Dear fitness professional,
A strong core is the foundation for a powerful, athletic body – it is the ‘powerhouse’ of the athlete and goes far deeper than the oft-desired six-pack abs. The “core” is technically made up of two ‘units’ – the inner unit and outer unit – that work independently and cohesively to provide both stability and movement.
Layers of the core
The Inner Unit is made up of the Pelvic Floor, Transversus Abdominis (TVA), Diaphragm, Multifidi as well as certain fibres of the Internal Oblique’s, Longissimus and Iliocostalis – which are all deep muscles located near the spine. The primary function of the inner unit is segmental stabilisation of the spine and support. It basically acts to protect your vital organs where there is no skeleton to do so. These muscles are tonic muscles, meaning they are predominantly slow-twitch with a high fatigue-resistence and should remain activated throughout most of the day if functioning correctly.
The Outer Unit consists of the Internal and External Oblique’s, Erector Spinae, Latissimus Dorsi, Glutes, Quadratus Lumborum (QLs), Adductors and Hamstrings, all of which are phasic muscles and create movement.
Correct functioning of the core is when both the inner and outer unit activate sequentially. The inner unit should activate foremost, with the TVA firing off first, a split-second before the internal and external obliques to stabilise the spine and trunk for movement.
TVA Activation and Diaphragm Training
Correct activation of the core is paramount to good technique in the weights room – if you can’t activate your inner unit to stabilise your spine and pelvis, you leave yourself open to sheering forces at the joints, which over time can wear them down causing both short-term and long term damage and pain. Instability also limits your strength, which limits results.
As such, one of the first requisites for all my clients prior to hitting the squat rack or the platform, is to ensure correct breathing patterns, which in turn ensures activation of the pelvic floor and TVA muscles.
Inhalation increases intra-abdominal pressure within the abdomen, triggering a contraction of the pelvic floor and multifidi thereby stabilising the lower back and pelvis. This intra-abdominal pressure creates passive tension in the TVA and thoracolumbar fascia, to round out the team responsible for core stabilisation.
Breathing occurs with contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm. As the diaphragm contracts, it expands into the abdominal cavity, increasing the available space in the lung cavity and drawing air into the space created.
We Have Forgotten How to Breathe!
In our society however, we have a cultural trend of shallow-breathers; people who breathe using their accessory breathing muscles, namely the Intercostals, Pectoralis Minor and Serratus Posterior Superior, whilst not activating the diaphragm fully, if at all. The result is a short, fast breathing pattern similar to hyperventilation, both in sight, sound and physiological implications.
Think about it – when does your body naturally go into a state of hyperventilation, and physically what does this look like in the body?
It is usually following intense exercise, intense fear or shock, all of which coincide with a release of the stress hormone, Cortisol, and when in this state we tend to assume a ‘hunched-over’ posture, with rounded shoulders to shorten the passageway to the lungs.
It is a bit of a case of the chicken and the egg in terms of which is the catalyst, however there is a certain profile I see a lot in clients with poor breathing patterns:
- Stressed executives
- Hours of sitting/standing
- Tight, rounded shoulders, postural imbalances
- Poor mind-muscle connection/body awareness
Whether the sitting/standing with poor posture led to postural imbalance and core dysfunction, which led to poor breathing patterns, which led to high cortisol….or a high-stress lifestyle led to high cortisol and incorrect breathing habits which led to postural imbalance and core dysfunction I do not know, but there is certainly a correlation that I am seeing over and over again.
Stress management is crucial in our high stress culture and lifestyle – this is a major component of all programs at Clean Health Fitness Institute, as we understand that lifestyle plays a primary role in health and body composition.
With clients who present with the above profile, core training always begins with learning how to breathe and activate correctly. Once you know how to stabilise, you can graduate to loading the spine with lifts such as deadlifts, squats and presses. If your core is weak, use your rest periods to practice deep breathing and TVA activation.
How to train the Core
Stage 1: Begin with the Breath
You should be able to comfortably inhale for 3 seconds, then exhale for 3 seconds, at a minimum. If this is uncomfortable, or unachievable, you are likely not utilizing the full capacity of your lungs, and not activating your diaphragm.
To train the Inner Unit, begin by lying on your back with your hands on your diaphragm, at the base of the ribcage. Inhale normally and as you exhale, apply a gentle pressure down on your diaphragm and continue to exhale until you are completely empty of air and continuing trying to exhale results in a rasping sound.
