The ‘core’ is often thought of, and trained as, a body part which requires special attention; a body part that deserves a training day dedicated solely to its development (“I’m training legs and abs/core today”) and a body part who’s dysfunction or weakness leads to injury and poor performance. Indeed there is scientific evidence to support all these views; for example it is often claimed that in low back pain sufferers, deep core muscles do not ‘fire’ as quickly as they should- but how on earth does one target a single, very small, deep muscle amongst the “29 pairs of muscle that support the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex”? You won’t find an answer to that here! Indeed, spine biomechanics and world renowned author Stuart McGill states:
“People are unable to activate this muscle (transverse abdominus) in isolation beyond very low levels of contraction because it is designed to activate with internal oblique muscle for athletic tasks. It would appear that trainers who focus on this muscle are misdirected”.
The core has also previously been defined by David Behm as “the axial skeleton (skull, spine, ribs) and all soft tissues (muscles, tendons, fascia, ligaments) originating on the axial skeleton and either inserting onto the axial skeleton (e.g. multifidus muscles) or the appendicular skeleton (the limbs and the gluteus maximus as an example)”. What does this tell us? It tells us that the core tissues are many and varied, cross multiple joints, run along multiple lines of direction, need to stabilise and fix positions and need to contribute to generating movement.
Stabilising core tissues are sometime referred to as ‘local’ and are deep (anatomically speaking), slow twitch dominant and activated with muscle tension of around 30-40% max effort. Movement generating core tissues on the other hand are more superficial, fast twitch in nature and are activated with increased force and speed demands.
So consider this question: why do we always call core training “core stability training”; we already know the core tissues are involved in generating movement too. However, core stability isn’t an inaccurate description either; because it is unlikely that anybody would ever want to damage their spinal cord (i.e. if the bones of the spinal column are not stable then this very delicate part of the nervous system which runs through them will surely be at risk!) You also won’t find an alternative name for ‘core stability’ training here (other than ‘effective training’)!
And what of traditional ‘core exercises’ like sit-ups, plank holds and back extensions? Well, there’s no doubt that every exercise has its place but let’s once again look to those in the know. Back (if you’ll excuse the pun) to Stuart McGill:
“it is often believed that repeated spinal flexion is a good way to train the abdominal wall. Interestingly, these muscles are rarely used in this way because they are more often used to brace to stop motion. Furthermore, repeated bending of the spinal discs is a potent injury mechanism”
Oops! Yes, we all need to apologise to certain clients we have trained in the past, don’t we!
So, let’s stop and pause. What do we know so far:
- The core consists of many tissues which cross many joints
- The core is important for preventing motion and creating motion in multiple directions
- The core muscles are activated in specific circumstances- specific to the task in hand
- Some traditional core training approaches are probably ineffective and may even be detrimental.
So where next with our core training? Answer these questions to gain a big clue?
Q. During which exercise, can you lift the most weight: standing chest press (e.g. using cables) or bench press?
The answer should be obvious, and it has even been reported that exercisers can only generate enough strength to push around half their bodyweight in a standing position, otherwise they would topple over. Comparatively, we know that that some strong individuals can bench press twice their own body weight (and more!)
And so, what is the difference between these exercise variations? One is standing and unsupported, whilst the other is laying and fully supported i.e. take the supportive role of the core out of the equation and replace with a seat or bench and it may well be feasible to lift more weight in an isolated manner but there will be little contribution from the trunk. This then, should make an appreciation of how to improve core function all the more simple:
- Stand up (this is where you spend most of your time anyhow- unless you work in an office all day seated, in which case, you’ll likely have posture and/or back issues, effectively known as ‘whole-body weakness’!)
- Move external objects around you in different directions
- Speed some objects up (including your own bodyweight) and then decelerate them
- To get better at a specific exercise or sporting skill, do more of it! Remember, core activation is task specific
- Ensure great technique is used for all exercises, every day. When you adopt well aligned postures, your core muscles are already working
- Work within your ‘postural threshold’; exercises which allow for loading e.g. back squats may be great exercises when performed well but can equally be back-crippling when performed ugly (coincidently, free standing squats are great core exercises, or should that simply be, “great exercises”).
To conclude, let us simply list a small handful of some of the best core exercises. This should sufficiently help you to understand how the core functions and what exercises can best train it:
- Variations of press-ups (e.g. staggered hand positions)
- Variations of pulls (e.g. bent over row)
- Variations of squats (e.g. overhead squat)
- Variations of hip hinging movements (e.g. supine bridging)
- Variations of lunges (e.g. multi directional lunges with reaches)
- Jumping, sprinting
- Uni-lateral exercise (e.g. single arm shoulder press)
- Positional holds which create movements to resist e.g. anti-rotation (e.g. a static cable Russian twist hold)
- Many, many more…
To end, let us hear from one final expert, Professor Eyal Lederman:
“The body always thinks movement not muscles… You become a good pianist by practicing the piano not the banjo. Learning to contract the TVA whilst on your back is unlikely to transfer to dynamic movement whilst standing. Trunk control for running vs. climbing vs. throwing will always be different. Want better trunk control for your sport? Train the sporting movements!”