“CORE: What it is, What it isn’t, and How to Train it”

“Core training” used to be a buzzword phrase that would send a frustrated twinge down my spine. I have had countless people ask me: “what are your favorite core exercises?” or “I have a weak core, how can I make it stronger?”, or “my back must hurt because my core isn’t working” or “I don’t need core training, I just lift heavy weights”… okay, you get the idea. It is a very misunderstood and frustrating topic for all movement professionals.

In order to best address this topic, let us start by actually classifying what the “core” consists of. One of the inherent problems is “core” means totally different things to different people. Some think of it as just working 6-pack abs, some think of the ability to resist movements in all directions, and others view it is the dynamic interaction between the upper and lower bodies. My answer would be it is a bit of all of the above, depending on the circumstance.

Here is a look into our thoughts on the matter of how and when to “train the core”

From a musculature standpoint, the argument could be made that any muscle that crosses the trunk or connects the lower body to the upper body should be considered a “core muscle.” Simple by virtue of the term’s name — core is the central unit of the body.

The most commonly acknowledged muscles would be abdominals, obliques, paraspinal muscles. The less common, but equally important muscles that should be included would also be: hip flexors, glutes, adductors, hamstrings, quadriceps, lats, serratus anterior, rhomboids, and pectoral muscles. All of the listed muscles either connect directly to the axial skeleton, the pelvis, or the rib cage, and thereby, are incredibly important for movements associated with the trunk.

Let’s use the lats as an example: this expansive and powerful muscle attaches superiorly at the floor of the bicipital groove of the humerus and inferiorly from spinous processes T7-L5, the thoracolumbar fascia, iliac crest, lower ribs, and inferior angle of the scapula. This is essentially a muscle that crosses the entire spine! I think it is fair to say the muscle will contribute significantly to the movement and stabilization strategies at the torso.

Indeed, how often do you hear the cues, “tighten your lats!” or “spread the bar apart!”? These cues are intended to drive lat tension throughout the entire posterior chain in efforts to enhance spinal stiffness in order to move heavy loads. In some instances such cues could be highly beneficial, while in others they can be detrimental.

Is this a good or bad thing? Guess what!? It depends…

If my goal is to drive as much trunk stiffness, say to lift a really heavy deadlift, then it’s probably a great idea. Alternatively, if my goal is to throw a baseball, this would be a comically underwhelming strategy.

This brings us to our next point: the core functions to both resist and facilitate movement. It just depends upon the circumstance.

Generating and maintaining trunk stiffness is by all means a vital and desirable characteristic, but only in specific situations of higher loads and greater force production demands. If we rely on this high threshold, high muscular tension strategy we have to limit our rotational and flexion abilities. Stiffness is extremely important, but the timing and coordination of that stiffness is what we are really pursuing.

Let’s look at some examples:

What do planks achieve?

All plank variations are seeking to generate and sustain trunk stiffness while resisting flexion/extension and rotational forces. Yes, you will feel your abs, hip flexors, and quads burning — this is because all of those muscles are fighting to maintain your body’s position against forces of gravity. Such an intervention might be highly beneficial for an individual who lacks the ability to resist such forces, but it could be counter-productive for an individual who already biases toward highly compressive and high tension strategies.

What about bird dogs? (Shout out to you, Stuart McGill!)

I am sure we are all familiar with the age-old bird dog exercise. Get on all fours, kick back one leg as you reach the opposite arm forward, and repeat on the other side. Definitely not a plank, but also not too far from it, right?

Bird dogs add in more of a dynamic component. In this instance, the body is being challenged to maintain stiffness in some areas (trunk and weight bearing hand and knee) while moving actively through others. I know, getting a little crazy here.

While this is definitely a lower level intervention, it can offer a viable segue into getting individuals alternating and shifting from side to side. The primary demand here is the ability to maintain rigidity in some areas while promoting fluid motion at contralateral joints. Sounds a little bit like walking, doesn’t it?

What about a one arm KB snatch?

What happens when we get up off the ground and start moving some weights. Is that still core training?

I certainly hope so!

The kettlebell snatch is just one such example. What are the core demands of lifting a weight from the floor to overhead in one movement? For starters, it depends on how heavy it is. The heavier the KB, the greater the coordination and muscular demands will be.

In order to lift the KB off the ground with one arm, a high degree of anti-extension and anti-rotation forces must be counteracted. Added to this, the sequencing and timing of hip extension and knee extension is vital to accelerate the KB overhead prior to the sudden change of direction needed to drop under the weight. Lastly, the upper body and shoulder must rapidly receive and stabilize the weight overhead with the arm fully extended.

Is this exercise only for core training? Absolutely not. However, this is one of many dynamic and high speed movements that challenges the core musculature to rapidly propagate and absorb forces in rapid succession.

What about sprinting?

Wow, wow, wow. Slow down there, boss. Sprinting isn’t core training!… Or is it?

Without belaboring the point, sprint training is extremely demanding on the trunk and core musculature. The velocity and forces associated with maximal speed sprinting cannot be reproduced within the confines of a weight room. Muscles on both sides of the body are flashing from eccentric to concentric to eccentric through an extensive joint excursion multiple times per second. With each step the trunk is rotating slightly over the lead leg in preparation for landing. As soon as the foot strikes the ground, elastic energy spreads up in the kinetic chain catapulting the body forward to the next step. Success at sprinting is all about the timing and coordination of stiffness. The ability of the athlete to be stiff when on the ground and fluid and relaxed gliding through the air is key. This would not be possible without the ability to rapidly transition from high tension to low tension strategies seemingly instantaneously.

The core is the ultimate “middle man.” It is like the gatekeeper that allows for communication between the upper and lower half of the body. The more fluid this communication, the more transfer of force and the greater the power generating capabilities of the upper and lower extremities become!

The intention of this article is not to vilify core training, but rather to paint it in a new perspective. It all comes down to time and place. What sort of strategy do you want to drive — increased rigidity, increased fluidity, or increased speed and transfer of forces? Once you know the answer to that question, the choices of interventions are limitless!

-Mike Reinhardt, PT, DPT; Site Director- R2P Germantown


Follow: Pat Davidson @dr.patdavidson

Love him or hate him, this man holds no punches. Pat has a PhD in Exercise Physiology, extensive background in strength and conditioning, and is both an avid learner and educator. He is the type of person who speaks his mind and is willing to ask hard questions and challenge many commonly helped beliefs in search of deeper answers.

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Listen: Clinical Podcast: The Truth About Back Pain – Stuart McGill 

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