Training Your Core for Functional FitnessThe best exercises for general strength train the body as a unit. In barbell training, coordinated movements, progressively loaded train the whole body to produce force, requiring and developing a strong core better than almost any other type of "functional fitness."
Training your Core for Functional Fitness
“Function” is one of the prevalent buzzwords in fitness. Presumably, “functional fitness” is meant to distinguish some exercises from dysfunctional fitness. You don’t have to go far to see the fitness of dysfunction. Visit almost any commercial gym, people watch for a little while, and you will see it: people doing stuff but not stuff that will lead to a better, more useful, more functional body. Unfortunately, functional fitness as a buzzword has come to include a lot of dysfunction as well, balance balls, and special stabilization exercises targeted at your “core.”
The most useful exercises for general strength train the body as a unit, using the same coordinated use of the musculoskeletal system as normal human movement. The more joints in an exercise, the more natural coordination required, and the more generally useful it is. In a coordinated movement, we can observe an essential aspect of human function. For now, let’s focus on the “core”: the musculature of your trunk and how those muscles typically work.
Imagine a spectrum of human movement. On one end, you have the least amount of movement, lying prone and relaxed. Moving along the spectrum, you might go from lying to sitting, from sitting to walking, to running, and so on. As far as the number of joints used, the squat is pretty far down the spectrum: it is a big movement. We use the squat, the press, and the deadlift because they are big movements that use a lot of muscle mass. They use most of the body’s muscles, and when we add weight to the bar, those muscles must work proportionately harder to the added weight.
On this spectrum of movement, what do the trunk muscles actually do? Three main muscle groups make up your core: The erector spinae (the back extensors), the rectus abdominis (your abs), the transverse abdominis, and the interior and exterior obliques. Together these muscles can extend the spine (back extensors), flex and rotate the trunk, and compress and support the trunk. In most normal human movement, the muscles of the trunk primarily operate isometrically. The spinal erectors hold your posture, and the muscles of your abdominal wall squeeze and support. Rarely in the everyday moment do you intentionally flex your spine, and almost never do you do so in active loaded movement. Perhaps there is a reason that we tend to see someone slouching as having a weak to timid personality.
Anytime you are standing on your feet and need to produce force to move your body or carry something. The muscles that keep you stable are crucial to preventing the loss of force. These muscles are constantly keeping you upright, holding your posture. Running, jumping, walking, football, jiu-jitsu, or lifting, your trunk muscles are in a constant state of assisting force production through postural control.
For a more functional core, you simply need to load this function. You build strength through force production and its gradual increase over time. Calisthenics like crunches and planks may tax the endurance of some of these muscles. Stabilization exercises may activate them, but neither of these types of training allows you to gradually increase the strength of these muscles’ contractions.
You don’t just want to “work” your core muscles; you want to make them stronger. The concept of progressive overload applies to the trunk muscles just like every other trainable skeletal muscle in the body. The muscles get stronger by being required to produce progressively more force.
First, you do this by making them do their job—by squatting, deadlifting, and pressing—then, by making their job a little bit more difficult—adding weight to the bar does this just fine. As you add weight to the bar, it becomes much more difficult to keep a rigid spine. The muscles then must adapt and get stronger.
The key is to learn how to contract and hold these muscles tight during your lifts. Many people do this without thinking about it. They get ready to lift by taking a big breath and squeezing everything tight. But sometimes, the movement needs coaching: when learning to lift and the idea of voluntarily contracting your back and abdominal muscles are just two more things to think about among the barrage of new sensations.
Other lifters will exhibit a weak abdominal contraction. You can usually see this in overextension of the lower back during the setup and movement of the lifts. This often looks like you are “arching,” and is accomplished most often at the expense of a weak abdominal contraction.
If you are standing tall and upright, you are in normal anatomical extension. This is as extended as your spine needs to be during the lifts. From here, learn to brace the muscles that control your spinal position. This is a squeezing rather than an arching or extending movement. As you get ready to lift, keeping tight abs like you are anticipating a blow to the stomach will prevent you from overextending your back and will improve your ability to lift if you have been weak in that area. A belt can help tremendously, as well. When you contract your abdominals, the belt pushes back, giving you tactile feedback, like a built-in cue, confirmation that you are holding your abs tight and are ready to lift. Do this, and enjoy a strong, stable core and all the benefits of the most functional fitness there is.
For more on setting your back and training your core, check out the video below: