The rise in “functional” exercises in recent years, or that which emphasizes exercises that transfer to real-life movements, has produced a nation of fitter, more athletic women. The days of women going to the gym, lightly working out on a cardio machine, and performing a few resistance training exercises on machines are becoming a thing of the past. Instead, more and more women are performing high-intensity circuit training, and even delving into power exercises such as snatches, cleans and jerks. Because of anatomical differences in the male and female body, core strength is critical to providing postural support for many of these resistance strength training exercises for women.
Functional Strength Training Exercises for the Core
Functional training is simply an exercise philosophy that seeks to replicate real-life movements that you can use in your daily activities. For a female firefighter, functional training might be running stairs, dead lifts to mimic picking up an injured victim, or pull ups, chin ups and muscle ups to replicate climbing ladders or pulling herself over a window sill. Functional training is in direct opposition to traditional weight-training, generally thought to be performing exercises on machines that isolate individual muscles. Seldom does real-life activity require work from just one small muscle group, however. Muscle groups are designed to work in a synchronous fashion, and functional training aims to capture this as much as possible.
Core training is actually one of the most misused terms in the fitness industry. When most people think of “core,” they think of abs, and maybe the lower back. Core is a sports term that actually refers to the primary muscles involved in a particular sport movement. For example, an Olympic sprinter’s core muscles would be primarily the quadriceps, hamstrings and gastrocnemius. As a graduate student, I interned with the University of Portland as a strength and conditioning assistant where I was lucky enough to work with their National Championship women’s soccer team. I noticed that I never once saw this team performing traditional ab exercises, such as crunches, sit ups, or any other exercise that isolated the abs. When I asked the head strength and conditioning coach about this, he said he felt ab exercises were overrated, and that by performing more advanced lifts correctly, you’re indirectly working out the abs anyways. As with all functional training, the abs are designed to work in unison with other muscle groups — helping to connect the upper and lower body — and it makes no sense to train them in isolation.
Therefore, to develop “core” muscles in a functional way, you don’t need to perform classic ab exercises. Instead, focus on these more total-body exercises that will help you perform your daily activities with more ease and efficiency, and with less fatigue and risk of injury.
It seems counter-intuitive, but squats can help you build your ab and lower back muscles. By tucking in your abs, arching your lower back and maintaining good posture throughout the exercise, you will promote stability and support in the spine. Contract your abs, place your hands behind your head to open up your chest and promote better posture and squat down to parallel every repetition.
Once again, it seems counterintuitive, but keeping your abs contracted and tight, your back slightly arched and your back straight during a pushup will develop abdominal strength. Focus on performing pushups correctly, with your chest nearly touching the ground, your body as flat as a table and fully extending your arms and you’ll help promote core strength.
Perhaps no other exercise is more effective for developing the real-life postural support you need in your daily life than the plank. Perform the classic plank by resting on your elbows, with your body off the ground and in a straight line, and maintaining balance on the tips off your toes. Hold this position for at least 30 seconds, and up to several minutes. Variations of the plank include side plank, straight-armed plank and one-handed plank.
Any resistance training exercise that requires lifting weight over your head places an incredible demand on the lower back. Sufficient strength in the abs can help you maintain posture and protect the spine. Keep your stomach tight and lower back arched while lifting weight directly over your head to develop the functional strength you need in your abs. Start with just light weight, place your feet shoulder-width apart, or slightly wider, and maintain a very straight, rigid posture.
For those women who feel they must perform at least one or two specific ab exercises to get a six-pack, here are two of the best. The key with these specific ab exercises, however, is repetitions. Specific ab exercises do not increase strength much, but can help you build endurance. Always perform as many repetitions as you can (a minimum of 12 to 15 repetitions).
No surprise here. This tried and true exercise will ultimately help you develop ripped abs. Place your hands across your chest, not behind your head (it’s not a neck exercise). Go up just far enough until you feel your abs contract and then slowly let yourself back down.
I once had a client tell me she would not do any exercise with the word “Russian” in the title. These actually aren’t that bad, and will target the obliques, those long muscles on either size of the rectus abdominus. Sit on the back of your buttocks, keep your feet off the ground (crossing them helps), place your hands together and touch the ground on either side of your body as fast as you can for as many repetitions as possible.