On your next inhalation, feel your diaphragm expand beneath your hands and draw the breath in slow and deep. You should feel your lower lungs/stomach expand first, then into your back and sides, and the chest should rise last.
Stage 2: TVA Engaged
Whilst lying on you back, imagine you have a piece of string tied to your belly button and connected to the floor beneath you. As you exhale, imagine this string is being gently pulled to draw your belly down to the floor, creating a mini vacuum. When you inhale, try to hold onto this contraction and tighten it with each exhalation.
Engaging the TVA is simple enough – training the TVA to remain on
is where the real challenge lies, as is best achieved through practice and mindfulness. If you know you have issues with core activation, I recommend having a mental cue to reset your posture and activate your core throughout your sets to ensure it remains on.
Stage 3: Segmental Stabilisation
Now that you can activate your deep core to stabilise safely, the next stage is to introduce movement at the Outer Unit whilst trying to maintain stability of the Inner Unit.
Below I have detailed some of my favourite exercises for training the Outer Unit of the core.
Ahh, the good ol’ plank. A favourite of mine since gymnastics days and one of the fastest methods for developing strength in not only the entire body, but also the mind!
Depending upon your level, planking can be scaled to ensure correct activation of the core muscles, no sagging or lifting of the hips. Planking is also incredibly beneficial for shoulder stability and strength. Aim to work up to a 2min straight arm plank.
Muscles: Isometric contraction of inner and outer unit and many muscles across the whole body.
Execution: Hands/Elbows shoulder width apart, pulling the floor apart between them and pushing away from the floor to spread your shoulder blades across your back. Focus on drawing the belly in and upward to create a vacuum and tuck the tailbone under to ensure lower abdominal activation. Press the heels back and engage the quads to lift the knee caps.
- Hover Elbow Plank
- High Plank
- Side Plank
- Single Arm Plank
- Plank Variations
The old fashioned plank as demonstrated by CHFI presenter Sarah Bartlett!
2. Hanging Leg Raise
Another gymnastics conditioning drill, hanging leg raises are highly effective for developing strength in the often dormant lower region of the rectus abdominis, aka the “6-pack” abs, as well as assisting with rounded shoulder postures by stretching in the hanging position. Always begin with bent leg variations to warm up and wake up lower abdominals to ensure dominant hip flexors do not take over.
Muscles: TVA, Rectus Abdominis, Lats, Internal/External Oblique’s
Execution: Hang from a straight bar, with spine supported so you cannot swing. Lightly engage lats and shoulders to keep collarbones wide and shoulders away from ears. Squeeze your legs together and bring your toes in front of your midline, tucking your tailbone under to put the pelvis into a posterior tilt and gently squeezing the glutes and core. Pull the knees up as high as you can, control the legs on the way back down to ensure not swinging.
- Bent Leg Raise
- Half Straight Leg Negative Raise
- Half Straight Leg Raise
- Straddle Leg Raise
- Straight Leg Negative Raise
- Straight Leg Raise
3. Reverse Hyper
Popular in both gymnastics and bodybuilding cultures, the reverse hyper is a favourite for developing strength in the posterior core.
Muscles: glutes, hamstrings, erecor spinae, lats, TVA, diaphragm
Execution: Lay over the machine with your hips off the edge so that your feet can hang beneath your hips. Brace yourself with your core and shoulders to stabilise to torso, whilst lifting and lengthening the legs. Think about drawing the pubic bone up toward the ribcage to keep lower abdominals and deep core on to stabilise the pelvis.
- Bent Leg Reverse Hyper
- Straddle Reverse Hyper
- Straight Leg Reverse Hyper
- Weighted Reverse Hyper
- Reverse Hyper Variations
The above 3 exercises and their variations are some of the staple exercises used to develop a strong, functional and aesthetic core alongside correct breathing and lifting technique. The optimal way to train your core is in the manner in which you want it to be strong, i.e. if you need a strong core to get your squat heavier, then the best way to achieve this is through progressively overloading and periodising squatting with correct core activation.
In closing, training core does not equal six pack abs – lifestyle and nutrition play a major role, and stress is one of the biggest inhibiting factors for most individuals today. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing stress and eating a balanced diet are the secrets to revealing your 6-pack abs. The above exercises and techniques will help you to develop a strong, athletic core to ensure optimal training potential and longevity, the rest is up to you.
Editors note: If you are a personal trainer interested in learning our industry leading methods when it comes to program design for human health and performance, check out our Performance PT Certification program which we teach globally to personal trainers.