Core activation refers to how the nervous system coordinates your posture, breathing and muscles to produce an efficient movement. Core activation ≠ core strength.
Now you may be able to hold a plank for 2 minutes or more – well done. But you may be using a less than optimal strategy, such as posteriorly tilting your pelvis to brace with your surface back muscles. Or you might be holding your breath. Generally, the trunk, spine, and pelvis should remain relatively neutral during many core exercises.
Core strength can be developed when you have optimal core activation- and the most effective core exercise is the one that you can perform with good alignment and breathing.
The video below is a great example of how we can learn to activate our core. Using a roller, which is an inherently unstable surface also makes it easier to see the strategies that Samantha uses.
Samantha is performing a relatively simple core exercise- the single knee lift. This is the unedited version (sound has been deleted because she does get a bit frustrated and lets a few words slip 😉). Samantha is a very fit 18 year old who rows, runs and does online workouts regularly. She gets low back pain intermittently. As you will see in the video, she misplaces her foot several times, flexes her lumbar spine and her left leg rotates inwards. So her core activation strategy is not ideal. I actually gave her very little instruction initially, just to see how she would perform.
Her performance improves as the video progresses because she is given some verbal cues and because she continues to practice. Her core is activated and her movement improves and becomes more efficient. Samanthas most effective core exercise then is a single knee lift- performed 10 x 3. When she can perform it with good alignment and breathing she then can progress to a single knee lift with extension. Her planks will feel and look so much better as a result.
For more information see our related post basic core activation