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 increasing reps necessarily, but rather by increasing load to create the same intensity in a desired range. I would keep it to less than 15-20 reps of a given exercise.
4. Stability: Anything on ground, prone, supine, or side lying; where you are holding an isometric contraction and allowing little to no variance in the position being held, specifically spinal motion.
Stability is the category that planks, bridges, glute bridges, side bridges, 6-point, and quadruped positions fall into. This is an extremely important category for core development not only for its stability components and endurance components but for its myelination components from an isometric hold. The isometric position is a transfer position for eccentric to concentric contractions. Isometric contractions assist in two major functions as it relates to rate of force development, motor unit recruitment and rate coding. In other words how many muscle fibers are used in a particular contraction and how fast they fire to increase muscular tension. The summation of muscle twitches helps create this efficiency. These components help decelerate and deliver force at a faster and more efficient rate. Less energy lost (energy leak) = more expression of power.
5. Dynamic Stability: Anything on ground, prone, supine, or side lying, where you are holding an isometric position/contraction, but using an external driver to cause more stress on the stabilization.
This is an advancement of the stability category. Here for example you are holding a forearm or extended plank and driving your foot in all three planes of motion. Another example wold be mountain climbers. Anything you wish can be a driver, your foot, your knee, your hips, your hands, your head. You can do it loaded or unloaded and from a variety of positions. This increases the difficulty of the stability position and causes a more intense contraction to occur. It will also help with activating more core musculature including stabilizers and cause the body to have to react to a more constant and uncertain stimulus.
6. Functional: Anything standing, kneeling, or on ground that mimics contractions of the core musculature similar to that of the clients training goals or the activation of functional anatomy.
Function is a bastardized term. It can be way overdone, but can also be ignored which creates a detriment to the total growth of an individual. Squatting, lunging, balance exercises, medball throws, crawling and many other things can all be considered functional core. The whole idea here is that we load the core musculature in ways that it will be loaded specific to the daily movements and requirements of the individual. There are many tools out there designed to help with this and create certain stresses that will overflow into the playing field. The best way to train this in my opinion is to play and practice the sport or desired goal of the individual. You cannot simulate the stress of a game no matter how “functional” you get with your training, however it can have some great carry over if you can load it and progress it properly.
In review there are many ways to “train your core.” However we can categorize them to make sure we are getting all aspects and maximizing the potential of our athletes. It is up to us as coaches to decide when, where, and how we implement each category into our individual training protocols. Every technique and concern may differ from person to person and realm to realm, but the categorization does not have to change. Some is better than none, but strategic implementation of all six of these categories will take athletes to the next level no matter what their sport or goal. Introduce stimulus, create variation, force adaptation.
Special thanks to Clay Price for helping me develop ideas and test this theory.
Thanks for other leaders in the industry who have also had an influence on this.
Dr. Stuart McGill
Gary Gray and other Fellows of the Gray Institute