Rethinking Core Training: It's Not Just a Mirror Muscle
Updated: Oct 17, 2020
I want you to think about what immediately comes to mind when you hear the term core training. You're probably seeing images of chiselled abs and reliving feelings of agony associated with performing hundreds of sit ups.
When someone wants to train their core it’s often about the burn in the abs. If you can’t feel it, it’s not working right? Well, not necessarily.
"I'm sure we've all been told not to judge a book by its cover. The same thing rings true when it comes to the core"
Training the core isn’t about having washboard abs. Sure, it’s one way some people feel comfortable in their own skin, but it certainly doesn’t correlate to having great core strength. Having visible abs has more to do with levels of body fat than anything else.
Through advertising and cringy TV infomercials, the fitness industry has influenced society’s understanding of core training to be about aesthetics rather than function (3). This has caused a misunderstanding amongst the general public, and even between fitness professionals, about what core training should consist of.
We can draw some similarities between core training and our own moral values. I'm sure we've all been told not to judge a book by its cover. The same thing rings true when it comes to the core. What's happening deep down within is far more important than what the outer surface looks like.
Being strength and conditioning coaches, here at TRIAX we're usually looking at core strength through a sports performance lense. The importance of core strength for everyday tasks and function cannot be understated, however!
The problem we see is that core training is typically implemented into training regimes inappropriately. Again, this is a result of the misconceptions around core training and by no means is this your fault.
The purpose of this blog is to clarify some of these misconceptions and provide a clearer understanding of the function of the core, where most people go wrong, and how to make the most of your core training.
What is the core and what does it do?
There are many muscles that can be classified as “core” muscles, and while there isn’t one commonly accepted definition, the core can technically include any muscles between your nipples and your knees. To keep it simple for the purposes of this blog, the core will be referred to as the space between your chest and pelvis, and all the muscles this encompasses.
In this space are your abs and obliques which you’re probably familiar with, but also some fancy sounding muscles you may or may not have heard of before – such as the transverse abdominis (TVA), multifidus, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum (QL), diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles (5).
These muscles provide stability to the spine, play roles in breathing and posture, but most importantly from a sports performance point of view, they act as a transmission point for force to travel from the lower body to the upper body or vice versa. A strong core is therefore a key pillar to sporting performance.
Take throwing a ball, for example. Force production from the legs during throwing probably doesn’t seem too important, but if you had to throw a ball standing up compared to sitting down, which would go further? When throwing, force is generated through the legs, shoots up the body and into the shoulder, arm and wrist to give us some extra power when throwing.
To ensure there is high transference of force through the core, the core muscles play an important role in bracing and creating internal pressure to ensure the body’s torso is rock solid and stable. Most importantly, this enables the core to resist unwanted motion (3).
Essentially, this means remaining keeping the ribcage in line with the pelvis. Again using throwing as an example, as our upper body twists so do our hips. Any unwanted motion, such as bending too far forward or to the side, has the potential to result in a less powerful throw.
Resistance to unwanted motion minimises energy leakage through the core which is key to express high force at high velocities, as is seen in so many sporting movements such as running, jumping and throwing.
WHY SIT UPS AREN'T AS GREAT AS YOU THINK
"[Sit ups] are the Regina George of core training – they make you pretty to look at but peel away the layers and there's not much substance underneath"
We now know that the core plays a key role in resisting unwanted motion through the body’s torso. So often, however, core training programs consist of sit ups, crunches, Russian twists, and all sorts of fancy looking exercises that focus on creating motion as opposed to resisting motion.
These types of exercises are the Regina George of core training – they make you pretty to look at but peel away the layers and there’s not much substance underneath.
Do core exercises that create motion have a place? Sure. Should they make up the bulk of your core work? No.
The context of the sport and individual will dictate exactly how much, but as a general rule I would lean more towards training the core to resist motion as opposed to creating motion in your strength training programs. This has much greater transfer to the sporting arena.
