CORE TRAINING BENEFITS 101
Written by Dave Thomas
Raise your hand if you are reading this as someone who is an avid exerciser, but doesn’t really know what your core consists of.
…That’s okay. You are not alone. There’s probably no word more misused in fitness and purveyors of bad core training are among us everywhere. SexyCore, FitCore and loads of other catchy names often fill programs with more harm than good, and are more targeted towards getting #abz than they are functional performance and spinal health.
If you’ve ever attended one of Coach Chris’ class during an anterior core day, you’ve very likely seen his core boner out there for all to see. For good reason.
A strong core really, really matters.
Today we’ll shed some light on what the core is, why it helps us, and how to strengthen it in as simple language as possible. Anatomy has never been my strong suit, so I will try and break it down in the same layman’s terms that always helped me learn and remember it.
WHAT IS THE CORE?
Our core is a series of muscles in our 360 degree midsection that protect our spine and transfer force, mainly consisting of muscles from the the following regions.
- LOW BACK
But the lats are players, too, so in reality it’s basically everything other than our arms and legs when you really get down to it.
For the sake of today, we are going to focus on the anterior core, or abdominals.
We’ll take a look at the muscles of the low back and hips another day, but they are important, as well.
When we talk about our abdominals we are referring to our anterior core, the muscles that comprise our frontal abdominal wall. Constructed in a four-layer shield atop our spine, the wall includes the Rectus Abdominas (RA), Internal and External Obliques, and Transverse Abdominus (TA).
RA – These are our six-pack muscles, and frankly, least important for performance. The RA flexes the spine, which is not a position we generally love to be in so they are targeted a lot in movements like sit-ups and crunches. Train it, just don’t make it the dominant player.
Obliques – The two layers, internal and external are responsible for different things, but ultimately they flex and rotate the torso, or resist it. Side planks and Russian Twists, as well as any anti-rotation exercises like band holds and 1-arm carries will hit the obliques.
TA – The only muscle in this group that has direct spinal attachment is the TA. It is also the deepest anterior core muscle AND the only muscle that has a horizontal orientation. Because of these factors, it will also receive little to no benefit by training it with traditional methods like sit-ups, crunches or any movement that involves flexing and extending our hips. It’s best trained via holds and movement of our extremities. Flutter Kicks and Planks are great. Yoga, too.
It’s important to understand that chiseled abs is not an indicator of core strength. There are shredded models with cores weaker than gas station coffee. There are powerlifters and weightlifters with no discernable abs who can handle repeat lifts of double and triple bodyweight. So, when we say developing our core, we do not mean shredding and revealing our surface ab muscles. Training the RA is important, but it’s a side effect not a goal. We are talking about our deep abdominal muscles that serve to protect our low back health.
It’s certainly okay to want to aesthetically develop your abs. Who doesn’t love abs? Just make sure what our real objective is with core training, and consider any aesthetics a secondary benefit likely caused by nutrition and building your core from the inside out.
WHY OUR CORE HELPS US
Our spine is a wonderful production of nature, both flexible and able to bear loads, such as what we ask of it in squats, deadlifts and a ton of other movements in physical fitness. Like any structure, the greater the load placed upon it, the more it must be able to stabilize and not crumble. This is what our core muscles are there for.
As weight placed in our hands and on our backs go up, the need for our core muscles to be strong and stabilize the spine from moving so too goes up.
The failure for our core muscles to create “stiffness” in the spine is when we often see low back injuries occur. Take this from arguably the most respected spinal expert in fitness, Dr. Stuart McGill.
On the performance side, “Core Stiffness” is mandatory. It is absolutely essential to carry heavy loads, run fast and change direction quickly. It determines the rate of speed for movement of the arms and legs. There are those people who state they do not need dedicated core training because they lift and squat. Yet when I assess their strength and speed abilities, often I find they are unable to translate their strength to on-field performance. Pointing out their weak links brings them to the realization: Training the core is non-negotiable.“
Let’s take a quick look at why the core contributes to power and performance. Think of a strong core as a stable basketball court foundation from which your limbs create power against. And think of a weak core as an unstable foundation, like sand. If you were to perform a vertical jump off of sand, you would not get as high as you would off of a stable basketball court.
This is because the solid, stable surface produces more force resistance back to the object launching off it.
