Marta Montenegro: Build a Better Core

You need to improve your game, the squat and/or the jumps in your boot camp class, and odds are someone has advised you to strengthen your core as the solution. What is the best exercise for all this? Chances are you will be point to the gold standard plank. You know plank: you set your body in a push-up position but with your forearms on the floor. The idea is to support your body by contracting the core muscles—abdominals, glutes, hips, and low back—while keeping your body in a straight line.

But will the plank really do the trick?

When you jump, run and/or throw a ball, the core kicks in. Enough research shows that a strong core will help you to better transfer the forces from the lower to the upper body. In other words, from lifting a box off the floor to swinging the ball, there is less energy leakage, so this will make you more efficient when performing any physical activity.

Core strength can help you squat deeper and run better, as well as reduce your injury risk since many issues related to the knee and ankles originated from the core.

Plank Weakness

There is no question that the popular advice to strengthen the core goes beyond a fitness trend.  Yet, the debate surrounding the plank revolves around the 30 seconds or longer you spend hold the pose and/or its variations (side planks, planks lifting one arm, etc).

Is this the best exercise to rock your core?

Some experts say this type of exercise assesses static muscle endurance, but the question is how many times do you do something in real life where you have to hold a contraction without moving your abdominals, hips, lower spine and gluteus for a period of time? Not many.

In fact, a study in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research evaluated athletes on the effectiveness of their core musculature to transfer the forces from the lower to the upper extremities after they performed medicine ball exercises in static and dynamic positions. The findings concluded the following:

The core strength does play a significant role in transferring the forces to the extremities
Static exercises, such as the planks, put the body in a non-functional static position that is rarely replicated in sports-related activities
The external obliques (the side muscles of the abdominals) are the muscles that engaged the most initiating and resisting the body movement

“The muscles of the core are responsible for providing the stable base for extremity support and force transfer. There are very few athletic activities that do not require transfer forces,” said the study’s authors.

In the study, something that was noticed was the external oblique — the side abdominal muscles — are the main rotator of the body, but also are the ones that control external forces. Think about when you bat in baseball; some of the core muscles will need to stabilize the upper body while the side abdominal muscles along with the hips muscles and the upper body will need to rotate your body to hit the ball.

Yet, the same job is not required when you run, as rotation will diminish performance. In this case, the external obliques will need to resist the forces.

The Six Pack—Just to Show Off?

If you are wondering what role the rectus abdominis — aka the six pack — plays in your physical activity performance, the study also found that the rectus abdominis did not show a significant impact in the dynamic function of the core. Nevertheless, the anterior and posterior muscles that compromise the core — rectus abdominis and spine muscles — are important overall stabilizers.  But they can get their quota of strength with exercises, such as the back squat, push-press, and deadlift, which are more functional than the plank.

So should you ditch the almighty plank? Not yet. Certainly, planks may not be the best exercises to improve your game or daily physical activities, but many experts and plenty of researches still consider it valuable during rehabilitation and to prevent low back pain.

Go to the Core Workout

In this workout, we’ll work on core dynamic function, emphasizing the side abdominals job throughout exercises that involve transferring the forces between the lower and upper extremities. In addition, we’ll add some whole body moves that will make you work on the anterior and posterior muscles of the core as well to get a well-round core workout.

Why do you need to add this routine to your exercise program? Beyond the usefulness of performing daily moves easier and improving in your athletic abilities, this routine puts to work all your muscles, which demands more energy and thus increases the metabolism response. The result: more muscle and less fat.

  • Perform this workout as a circuit – one exercise after another without rest
  • Do 2-3 circuits, 10-12 reps, rest 60-90 seconds at the end of each circuit
  • In each exercise, keep the back straight, chest up, core tight and make sure your knee doesn’t pass the toes
  • Perform a light warm-up and stretch at the end
  • Do this routine two times a week, with at least one day rest in between
  • For the exercises performed with a tubing, you can also do them on a gym pulley machine

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website,, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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