Core Training That Actually Matters
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 fatigue based fluff than they are functional performance and spinal health. It’s certainly okay to want to aesthetically develop your abs, but as you know by now, that’s diet. Not sit-ups.
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 as you know them, our #abz.
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.
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 the weight that’s placed in our hands and on our backs increases, the need for our core muscles to be strong and stabilize the spine from moving so too increases. 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 on planet Earth, 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 because 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.
This is why our coaches are always saying things like, “pull your ribs towards your hips” on anything in plank position. It’s hollow position! It neutralizes anterior pelvic tilt and slowly works to bring you out of it or avoid it altogether, and why we are such freaks about training it.
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, then 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 do. 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 (above)
- Roll-outs – Make sure you avoid going into the anterior pelvic tilt position.
- Hollow holds
- Banded holds and other tasks that resist torso rotation
- Dead bugs and bird dogs
- Renegade rows
- Pull Throughs
- Goblet and Front Squat Variations
- Weighted push-ups – Again, stay out of anterior pelvic tilt.
The important takeaway from this list is that if you only heavy barbell 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 develop 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.
We’ve talked a lot about anti-rotational and resisting spinal movement as an important part of core training, but now I am going to confuse you and tell you that it’s not all that you should do. If you train your spine to never move, when it does, your body is not going to like it and sooner or later you’ll train yourself into the tin man.
It is important to let your spine move in the ways that it is physically able. Rotate it with movements like Russian twists, sprinter crunches, rotational cleans, rotational med clams and hand-to-hand kettlebell swings. That’s healthy. Just make sure you understand that they are in support of a spine that can create stiffness, not the priority.
Above all, move properly. Respect technique and load. 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.
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.