By Matt Cairns, MScPT
(EJNews) – I am often asked what are the best core exercises. Over the years my answer has changed. The answer I give now is not usually what people want to hear but I believe it is the most accurate – all movements are core exercises, the best ones depend on your mobility. Like I said, people generally don’t like that answer as it is too broad and doesn’t give them something to focus on in their workouts or rehab programs. The reason I give this answer is that I want people to shift their focus from training muscles to training movements. All movements require the core muscles to work, some are simply more advanced than others or are designed for you to feel your “abs” working.
For example, the “sit-up, or crunch” exercise is designed to target the ab muscles so that’s usually where you feel it. The squat is also a great core exercise but did you ever do squats in the gym or sit down in a chair and say “wow, I can really feel that in my abs.” No, you didn’t. Nevertheless, it recruits the core muscles very well.
Lets take another exercise that is simple to perform and accessible to almost every population – the standing bicep curl. This is an exercise that you see a lot in the gym and workout programs. It is effective at isolating the biceps but is not traditionally thought of or classified as a core exercise. I use this movement a lot with patients to help them use a relatively simple exercise to apply the concept of proximal stability before distal mobility. Instead of thinking about this movement as a bicep exercise, I encourage patients to approach it as a spinal stability exercise with dynamic arm movements. That doesn’t sound as good as a “bicep curls”, but it does help people understand that every exercise is an opportunity to improve your core strength – which should be the point of you doing it in the first place.
It doesn’t matter what your ultimate goal is, the approach to each exercise should be the same – improve your core strength and spinal stability. So if you have a lot of aches and pains and find most exercises difficult, do not discard the effectiveness of simple, gentle exercises. If approached correctly with proper technique and steady progressions in intensity, there will be an improvement in core patterning. As an increased load is placed on the extremities, there will be a load transferred to the core (the torso) that will place more stress on the spinal and pelvic stabilizers. In other words, as you lift more weight it will be harder to keep your back straight and your shoulders and hips from rotating.
Look at the guy in the gym doing bicep curls with weights that are clearly too heavy for him – his shoulders are moving and rotating, his spine is side bending and extending, his torso is rotating. If you’ve spent any time in a gym you’ll know the guy. If he lowered the weight he would be able to stabilize his shoulders, spine and pelvis properly and would gain a lot more from the exercise. The load dictates how effective you will be with activating the core muscles, stabilizing the spine and pelvis and will also reveal core weaknesses.
When performed correctly and with the right load, most exercises are great for shoulder, spine and pelvic stabilization and will improve your mobility. I encourage all my patients to bring awareness to their abdomen by drawing their navel in and work at keeping their spine and pelvis straight, in-line and stable during all exercises. Easier said than done I know!! Work with the best intentions and seek advice if you’re in need.
I realize that some of you may have mobility issues, joint pain or other problems that may limit your ability to participate in a regular exercise program. If this is the case, please seek appropriate medical advice or book an assessment with me to address your individual needs. Most importantly, keep active!
Renew Physiotherapy & Exercise is an Edmonton based rehabilitation and exercise therapy clinic owned by Matt Cairns. Matt is a physiotherapist specializing in exercise therapy and holds certifications in pilates, manual therapy and IMS (Dry Needling).