The key areas involved in core conditioning and functionality are, firstly, the inner core and how it improves function and secondly, integrating a strong core with the rest of the body during movement.
A strong inner core should have two main functions; To help produce and hold a neutral lower spine position and protect the lower trunk from injury during everyday movement. Neutral lower spine position is considered the position at which the lower (lumbar) spine and pelvis are best aligned to transmit forces thru the trunk. At this position the structures of the lower back and pelvis can receive and transmit force from the rest of the body with a decreased risk of injury. Activating the inner core will help produce a neutral spine position. There are four parts to the inner core and the best way to visualize its structure is to use a cylindrical model. The top of the cylinder represents the diaphragm, the front and sides represents transverses abdominis muscles, the back represents the multifidus muscles and the base represents the pelvic floor muscles. Activating all four groups in a coordinated manner will not only help produce neutral spine but also form a strong girdle like structure around the lower back. Without this girdle in place, the lower spine and joints are at great risk of injury from forces caused by unusual or high-risk movement patterns (i.e., rotation and flexing at the same time). When the inner core is strong, forces from the limbs can transmit more effectively throughout the body. From sporting situations to everyday physical tasks ability to produce powerful integrated movements safely all starts with functional inner core. Imagine a crane with one weak section: it doesn’t matter how strong the rest of the structures are, its ability to lift is always limited by its weakest link.
An important factor that is often missed is the integration of the core has with the rest of the body. Not only must the inner core interact with the structures of the thorax (hips, shoulders and neck) but these structures must also interact with the upper and lower limbs. A strong linkage between these structures is paramount. We move in a multidimensional world and human movement will produce forces that will to travel away and towards the center of the body. When you first decide to start an exercise programme it is essential to seek help from a qualified instructor or personal trainer to teach you the basics like neutral spine posture and switching on your inner core. Many gyms now run programmes focusing on core conditioning. Les mills have a 12-week programme dedicated to helping an individual progress from a beginner level to advance core training. Like a house the human body needs strong foundations, when you first start training it is important to focus on inner core. When you gain control over your inner core change your programme to integrate the total body. Exercises should then involve the upper and lower limbs in a coordinated manner, mimicking movement used in everyday life. If you try a more advanced exercise and cannot maintain neutral spine and inner core activation, take a step back. Your nervous system will learn faster with correct posture and core activation. Slowly increase the difficulty of exercises as you gain control over your body.
The Exercise Programme
Before commencing any of these exercises, seek clearance from a medical practitioner. The following examples are advanced core exercises. You will need a strong core to attempt the following exercises. If you want to start training your core or need to improve your cores functionality, seek help from a qualified instructor or personal trainer.
The following exercises can be used in addition to an individual existing exercise programme. Try 1 or 2 of the following exercises after a 5-10 min warm-up.
Sets Reps/ time Rest
Double Swiss-ball roll out 2-3 1-10 60s
Pole Bridge 2-3 1-10 60s
Inner unit leg switch 2-3 1-10 60s
Swiss-ball side twists 2-3 1-15 60s
S/ball m/ball bridges 2-3 10-20s 60s
Do not hold your breath, breathe out on exertion. Maintain a neutral spine position and switch on your inner core on before starting exercises. Maintain technique throughout exercise, once you lose your technique -stop! Make sure you perform all exercises in a cleared area with no chance of contacting objects during falls.
Double Swiss-ball roll out
This is an extremely advanced exercise that will place great demands on balance and inner core strength. This exercise highlights the need to have a strong integration between the inner core and the thorax muscles, which in turn, are linked to our legs and arms. Mastering this exercise indicates great control over one’s body.
Place two equally sized Swiss-balls one diametre apart. Mount one ball in the kneeling position. Slowly place your hands on the other ball forming a horse stance position. Roll both balls apart so you can start in a kneeling bridge position. Make sure your forearms and lower legs are in contact with the S/balls. Maintain a neutral back and neck position at all times.
Roll both S/balls apart while maintaining a neutral back and neck position. When you start to lose technique or strength, roll both S/ball’s together to the starting position. Only repeat reps while maintaining the correct form.
This exercise is an advanced version of a rollout exercise. It will place great demands on inner core and upper body strength. Increasing the starting distance of your knees to the pole will increase difficulty.
Start with knees shoulder width apart. Maintain a neutral spine and neck position throughout entire movement. The pole should be about one and a half metres away from your knees. Start with one hand above the other just above your head height.
While maintaining a neutral back and head position, slowly place one hand below the next. When you begin to lose neutral spine position return to the starting position by placing one hand above the other. Repeat steps while correct technique is preformed.
Inner unit leg switch
Inner unit exercises are one of the foundation exercises used for improving inner core function. Performing the exercise with straight leg switch places great demands on the inner core. Before attempting this exercise the individual must have mastered lower level inner unit exercises. Failure to do this will result in the use of the superficial muscles (rectus abdominis) and the focus of the exercise will be lost.
In the supine position place both feet shoulder width apart on the floor. Begin with the spine and neck in a neutral position. Next, activate your inner core by shortening the distances between your navel and tailbone. Maintain breathing while performing the exercise. Lift your right leg up close to 90 degrees and your left leg 30 centimetres of the ground. If you lose control of your core at this stage try doing a lower level inner core exercise to build up control.
Keep your inner core switched on throughout the entire exercise. Slowly alternate legs into opposite positions. If you lose control of inner core or technique, stop the set and rest until next.
Swiss-ball side twists
This exercise focuses on rotation of the torso that is often left out in exercise programmes. This is a great exercise for sports involving rotation such as rugby, netball and tennis.
From a sitting position slowly roll down the S/ball while maintaining a neutral spine and neck. Grip the medicine ball with both hands and raise it above your chest.
Slowly lower the m/ball to the right side while keeping eye contact with the m/ball at all times. Make sure you keep your hips level and your feet in contact with the ground throughout entire exercise. If you lose technique or the m/ball reaches the horizon return m/ball to the starting position and then repeat on the left side.
Swiss-ball and medicine ball bridges
This is an advanced version of a bridge style exercise. The nature of the exercise places great demands on balance and inner core strength.
Place a medicine ball two meters away from a swiss ball. Roll out over the S/ball until the m/ball is directly under your shoulders. Maintain neutral spine and neck position throughout the entire movement. Place your strongest hand one top of the m/ball one hand width to the side. In an explosive motion, snap your other hand onto the opposing side.
Focus on maintaining a neutral spine and neck while balancing in this position. Try to build your time spent balancing.