. Gottschall JS, Mills J, Hastings B. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):590-6.
- Schoenfeld and Contreras, Exercise Technique: The Long-Lever Posterior-Tilt Plank. Published Ahead-of-Print. http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/articles/long_lever_posterior_tilt_plank.pdf