Though there is certainly no shortage of training articles and blogs dedicated to the core, there has just been another one added to the list!
No doubt you have noticed and perhaps thrown your eyes at the fact that much of the time the fitness industry, who’s global market value is creeping up on $100 Billion, continues to flood social media channels, dominate ads, magazines and billboards showcasing tools, classes and programmes in an attempt to alter our thinking and understanding of effective, sustainable training and exercise. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they are successful in doing so.
It’s fair to say aesthetics has taken the main stage at the expense of focusing on what could and should be done to improve our general health, performance, and perhaps most importantly for athletes in particular, decrease chances of injury. Specifically to core training, many of us have been misled often resorting to various sit up variations for multiple reps seeking a burn, but why and for what? It’s our job as coaches and practitioners to provide our clients and athletes with the correct rationale and training means that will help them remain healthy, feeling good and in the case of the latter - flourish in their sport. After all ‘availability is the best ability’.
For the sake of simplicity and time of this short review, lets have a look at the following.
Firstly though, how do you define the core?
Ask 10 different people this question and you could get 10 different answers. Words such as midline, trunk or pillar are very regularly used, but a definition they are not. For consistency throughout this article, I will be using the term core.
‘The core can be seen as everything from the kneecaps to the shoulders’ was a simple, concise explanation that the OG Mike Boyle provided on a recent podcast. ‘The muscles that surround our spine’ is another snappy definition. More specifically, it is described as the axial skeleton and all the soft tissues with proximal attachments that originate on the axial skeleton’. Bit of a mouthful! Finding a mid ground between both of these descriptions, amongst the physiotherapists and medics of this world the core is referred to as the ‘lumbopelvic region of the body’. It is where movement begins.
What is the role of the core?
The role of the core is to assist coordination and efficient energy transfer through the body and maintain postural control depending on the situation or activity. To a degree, almost every time we move, the core is working to stabilise the body allowing it to perform tasks ranging from simple to more complex as efficiently as possible. Although there is no true definition set in stone, core stability can be seen as controlling the position and motion of the trunk to optimise the production, control and transfer of force through the body.
In every day life, the core acts to prevent unnecessary movement by producing stiffness or spinal stability in instances such as carrying your shopping, moving furniture, taking out the bins and so on. Therefore, it’s safe to say for the general population training the core through exercises such as high rep sit ups and twisting motions, is far from the best approach. Stuart McGill is a world renowned expert in spine function, who say’s that there must be a ‘balanced stiffening’ throughout the trunk to stabilise the core. The constant flexing of the core in an attempt to strengthen the abs, can actually result in less stability.
For general health, a holistic approach should be used to target the muscle groups that surround the spine, rather than just focusing on the ever sought after rectus abdominis (6 pack muscles) through movements that will be discussed further down this article.
In the chaotic environment of most sports, the core is required to stabilise the body effectively, produce adequate generation and transfer of force to allow efficient running, jumping, twisting, throwing, kicking, hitting and contact situations across a wide range of positions and intensities. One can not just rely on standard strength movements alone such as deadlifts, squats and presses to cover all bases. As Jonas Dodoo says, ‘sport will ask every angle of you’. This too will be examined below.
Musculature of the Core
No one muscle group works in isolation to create the stiffness required to possess a stable core. There are 3 main layers that work in synergy to cope with both high and low load demands that challenge stability. These are local stabilisers , global stabilisers and global movers.
At the deepest level of the core lie the primary local stabilisers. Some examples are the transverse abdominis (TVA), the diaphragm and psoas major. These muscle groups provide the central nervous system with sensory feedback of posture and motion by firing in anticipation of movement by generating required stiffness to deal with the perceived demands. Back pain can be the result of a weak TVA, which is neurally linked with the pelvic floor and the multifidi, which are one of the deep back muscles that line either side of the spine. As no muscle works in isolation, a weakness in one group potentially means a weakness in all!
The pelvic floor works together with the TVA , abdominals and diaphragm in supporting the trunk and muscles surrounding the spine. The diaphragm is a large dome shaped muscle and a major contributor to respiration which will be the focus of another article. The psoas major, the primary hip flexor, is located deep in the lower lumbar region and connects the spine to the femur (thigh bone). It is joined by the iliacus to make up the iliopsoas muscle group. For athletes in particular, the psoas plays a major role in sprint power. The psoas can be trained directly through exercises such as hanging knee raises or more basic movements such as the deadbug or psoas march.