As mentioned, the core muscles need to brace and create internal pressure to keep the body’s torso rock solid. The muscles prominently involved in these actions are deep below the abs and closer to the spine.
By performing exercises that involve movement, such as crunches, we compromise the body’s ability to provide stability to the spine and transmit force between the upper and lower body as recruitment of these deeper muscles is less efficient (1).
Now, this doesn’t mean we should never move through our torso. We don’t have a broomstick for a spine and there’s going to be times where movement through the body’s torso or core is wanted – take a tennis serve, for example. The key is being able to create or resist movement through the core at the appropriate times!
In a sporting context, more often than not this will involve training the core to be resistant to unwanted motion.
GETTING BANG FOR YOUR CORE TRAINING BUCK
I need to preface this section by mentioning that most people will get adequate core training effects that come indirectly from ordinary resistance training and sporting movements (4).
If it wasn’t for your core muscles resisting the pressure of the barbell on your back during heavy squats, you’d crumple into a mess on the ground. Sprinting is another common sporting movement that requires great core strength.
In saying that, isolated core training can still be very beneficial for people who struggle to have their core remain stable under duress.
When training the core to resist motion, we can typically group exercises into the movements they are trying to resist – the main ones being flexion (bending forward), extension (arching back), and rotation (twisting side-to-side). However, when talking about the role of the core, we so often talk about how the core acts as the entire body moves.
Therefore, I think it's important to categorise core training exercises over a continuum of simple to complex movements. Some of these exercises aren’t sexy or fancy but they will be much more effective than performing hundreds of sit ups or Russian twists.
holding core alignment
Holding core alignment exercises are a great introduction to anti-motion core training. These types of exercises simply involve maintaining that ribs over pelvis position that we desire for a selected period of time. Some exercises that test this are:
Holding core alignment with limb movement
The next step up from holding core alignment is to add in some limb movement. This is so often what we see in a sporting context – we need to keep our core nice and stable while the rest of our body does its thing. Great exercises for this are:
Moving planks (e.g. shoulder tap plank, high to low plank, arm march plank)
Stir the pot
Force transfer & high velocity movements
The previous exercises that involve holding core alignment are great at building the foundation, but it's time to up the ante a bit. The following exercises are actually shown to exhibit higher levels of core activation than traditional core exercises such as planks! (2)
This makes sense as there is such a high demand on the core to minimise energy leakage to transfer force between the upper and lower body. The key to most sporting movements is the ability to produce high levels of force while moving at high velocities. The best way to do this? Practice it! This can be done through:
Heavy strength training – focus on whole-body lifts such as squats, deadlifts and rows
Unilaterally loaded exercises (only holding weight on the side of the working limb)
Playing sport sees movements that produce the highest velocities. As such, the requirement placed upon the core muscles to stabilise the torso is through the roof. Again, this ensures we optimise force transfer by being able to control the range of motion and speed at which the torso moves. This allows force to be applied quickly efficiently by the outer limbs. Examples of high force–high velocity sporting movements are:
There you have it. That’s TRIAX’s guide to all things core training!
Think your core strength is lacking? Get in touch! TRIAX Performance offers individualised training programs to suit your needs!
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about the author
Strength and Conditioning Coach
B. Ex&SpSc (Hons) | ASCA L1
Available for individualised online coaching
1. Blazevich AJ, Gill ND, Bronks R, and Newton RU. Training-specific muscle architecture adaptation after 5-wk training in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 35: 2013-2022, 2003.
2. Hamlyn N, Behm DG, and Young WB. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. J Strength Cond Res 21: 1108-1112, 2007.
3. Joyce D. High-performance training for sports. Human Kinetics, 2014.
4. Saeterbakken AH and Fimland MS. Muscle activity of the core during bilateral, unilateral, seated and standing resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol 112: 1671-1678, 2012.
5. Standring S. Gray's anatomy : the anatomical basis of clinical practice. Elsevier Limited, 2016.