When you build a house, you don’t start with the landscaping. You pour footers and lay a foundation, the structural anchor of the American Dream. The same principle applies to kinesiology, the science of muscular movement. The footer in the human body is the core, a web of muscles that spans the hips, abdominals, back, and shoulders. Every move you make- from sex to swinging a golf club-calls this support system into play.
Funny thing about this critical muscle group: Most men ignore it, says physiologist Mark Verstegen, president of Athletes’ Performance in Arizona and author of Core Performance. He knows most men take the vanity approach to exercise, training muscles in the arms, legs, and chest. “That’s fine if you want your body for show,” he says. “But the middle third must be integrated, because it’s the hub. If it’s not dialed in, things will break down.”
Your core network is made up of muscles that allow you to reach for a book without folding over at the waist, open a door without flipping backward, and bend to pick up a basketball without nose-diving into the court. It stabilizes the motions of daily life. It’s also where all movement begins.
Whenever your arms leave your sides or your legs bend at the knees, the transverse abdominis muscle fires into action. Once activated, it works in concert with the rest of your core muscles to stabilize your hips, anchor the movements of your extremities, and transfer energy efficiently throughout the body.
Save Your Back
Being able to transfer energy efficiently to your limbs is particularly important if you play sports. Consider a sprinter like Usain Bolt. As he runs, his torso hardly moves. Without a granite core, the Jamaican wouldn’t be the world’s fastest man. The pumping of his arms and the driving of his legs would create a rotational force in his midsection, causing energy to “leak” from his system. Such instability would not only slow him down but also wreak havoc on his joints. “Sooner or later something would break,” says Verstegen. That something is usually the lower back.
The majority of all back pain can be attributed to weak core muscles, according to spine surgeon Richard Guyer, M.D., cofounder of the Texas Back Institute. “It’s your hip flexors, hip extensors, back extensors, abdominals, and obliques that stabilize your spine,” he says. “One weak link will affect all the others.”
Rethink the Situp
Developing a stronger core starts with redefining the situp. The traditional crunch focuses on the abs, training them to be mobilizers. What you want is an armada of stabilizers that ripple from your hips to your shoulders. So a perfect “situp” is one that challenges your stability and forces you to brace against gravity. The following exercises do just that. Use them to improve posture, incur fewer injuries, and generate greater total body power.
THE CORE WORKOUT
Swiss Ball Crunch
What it does: Creates total core stability and stresses your abs How to do it Lie on a Swiss ball with your feet flat on the floor and your back arched along the curve of the ball. (Try to make your butt, back, and shoulder blades touch the ball so your abs
are completely stretched.) With your fingertips lightly touching your ears, crunch from the top of your torso, rolling your chest and hips up while pulling in your belly button. Hold for 1 second, then lower your hips and chest to the starting position. For added difficulty, hold a 5-,10-, or 25-pound weight behind your head while you exercise.
Verstegen’s take: “The best ab-crunching exercise out there.”
What it does: Strengthens the shoulder, core, and hip muscles, and conditions the smaller stabilizers that support them
How to do it: Lie facedown with your forearms resting on the floor and your elbows bent under your shoulders at about 90 degrees. Push off on your elbows and support your weight on them and your toes. Tuck your chin so your head is in line with your back, and pull your toes toward your shins. Hold for 30 seconds, relax, and repeat. For added difficulty, lift one arm or leg, hold for 2 seconds, then switch arms or legs. When you get good at this, try lifting both your right arm and left leg, then switch, lifting your left arm and right leg.
Verstegen’s take: “This is unbelievably simple to do, yet still extremely challenging.”
What it does: Works your gluteal muscles, improves the stability of your hips, and protects your back
How to do it: Lie on your back with knees bent 90 degrees and fleet flat on the floor. Squeeze a rolled-up towel or ball between your knees. While tightening your abs, lift your hips toward the ceiling by firing your glutes, creating a straight line from knee to shoulder. Hold a few seconds, then lower your hips until they almost touch the floor. Repeat. Once you’ve mastered this, eliminate the towel and try “marching” in place by lifting one leg at a time.
Verstegen’s take: “The more you learn how to use your hips and your glutes, the more you’ll protect yourself from lower-back pain and improve [athletic] performance.”