Along with the glutes, the internal & external obliques are the most commonly known global stabilisers. They play a large role in rotation and twisting of the trunk. The internal oblique which lies underneath and assisted by the external oblique, are responsible for pulling the ribs down which counteracts flaring of the ribs. Also, they help maintain intra abdominal pressure through bracing or creating stiffness. Heavy single arm carries are a decent option to target the obliques due to preventing lateral flexion occurring. The ‘serape effect’ occurs due to the interaction between the obliques, rhomboids and the serratus anterior. It decreases excessive rotation of the trunk and provides the optimal length tension relationship for maximum force production by transferring force from the shoulder to the opposite hip.
The global movers play the majority role in generating joint motion . Some examples of these are the muscles surrounding the spine such as the rectus abdominis, latissimus dorsi and the back extensors. They are responsible for stabilising high loads in the sagittal plane via co-contraction. Simply put, stiffness is required to efficiently transfer force produced at the hips through the body which is key in improving athleticism. This enhances the ability to produce speed and power thus boosting performance.
Effective Training the Core
As mentioned earlier in this article, the majority of core training for the general population who are probably far more interested in hearing what exercises and drills they should include in their training rather than learning the anatomy of the core, should focus on resisting movement instead of attempting to ‘strengthen’ the core through crunch variations. It should be known that the intervertebral discs have a limited number of ‘bend cycles’ before they are impaired. Having already alluded above to the potential risk of sit ups, twisting in a seated position should also be avoided as it eliminates the hips ability to rotate. This means that the rotation is occurring through the lumbar spine (lower back), which is only able to produce up to 10 degrees of rotation.The juice is probably not worth the squeeze…Along with standard exercises such as the squat, push ups, lunging and hinging, master the movements in these videos to help lay the foundations for a solid core that will assist you in other athletic endeavours. As with everything training related, quality is what matters rather than quantity. Aim for 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps to start. There are numerous ways to progress such as adding light plates to dead bugs, adding weight to side planks or increasing band tension to pallof variations.
Athletes should prepare adequately to deal with the demands that sport provides by training in positions and postures relevant to their sport and posiiton. They need to be extremely competent movers in all three planes, namely the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes. Common areas at risk include the shoulder girdle, hip region and adductors. Select exercises that are going to help build robustness in these regions that often do not get the attention they require during a standard gym session. Nothing can fully eliminate the chances of injury however we can do our best to leave no stone unturned and preparing optimally. The following exercises are more advanced movements that athletes can be use to improve capacity, resiliency and core strength throughout the body particularly for those who play field sports. Click here for some exercises to add to your sessions.
There are endless options as to how these movements can be added to your sessions. Personally, I include movements such as dead bugs and bird dogs and crawls in my warm up both in the gym and pitch sessions. In the gym specifically, I ensure anti-extension, anti flexion, anti-lateral flexion, anti-rotation are a mainstay in my programme. Core work is usually used as supersets but also as active recovery between strength work. An example here might be supersetting trap bar deadlifts with a bear option. I also ‘micro dose' more dynamic movements in throughout the training week as the season approaches with the rationale being to expose my body to a variety of positions, postures and ranges of motion that can occur on the pitch to increase robustness, capacity, ‘reshaping’ and problem solving abilities through expansion of your movement library.
‘Reshaping’ is a term coined by Andy Ryland of USA Football (@USAFootballMT), which describes the act of ‘dynamically finding positions of power in contact’. If you have yet to do so, check out his work! have found Bear Punch, Side Plank Punch and Glute Bridge to Push Up excellent options to add to your preparation for contact sports.
Lastly, I rate the zercher hold as excellent but extremely taxing exercise that provides a huge stimulus to the anterior core and back musculature due to the bar placement and load that can be used. Zercher holds force you to create huge levels of tension through bracing maximally whilst maintaining a strong posture. This can be useful as takes stress off the lower back. I utilise zercher holds by firstly building capacity through holding reps for longer durations up to 30 seconds in length and progressing to shorter bursts of 10 seconds as the load increases transferring effectively to coping with contact situations on the pitch. The zercher position can be used for squats, lunges and posterior chain work too. These options can be particularly useful for those lacking mobility in the front rack position.
Whether you are a general gym goer, health and wellness advocate or someone who partakes in competitive sports ,I hope this article helps you. As always, thank you for reading.
Founder & CEO of Be Ready Training | Strength & Conditioning Coach