Core strength exercises – how to avoid injury and train well

Core strength exercises are often talked about but not well understood. I want to give you some practical and theoretical knowledge that will change your perspective and help you to avoid injury in your training.

When I use the term ‘core strength exercises’ I’m not purely talking about crunches. Core strength exercises can be more widely applied and although having a strong core is important, I will break down why other stabilizing muscles are just as important.

I want to give you some practical exercises for not just your stomach but also for upper and lower limb that will change the way you work-out. Before jumping straight in, I want to give you some context and evidence for why we might train the way I’m proposing.

Mover vs Stabilizer muscles

Your body is made of two broad types of muscles. The ‘mover’ muscles, which are big muscles that stretch sometimes over more than one joint like your hamstrings and your biceps. Then you have other ‘stabiliser’ muscles which are much smaller, but they play a vital role in joint health and injury prevention.

Your ‘mover’ muscles are vital to produce power, but your ‘stabiliser’ muscles often help counteract unwanted forces. When the big mover muscles contract, they often cause compression. The job of your stabilizer muscles is to counteract this compression by fine-tuning the movement.

Let’s take the back as an example:

There has been lots of work looking at the role of these different muscle groups with low back pain. Your ‘mover’ muscles, such as erector spinae are big and span multiple levels of your spine. They are great for generating lots of force and will grow very quickly.

The stabilizer muscle group in your low back is called your multifidus. This muscle looks like a Christmas tree and goes between each spine in your back. It is made up of much smaller fibres. As the erector spinae contracts, multifidus’ job is to stabilize each spinal segment and counteract that compression.

Research has shown that low back injury will result in reduced multifidus bulk. And reduced multifidus bulk has been identified as a possible reason for future low back episodes.

Using the shoulder as another example:

You have big ‘mover’ muscles such as your latissimus dorsi, biceps and pectoralis major, then you have stabilizer muscles known as your rotator cuff. As you big muscles contract, they have potential to move the shoulder out of its socket if this force isn’t counteracted.

The rotator cuffs job is to keep the shoulder centered as the big mover muscles produce the force. If they don’t do their job, the shoulder wont be stable and it can dislocate, or cause other various types of shoulder pain.

Using core strength exercises in rehabilitation

As a musculoskeletal physiotherapist it’s hard not to pick apart people’s techniques in the gym. We all know the guy (let’s face it, this is usually a guy and not the girls) trying to deadlift way too much with a back posture that looks like the inside of a tyre.

But I have found the secret in gym doesn’t purely rely on good form. What really matters when it comes to injury prevention is to add the unknown into exercises to keep the body guessing. I want to help you all to current your form and prevent injury, before you come to my clinic.

Lots of my time will be spent trying to correct an imbalance between movers and stabilisers. This is what I refer to as core strength exercises, or dynamic exercises. These are not specifically for your stomach, but for the stabilizers of each specific joint we are working.

Your stomach muscles do need to be at an adequate amount of strength as well. The analogy I use for this is trying to high jump off a floating platform. You will never jump as high because the platform will not be firm when you jump.

The other mistake people often make is they try to increase their load far too quickly. This can cause many different overload injuries. Look at my blog on load progression to help you safely adjust the load at gym.

The basics of weight training

Mainstream weight training teaching would advise to add a mixture of compound movements and isolated movements towards the end. This helps your body to get the most out of the big movements early, when your muscles have energy stores available.

Compound movements use multiple muscle groups at once. They are usually more taxing than isolated movements and involve more functional tasks. Such exercises might include bench press, squats and pull-ups.

Compound movement, bench press

Isolated movements include exercises focused on one muscle group. These are very specific exercises, usually just moving one body part at a time, like bicep curls or quadriceps extension.

What are we missing?

What we aren’t taught is that mixing unstable loads into your training will recruit more core muscles (the stabilizers). When I talk about unstable load, I don’t mean dangerous, I just mean loads that require stability whilst lifting.

When you add more uncertainty, your body will respond by recruiting more muscles to help. Think of a big cardboard box, and you don’t know what’s inside. Your body will naturally brace much more, even if you find its very light because of the unknown.

The opposite will apply when you train with machines that only allow one movement. You will use specific muscles to achieve this task and there will only be a small element of core strength.

Let’s go through an example of adding dynamic load

I was doing shoulder press with a friend and the gym and we were using barbells. When he was fatiguing towards the end of the set then his shoulder suddenly twisted backwards, and if I hadn’t caught him, he probably would have dislocated his shoulder. This is because his stabilizing muscles grew tired and could no longer resist the unwanted movement. (he was probably lifting weights that were too heavy as well)

So, when doing gym, try to add some uncertainty into your routine – without going over the top as you could get injured. This is a principle that can be applied to any workout, but it will take practice. Uncertainty means not just sticking to the machines, but using exercise with free weights, unstable surfaces and cables.

Just to clarify, I don’t advocate that this will get you bigger faster, simply that you will engage more musculature overall which should help to reduce injury.  I am also not advising to avoid machines and isolated movements, as these do target specific muscle groups. I only suggest that you incorporate these into a spread of exercises.

Let’s go through some examples of core strength exercises for different parts of the body. Now keep in mind, although I will throw some examples in, feel free to be creative and add elements of uncertainty into other exercises. For help with injury prevention we are more than happy to help at Click Physiotherapy!

Core strength exercises for Lower limb:

When training lower limb, it can be extremely helpful to add unstable surfaces to some of your normal exercises. The unstable surface will mean you will recruit more stability muscles deep inside the hip, but also the knee and ankle.

Let’s look at a few specific examples:

  • Squats:
    If you are using the smith machine, then try doing free squats which will require more stability. If you already perform free squats then you could try body weight squats on an unstable surface like foam or an exercise ball, then build to single leg squats.

  • Lunges:
    For lunges, try adding foam under the front foot so you must balance through the lunge. This will engage your hip core stability muscles. If you have mastered this, you can hold a bar over your head whilst doing a walking lunge to engage your trunk muscles.
Core strength for lower limb. Lunge on bosu ball.

Core strength exercises for Upper limb:

Upper limb exercises will be more dynamic when you start to move towards barbells instead of one single bar exercises. You can also then move one arm at a time, which means your core is engaged whilst trying to balance your body.

Let’s look at a few specific examples:

  • Bench press:
    Instead of bench press try doing more barbell sessions. There is a degree of stability in the bar that you don’t get with barbells. For further challenges you can use barbells and do one repetition on one side, and then the same repetition on the other side.

  • Pull-ups:
    One variation is to lift your knee whilst doing a pull-up to engage your abdominal musculature. You can also attempt this exercise with you legs straight out in front as the picture shows, this will be harder than performing with knees bent.

  • Bicep curls
    Engaging more core stability is just about thinking a little outside the box. Instead of using a normal barbell, or the ezi-bar to perform bicep curls, try doing a one-handed curl with a long bar. This will engage much more forearm and shoulder musculature to support the long bar.
core strength for upper limb. Biceps curl with bar.

Core strength exercises for the trunk:

Trunk musculature is more than just those 6-packs we all strive for. It includes muscles like your obliques – which help stabilize your trunk sideways, and your tranverse abdominal which behaves like a corset and provides low back support.

Most people associate core strength exercises with trunk strengthening. The most important aspect of your trunk muscles is that just strengthening your abs won’t be all you need. Injuries can be associated with poor oblique strength and poor control of your transverse abdominals.

Focused trunk strengthening is required to maintain a strong core, it won’t be good enough to try and hold everything tight through other exercises. Here are some specifics to get you started:

  • Planks:
    I love doing planks as they are an easy way to engage your core. There are many variations of these, but a simple way to progress is to first begin in the push-up position. When this gets easy try adding weight on your back. After you have mastered this move to lifting one arm and one leg so that you only have the opposite arm and leg on the ground.
core strength training, planks with alternate arm and leg raise
  • Normal planks are great, but make sure you throw in some side-planks for you obliques. To make these more challenging you can attempt to lift your upper leg into the air whilst side-planking.
core strength training - side planks with leg raise
  • Leg raises:
    To strengthen your transverse abdominals, you can attempt a double leg raise whilst lying on your back. The key to this exercise is to make sure that your lower back doesn’t arch excessively, this will force your transverse abdominals to stay engaged.

  • Sit-ups:
    Normal sit-ups will target your abdomen. If you want to include all trunk muscles, then try this exercise sitting on an exercise ball. Caution – this is hard to master so start carefully.
core strength training - sit ups on a fit ball

The bottom line:

There are many ways to perform core strength exercises. I have found that if you include core strength exercises for different body regions your body will be more robust, and this will help to reduce injury. If you need help with rehabilitation check out our blog on how online physiotherapy can help you.