You’ve heard the old adage ‘6 pack’ when talking about your abdominal muscles, but does this actually mean you have a strong core?
Let’s look at these scenarios from a few different perspectives.
Know the look you want
Firstly, what is it that you want? Do you want the aesthetic look of a ‘6 pack’ with defined muscles on your stomach? Or do you prefer a flatter, trimmer look for your tummy area?
It takes a lot of work to attain a 6 pack and it’s up to you as to the look you prefer for your body. For example, you will need to be very strict on caloric intake, be completing a high amount of abdominal exercises every week, plus lots of cardio training.
Don’t forget functionality
This is all good if that is your goal, but you may also want to consider how ‘functional’ your body is. You see, everything starts with a strong core: good posture, balanced movement patterns, good flexibility and range through different muscles because you are working from a strong centre, good alignment and support for when the body is under load, and less risk of injury and back pain.
If you have ever hurt your back for example, when you visit a physio or health practitioner to get it fixed, majority of the time they will tell you to ‘strengthen your core muscles.’
Can you have a 6 pack without a strong core?
The interesting thing is that having a toned, 6 pack stomach does not necessarily mean you have strong core. Now you are strong, but in a different way.
I’ll give you this example. When I worked in a body building gym years ago (yes that was the first fitness centre I worked in!) the men would come in very bulky as you can imagine. But get them to do a simple rotation through their torso, reach to touch their toes, or lengthen their spine to do a controlled side plank or slow sit up for example, it was near impossible.
This is because their ‘outer’ muscles (global muscles) were much stronger than their ‘stabilisers’ (local muscles). When your globals are too strong it means your stabilisers are rarely likely to switch on and the load will always go to the bigger muscles causing over-use, strain, instability and imbalance throughout the whole body. And this is where injuries occur.
On the flip side, if you have strong stabilisers as well (think of the deeper layers of the abdominals – the TA – transverse abdominis – pictured below), then your body is working correctly from the inside out, providing a good base of support for taking load and movement. Everything is working in unison as it should be.
What does it mean to have a strong core?
A strong core means you should be able to switch on deeper muscles and outer muscles when doing any exercise; have rotation and flexibility in your core – hips, torso, spine; be able to carry your own body easily and fluently when doing bodyweight style exercises; be able to keep your spine long while doing abdominal work and maintain a great posture at all times.
Often I have seen people be able to do fast, high rep movements even with weights and extra load for ‘ab’ work, but not be able to perform a simple leg lift to isolate the ‘TA.’ This again causes the overuse of bigger muscles.
When I have a new client I get them to take a few tests first, to see where their core strength is at. This helps you understand where your body is at and how your stabilisers are performing. The great thing is after my 10 week program every client will always get a significant improvement in their core strength tests and have greater movement, flexibility and a more shapely tummy area too.
Here’s a few of the core strength tests you can do easily at home:
1. Pointer balance
Tests: deeper core muscle balance and pelvic stability
How to do: In 4 point kneeling (hands under shoulders, knees under hips), draw in abdominals. Stretch out right arm and left leg, lifting off floor. Hold the position for 10 seconds on each side without tilting or falling. If successful and you could balance say a plate of food or bottle of water steadily on your upper and lower back while doing this (you can try this!) then this would be a successful level 1. To reach level 2, do the same stretch out with your opposite arm and leg – this time tilting the back foot off the floor so you are balancing only on your knee this time. This will really show you if your right and left obliques, and deep core are working well.
Tests: the strength of your back and core stabilisers.
How to do: place elbows under shoulders, tuck toes under and straighten legs out for full plank position. Hold for 10 seconds, this is a successful level 1. Continue holding, lift the right leg up for 10 seconds, then swap to the leg left leg for 10 seconds. If you can complete that you are at a successful level 2. The test can progress to then stretching out 1 arm at a time for 10 seconds, then both the opposite arm and leg for 10 seconds, progressing you to a level 4. If you fall at anytime before completing Level 4, then you record where you got to.
3. Roll up
Tests: abdominal control and strength.
How to do: Lay on back, stretch legs forward and together. Keeping arms close to your ears, slowly start to roll your body up off the floor without lifting legs, without crunching into your tummy area, and without pulling the arms forward using momentum. Complete 10 very slowly, with these guidelines and you are successful. Many people can push out 100 sit ups or as many sit ups as you can in 1 minute for example, but I find it is more useful for you to focus on control, and slowing everything down for less risk of injury and really getting those stabilisers to work with the bigger muscles in synchronicity.
Core strength takes time to build, but will really help your body’s health and strength in the long run. Focus on slow, controlled movements and you will develop a nice tone and shape throughout your waistline and body.
You can get access to my entire ‘Core Test’ with the new online program ’10 Week Pilates Body Fit’ now available. I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions at all.
By Vanessa Bartlett www.vanessabhealth.com
Presenter, Author, Instructor at
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