This is analogous for your core. Your legs and arms cannot fire to their maximum capacity against a core that is soft and “sandy”. Cleans, jerks, snatches, sprinting, jumping and anything explosive and athletic will be much stronger, faster and more explosive for you if you get your core to basketball court level, not sandbox.
Why the Core Protects the Low Back?
A weak core very often leads to low back pain.
Why? When the anterior core is under-trained, it can contribute to a forward tilt of the hips, otherwise known as anterior pelvic tilt and the nasty mess of Lower Cross Syndrome.
As you can see above, the weak abdominals are lengthened, so the front side of the belly “opens up” and the ribs flare outward. Try standing up and putting yourself in this position and you’ll quickly feel it.
No, really. Get up and do it.
You’ll instantly feel the side effect of this is the backside performing the opposite motion, it “closes down”, and compresses the lumbar spine. When your hips are in this tilt, the lumbar spine becomes compressed which leads to irritation and the potential to cause disc injury.
It’s basically just your weak abs locking in an over arch positioned in your lower back. When you are locked into to over arch, or “hyperextension” as you have heard your coaches say, you do not want to then go and pick up heavy weights that will then FURTHER add to that compression.
That’s when we see disc injuries, with ground zero being the weak anterior core.
HOW TO TRAIN THE CORE
The core is not a prime mover. When the core is asked to create force, the spine moves. When the spine moves, we open ourselves up to the possibility of injury. Think about the core as your body’s General. We want it to be there as command and oversight. If it’s there to actually be in the fight, it’s likely the last line of defense and something has gone very wrong.
The core is best trained preventing movement, not creating it, meaning movements like crunches and sit-ups that put us in aggressive spinal flexion can have negative consequences over time IF it is all that we. Our spine only has so many flexion bends in it, plus, training the superficial RA muscles are not going to do a lot for us when it comes to stability and anti-movement of the spine.
The better alternatives for training the core are movements where our core is in an isometric position, resisting extension, rotation and flexion.
The following are highly effective at accomplishing this.
- Farmer walks
- 1-Arm carries and holds
- Plank variations
- Roll-outs – Make sure you avoid going into the anterior pelvic tilt position. Leslie is in perfect position above.
- Hollow holds
- Banded holds and other tasks that resist torso rotation
- Dead bugs and bird dogs
- Renegade rows
- Weighted push-ups – Again, stay out of anterior pelvic tilt.
- Yoga – Anecdotally speaking, new athletes who come to us with a yoga dominant background very rarely get hurt. I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a confident statement other than to generally say that they are built from the inside out quite well.
- Turkish Get-Ups
In addition, Light weight, front loaded movements, medicine ball slams and anything on the ropes are all excellent for training our core. Training on your feet beats training on your back, making the push press the superior core movement when compared to the bench press (and why we don’t do much benching).
For the trained and mobile body, overhead squats can be highly productive.
The important takeaway from this list is that if you only perform power and Olympic lifts, you will not be training your core in the requisite way to keep your performance up and your back healthy. It needs more than that. Those movements express our core strength, they don’t isolate it.
It’s also critical to point out that proper form on these is everything. If you don’t have yourself in the correct position, it’s worthless. This is why we always take the time to point out planks, how to grip the bell on holds and why we want to “drive” the low back into the ground on our hollow holds and dead bugs. The devil is in the details.
If you are a beginner, I cannot stress to you enough the importance of taking your time in your development. Rushing under heavy load is a one hundred percent guaranteed way to bypass core training and leave it behind.
Lastly, there is a multitude of evidence out there that poor movement in general will ultimately show up in the low back. This could be due to compensatory patterns or a variety of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to the fact that poor movement doesn’t activate the core and often stresses joints around it, like the spine.
By no means is this comprehensive. It’s simply meant to shed some light on what the core is, why you must take it seriously, and how a strong core helps us perform and stay healthy.
Move properly and pay attention to opportunities in your training where you can strengthen your core. You’ll enjoy fun performance growth and uninterrupted training all year long.
Performance360 is a strength and conditioning gym with two locations in Pacific Beach, San Diego.
McGill, Stuart. “Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 32.3 (2010): 33-46. Www.nsca.com. Dr. Stuart McGill, 1 June 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2106.