Core Stability and Strength: The What, Why and How To.

January 21, 2018

If you follow me on Instagram (@onpointewellness), you may have seen my "10 Days of Stabilization" series. So to wrap it up I wanted to go a little more in depth about core stabilization and strength to give you a better understanding of what it is and why you should do it. 



First, lets talk anatomy.


It is important to understand that when we are talking about "the Core" we are not just talking about the "6 pack muscles", or even the abdominals for that matter. Yes, these muscles are part of the core, however they are just that. PART of the core. When we are referring to the core, what we are really talking about is the entire trunk; this includes the abdominals, spine, pelvis and even up to the shoulder blades and neck. "The core" encompasses the muscles that are at the center of our bodies, capable of generating all the stability, strength and power for the rest of the body.


To break it down, lets talk about the 2 main groups of core muscles: the global stabilizers and the local stabilizers. 


The global stabilizers consist of the larger, more superficial muscles. They are made up of primarily Type 2 muscle fibers* and their main purpose is to produce strong contractions for short periods of time. They are responsible for controlling large trunk movements such as bending forward, backward, sideways and rotating. Because they are capable of producing these powerful contractions, they fatigue quickly. 


The muscles considered to be global stabilizers include: the rectus abdominis (6 pack muscle), external obliques, internal obliques and the lumbar paraspinals.



The local stabilizers are the smaller, deeper muscles whose purpose is control, stability and posture. They consist primarily of Type 1 muscle fibers*, so their job is to maintain small scale contractions over a longer period of time. When contracting these muscles you will not always visually see movement, because their contractions are happening at a deeper level to stabilize the spinal segments. These postural muscles are more fatigue resistant since their contractions are less powerful.


The local stabilizer muscles include: the transverse abdominis, multifidus and a myriad of other small muscles that lie right up against your spine (I won't bore you with all the names here). 


* you can read more about Type 1 vs. Type 2 muscle fibers in my blog post "Posture vs. Power"*




As I mentioned, the core is at the center of our bodies and is responsible for initiating and generating all the stability and strength to our arms and legs. If we don't have good stability at the center, movement down to the smallest muscle in the toe can be affected.


Think of it this way: If I am holding a spaghetti noodle and it is only cooked, and therefore flexible, in the middle the ends will still be free to flop around. BUT if the middle is uncooked, and therefore more stable, the ends will no longer be free to move around at their own will. The same goes for the core. When the trunk is stable, the arms and legs are under more control and there is less freedom of movement.


Unlike the spaghetti noodle example, I don't want you to have the impression that the core needs to be completely rigid either, because this is not functional. If we are too stiff and rigid, this gets us into trouble as well. So we must find a balance where we are able to have adequate mobility throughout all the joints, BUT movement is always performed in a controlled manor. I refer to this as controlled mobility.  Controlled mobility must start at the core before it is able to have any effect on the extremities.


If we take a look back at the purpose of global and local stabilizers, it is evident that each group has a specific job to do; either create strength or stability. It is important to understand that there is a distinct difference between strength and stability.


So which group should we do exercises for?? BOTH!


We must work on training both of these aspects during functional movements to prevent muscle imbalances that can lead to injury. Everyone has different muscle imbalances and movement patterns, therefore the amounts in which you must train your local versus global stabilizers may vary. However, it is important for everyone to include exercises for both strength and stability to some degree. 




Because strength and stability are 2 different things, we must train them accordingly. We must always train stability first, because without it we cannot maintain good alignment and control throughout exercise and functional movements. I have broken down ways to target both stability and strength to make it easier to understand. 


Stability = Local Stabilizers:

When trying to train stability we must focus on control, alignment and proper movement patterns

Exercises for stability are generally smaller movements and most of the muscle contraction you cannot even see with the naked eye because it is happening at the deepest layers of the core. They are typically done at a slower pace as well, so that the movement is well controlled. 


Keep in mind that when working on stability, the muscle fibers involved fatigue slower. Therefore, you will not feel that burning sensation that you may get after doing 50 crunches. IT's OK, keep going! As long as you are properly engaging the trunk muscles, you will still be successful at improving your core stability. 


The easiest, yet most important stabilization exercises is called BRACING. This exercise describes contraction of the transverse abdominis, which is a muscle that wraps around our core like a corset. It is the foundational piece that all other core stabilization exercises are based off. If you can't do this piece, you won't be able to progress to more difficult movements and positions. Remember, you must have stability before you can move on to strength!


To perform bracing: start lying on your back. You want to keep your spine in a neutral position, so no arching or flattening of the spine is allowed. Place your fingers on the inside of your pelvic bones (also called the ASIS), and press in a little bit. This is where you will feel the contraction happening. Imagine drawing your belly button toward your spine to tense the underlying abdominals (When contracted, it should feel similar to the tension that occurs when you cough or laugh). DO NOT let your spine push down or arch away from the floor. Also, if performing properly, you should still be able to inhale and exhale without loosing the contraction. Hold 5 seconds, repeat 10 times.


Once you have achieved a solid bracing technique, its time to practice it in various positions: sitting, standing, kneeling, etc. There are thousands of different stabilization exercises to choose from, but here are a few of my favorites with progressions:


To check out more videos of my favorite core stabilization exercises, head over to my Instagram (@onpointewellness).



Strength = Global Stabilizers: 

When the focus is on strength and power the movements involved will now be bigger, faster and more complex. You will have already achieved good stability, so there should be little risk of injury in performing these movements. This category would be where an exercise such as crunches is included. It is a larger scale movement, which requires strength and power to complete. 


Since we are now dealing with muscles that fatigue quicker, you will likely feel more of a burning sensation during the strength exercises. Again, this is normal so keep going! Be sure to stop when you can no longer hold proper alignment, but working through that fatigue is how you will begin to see strength improvements. 


Again, there are millions of different core strength building exercises but here are a few of my favorite examples: