Even though the modern fitness industry is still relatively young, we have developed specific traditions along with many habits, some good and others not-so-good. Some fitness traditions, like offering to spot someone who is lifting heavy, are definitely worth keeping, while many habits like walking away from a machine without wiping it off, hogging equipment or lying down on the ground to strengthen core muscles are best left forgotten. When it comes to the most effective way to strengthen the many muscles of the core, rolling around like a turtle stuck on its back is a habit best left out of your fitness program.
For years, many workout programs—out of habit—have included the abdominal crunch and all its different variations, with the ill-begotten intention of helping to strengthen specific core muscles. To understand how we should really be strengthening all the muscles in our body, especially the core, and to develop new workout habits based on how the body is actually designed to function, we have to realize that many muscles are positioned to work most effectively when we are standing upright on our feet.
Redefining core training
We spend the first nine to 14 months or so learning how to walk. It can take that long because all the muscles that control motion in our hips, shoulders, legs and spine have to develop the strength and ability to operate as an integrated system. The many muscles of the core are designed to function together to create movement, so they should be trained that way. In addition, the biomechanics of the human musculoskeletal system are structurally designed to work most efficiently when we are standing on our feet to move over the ground. Consider that the core is responsible for transferring forces from the ground, through the legs and trunk, and out through the upper extremities. Effective core training requires using movements that integrate the hips, trunk and shoulders in order to efficiently distribute the forces (gravity, ground reaction and momentum) caused by upright movement.
Just because we’ve always done something a certain way does NOT mean we need to continue following that tradition, especially if there are better, more biomechanically efficient ways to strengthen our core muscles. For example, a good strength-training workout for your core muscles is almost indistinguishable from a total-body workout, the primary difference might be asymmetrical loading (using only one body part at a time). Using only one arm or leg at a time is a simple, yet effective, strategy for engaging the muscles responsible for stabilizing your spine and hips while increasing the level of difficulty for core training. One nontraditional movement for strengthening the muscles responsible for controlling movement around your body’s center of gravity, what we commonly call the core, is the kettlebell windmill.
- Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart.
- Place your left foot forward at the 12 o’clock position; your right foot should be placed at about the 4 o’clock position. The toes on both your right and left feet should be pointing in the same direction.
- Hold a kettlebell in your left hand so that it is resting along the inside of your left thigh. Hold your right arm extended straight up.
- To start the move, keep both knees slightly bent, turn your head to look up at your right arm and push back into your right hip.
- Keep your spine long and straight with your eyes on your right hand as you hinge forward, allowing the kettlebell to slowly lower toward the ground. Once you can no longer hinge forward on your hips (you will feel your spine start to move), push your hips forward and pull yourself back up to standing using your glutes.
The movement speed should be slow and controlled, about two to four seconds in each direction. Complete four to six reps before switching sides. After you’ve completed the exercise on both sides, rest 30 to 45 seconds before you move on to the next set. Start with two sets and work up to doing four sets on each side.
Because the movement comes from the hips, not the spine, when learning the windmill, it is best to start with the weight in a low position so it pulls you down into the movement. Once you feel comfortable with the hinging motion, you can progress to holding the kettlebell in the right arm over your head—this will cause the weight to push you down into the movement as opposed to pulling you into the motion.
The purpose of core-strength exercises should be to create a solid foundation for movement in the rest of your body. When it comes to the most effective movements for strengthening your core muscles, here’s a little tip: Your hips and shoulders connect to one another via the core muscles. Therefore, any moves to truly strengthen your core should be done in a standing position and involve the hips and shoulders working together in a coordinated, synergistic manner. One thing about the kettlebell windmill is that you will notice that you are not only getting stronger, but you are also moving better, which is a definite win-win.
Photo credit: Jesper Aggergaard, Unsplash