Core Training: Is it Really Necessary?

Yes, but not like you think you do. Core training is as important- not more, not less, than training the rest of your body. Your “core” is really all of the muscles and joints of the torso.

People are obsessed with training their “CORE”. As a trainer, you can train someone until they have nothing left and once the blood starts returning to their lips they’ll say, “Can we do an ab finisher?” You can almost see the training guilt being washed away if they leave a session feeling as though they have duly CRUSHED their abs.

When and if I get curious and ask someone why they want to train abs all of the time, I get 1 of 2 answers: fixing a back problem, chasing a six-pack. And half of the people doing it for their back may be just disguising their secret obsession with a six-pack.

This is why you need a good trainer, because if left to your own devices to train and train and train your “CORE”- which really means your six-pack muscles, you will likely give yourself a back problem or make an old one worse, and not necessarily SEE the six-pack because you are barking up the wrong tree.

The Good News About Core Training

The good news is, if you work out at all, you can’t avoid training your core. The muscles of the torso are there to move the torso but also to stabilize the spine. Every time you move, the muscle of the torso WORK together to make sure that you don’t break in half. Every time you pick something up, throw, pull something down from overhead, rotate, hit a volleyball, lean forward, lean forward with a bar on your back, take your kid out of their car seat, and sneeze… your core is working. It will get stronger right along with you as you train some of these movements like deadlifting, push-upping, pull-upping, back squatting, and crawling.

You can train core stability exercises to make squats, push-ups, and deads easier. You can train and strengthen core mobility (spinal mobility, breathing) to make life and crawling, functional stuff- easier.

Very few activities in life require super strong torsos, like gymnasts. They need it and require lots of supplemental core training, but they do it in a balanced way and work mobility along with it.

Where Your Back Pain is Really Coming From

Back problems are most often handed the diagnosis “weak core, do planks”. Yet I feel that this is not usually the cause and solution for back problems, even in regards to people that are pretty out of shape.

This diagnosis bugs me because then said-person with back problem launches themselves into a vigorous core training program and many of you inadvertently make matters worse doing too many sit-ups and crunches. (Spoiler alert: you’re contributing to a system of imbalances that is the problem in the first place).

Back problems are more likely due to sitting all day. Our hamstrings and glutes are shitty due to chronically inhabiting this position. Sitting puts your back in an unnatural position. If you sit long enough, often enough, your body starts a fight to crown the new reigning “normal” position. So you have issues with the pelvis tugging oddly on the spine both from short hamstrings and short hip flexors, combined with a confused spine from sitting too much and not moving like an up-right bi-ped should.

Training your torso and pelvis to enhance stability and mobility will alleviate back pain. IF back pain is in fact due to issues with your core, it is coming from imbalances in mobility and strength. The problem with going off and doing this on your own is that it’s very hard to identify strength and mobility imbalances without the help of a good trainer or therapist. Sure, if you’re paying attention you may be able to figure out what bugs your back and avoid it, but how are you going to make it better so that you just don’t have a shitty back anymore? Maybe some of the exercises you train are making the problem worse without you knowing it, setting the scene for a tweak.

Let’s get back to that Six-Pack!

This is the hardest lesson in fitness to teach because no one wants to accept the truth. Everyone has seen some gimmicky ad on the internet that somehow takes hold of their subconscious, making it impossible to get this point through.

Here’s the truth… are you ready for the truth?

There’s no amount of ab training you can do to make a six pack pop through or melt off the layer of fat that is making them invisible. You already have a six pack. All of the training you are doing to get them, is a waste of your time. You’re barking up the wrong tree.

If you pull up your shirt and flex and see dimples rather than ab cleavage, you need to focus your efforts on your diet if abs are really your goal. If you can’t see them, it’s not because they aren’t there, it’s because most of the population carries body fat there. It’s not a lack of muscle tissue, its the distinct presence of fatty tissue. In order for you to succeed with your goals, you will need to target fat loss, not muscle gain.

You can train your abs day and night for years and if you have really strong abs under a layer of fat, you will just wind up looking like a juice box. I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just trying to save you from putting effort into a dead end. So you can stop seeking out a sore tummy to validate that you’re on your way to a six pack.

Here’s another fun fact- body builders, especially females, are very careful about how they train their abs. Too much core training, especially of the side variety (obliques) can produce a big boxy core. It can even go so far as turning your six-pack into a turtle shell. The look is a lean and defined V. Training your lats and other back muscles will create a V, making your waist seem narrower. Feeling boxy? Train your delts and lats.

Stubborn Fat, Full Disclosure

If you are truly committed to having a six pack once and for all, then start figuring out a good fat loss plan. The most important part of this phase is realizing what you are getting into. You have to erase all of the marketing your mind has fallen prey to in your lifetime, telling you that abs are easy and will be yours if you just commit yourself to a 10 minute per day exercise program for a month (which you, of course, pay them for). In reality, we’re talking months of fat loss. We may even be talking about a level of fat loss that you don’t even want to hit, it’s so low. Depends on how stubborn that area is for you.

There are three main body shapes out there in regards to fat gain- the Apple, the Pear, and the All-Over. Both the All-Over and the Apple will have a hard time getting shredded abs, but for apples, it will be really hard. Seeing abs and muscle striations anywhere is a straight up matter of low body fat. We carry fat in some places more than others and unfortunately, you cannot do anything to target the fat over your abs. Your body will lose weight where it wants to. You just have to keep going until the abs pop out.

If you’re an Apple, know that this will be a bitch. Before you launch into this super committed diet regime, make sure you read the fine print. This is an area of stubborn fat retention, and you will have to get down to body fat levels that are ultra low and hard to hit and maintain. It may make you miserable. It’s going to take a good amount of serious commitment and effort. Once you get there, if you want to maintain it, that too will take some serious effort and commitment. And the real bummer is that you may hate the way the rest of you looks. Your friends will probably tell you, “you look too skinny”. Some might even schedule an intervention.

The same is true for pears that want to rid themselves of every last dimple on their butts. Oh you can do it, but the rest of you will get REEEEALLY skinny. You may be able to see your lymphatic system through your skin.

Stop Obsessing Over You Core

Now is the time to reconsider all of the relentless CORE training you’re doing. Train instead what your body really needs to be trained. If all this core training is giving you back problems, you really need to stop. Think long and hard about your options and how important these abs are to you.

Maybe you can take this as an opportunity to relax and stop worrying that you’re not training hard enough or that your trainer’s programming sucks because you don’t have a six-pack. If you really want one, seek out some help with your food.

If you have a back problem and have been trying to fix it with planks, it’s time to seek out a qualified trainer or therapist to help you find out what’s loose, tight, or broken so you can go about targeting improvements rather than avoiding the problem.

Train your core to be mobile, strong, capable, and balanced. Train your core to support you in what you love to do in life.