Keep in mind this blog entry is not designed to give you a secret formula for 6-pack abs, which we all know is more nutrition than physical work, but for performance. Our core is our engine, it is our power, it is what everything feeds off of and works around. Stuart McGill, PhD (a leader in core research and low back disorders) said the stiffening of the core allows for more distal anatomy (hip and shoulder musculature) to move more explosively. “Thus, a universal law of human movement is illustrated: “proximal stiffness enhances distal mobility and athleticism”. Core strength will facilitate any and every physical goal you have which cannot be said about every training mechanism. If we aren’t specifically training the core we are missing the boat, if we are training it we could be on the boat but without a paddle.
I have only been in the strength and conditioning industry for 8 years but have already experimented with and seen a lot of different “core” exercises: from sit-ups, to planks, to functional core, to gymnastics core and much more. Before we get into classifying exercises and talking training specifics we must define the “core” especially as it pertains to performance. In one definition your core is everything from your rooter to your tooter (nose to butt). If that doesn’t give you a good visual then I am not sure what will. Let’s go a little deeper than that; first off you have the muscles of the vertebral column that run from your neck to your pelvis. Some big ones being erector spinae (3 separate muscles), quadratus lumborum, and multifidus. These muscles assist in 3D movement and stabilization of the vertebral column. The next group is part of the anterior and lateral abdominal wall. Here you have the commonly known 6-pack muscles such as the rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique, and transverse abdominis. These are layers and layers of muscle and fascia that connect this musculature to the pelvis. These muscles also assist in dynamic 3D movement and stabilization of the pelvis and vertebral column. The last group we will discuss is the bottom up musculature of the lower leg. Big prime movers that assist in pelvic motion and stabilization such as the psoas, hamstrings, glutes, and adductor complex. These muscles effect the 3D motion of the pelvis which in turn causes other core musculature to load and explode properly. Note that there are many more small muscles that play a huge role in how the core musculature work, however for the nature of this blog those are beyond the need of discussion. All of this musculature must work in unison to allow the spine to function for health and for performance. The spine is an intriguing structure that allows for impressive mobility and movement but must also be able to absorb great amounts of force and load, an engineering feat to say the least. In review, training the core for performance is positively influencing and stressing the musculature of the spinal column, the abdominal wall, and the prime movers/stabilizers of the pelvis to create an adaptation that positively benefits the client or athlete.
“In order to shoot cannon balls, you must build a cannon” -Bobby Stroupe
How do we build the cannon?
In order to answer this question I am first going to categorize core training into what I think is an all-encompassing approach. I will later define each category.
(Not in order of priority or importance)
Now with these 6 categories in mind, the ways to plug in exercises, tweak them, increase their difficulty etc are infinite. There is no end to how many exercises you can create or ways you can change them. This is why we categorize them. Hit 4 of these categories in your program great, 5 even better, 6 will be elite. Examples of tweaks: Tri-phasic focuses, lifting, chopping, carrying, parallel stabilization, on ground, standing, kneeling, movement drivers, environment changes, load, unload, time, repetitions, three-dimensionalizing, crawling, dragging. The list goes on forever.
1. Anti-rotation/Stiffness: Anything that activates the core in a rigid pattern to resist movement in the sagittal, frontal, or transverse plane.
This is huge for athletic development, stability of the lumbar spine, injury prevention, and power production. The more resistance or load that I am able to decelerate to a complete stop, the more force I am going to be able to display out the other end and the safer I will be. This is the new school definition of core that believes its purpose is prevention of motion rather than creating motion. This is different then pure bridging or planking because there is typically an exterior force acting on you that you have to resist. Examples would be lifting, chopping, parallel rotations, carrying, farmers walking, etc.
2. Rotation: Anything where the core is the primary mover of rotating the abdominal wall and spinal column through the transverse plane.
This is an advancement of anti-rotation and also a potential sub-category of dynamic, however I think it is its own category due to its implications on performance. The more load I can “anti-rotate” the more weight I can rotate in this category. This is the beginning of the transfer of energy: load and explode, stretch shortening cycle, amortization. Remember just like any other progression or periodization, how I train this depends on goals and times of the year. I can train it for strength, speed, power, eccentric control, and much more. It all depends on what you or your athletes needs are at that time of the year.
3. Dynamic: Anything on ground, suspended, or standing where the primary movement is flexion, extension, or lateral flexion of the trunk or lower leg musculature.
These movements would most typically be your sit-up, jack knife, hanging leg raise, side crunch or their many variations. You could do them standing and go through overhead posterior and anterior reaches or even lateral overhead reaches. You are very active during these types of exercises and usually get a very deep abdominal burn. This is also where it gets dicey. Functional extremists will sometimes rally against any type of on ground trunk flexion and extension exercises because the core musculature works in a different way than when standing. Although I would agree with this Applied Functional Science principle, when training for performance this can be a huge miss in building the core. Also, some would argue that repeated spinal flexions increase the risk of disk bulges or herniations, however, in my opinion I think more research needs to be done in this area. Up until this point one of the leading arguments has been based on research done with the cervical spine of dead pigs. Im not buying it yet. One of the biggest contributors to performance of flexion/extension exercises is hypertrophy of the abdominal region due to increased muscle activation. More mass, more momentum, more power. (as long as you know how to convert it) Research also suggests that flexion and extension movements of the spine help to pump nutrients and fluids across the discs, especially the posterior region that is normally more collapsed. This can lead to a decrease in degenerative disc disorder and lower back pain. Lastly, the strict functional approach to core training is missing it big when an athlete has to leave their feet. All vertical core training can and will be negated when an athlete dives for a ball, gets tackled, falls to the ground, or leaves their feet in any scenario. Huge injury prevention work in my opinion to be able to decelerate trunk flexion, extension and lateral flexion. Especially extreme hyperextension. I also train MMA fighters, best believe I’m putting them on their back and doing spinal flexion exercises. With that being said, I would also recommend extra mobility work built into this, as to not tighten already tight hip flexors, and an increased coaching cue of hinging in some exercises vs bending. I would also move to less of this training the closer you get to season and not choose pure flexion exercises as the staple of your core development. Lastly when trying to increase stress or overload, do not do so by