When it comes to building speed, coaches tend to focus on sprint mechanics, power-based training and plyometrics. Coaches think when we want to develop more powerful athletes, we default to Olympic lifts, medicine ball training, and much more. Yet, few ever look at core training as the solution for many of these performance-based measures.
Let’s face it, the idea of core training has been so poorly defined that many coaches have become cynical about the impact it can really make to training. Looking at the real research, we can dispel many myths about core training and help us see that core training can play a significant role in many of our performance-based goals.
Beyond the Abs
We can’t have a good discussion on the how and why of core training without first understanding that the core isn’t going to reference to any one muscle or even any one group of muscles. The reality is that the core is generally thought of as a combination of over 35 muscles that must work synergistically to accomplish the goal of strength, power, and speed. World renown spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill, describes the muscles of the core being made up just partly of, “the lumbar spine, the muscles of the abdominal wall, the back extensors and quadratus lumborum. Also included are the multi-joint muscles, namely, latissimus dorsi and psoas that pass through the core, linking it to the pelvis, legs, shoulders and arms. Given the anatomic and biomechanical synergy with the pelvis, the gluteal muscles may also be considered to be essential components as primary power generators.”
As famed physical therapist Gary Gray states, the core is “from the toes to the nose.” Such a statement confirms that the core goes far beyond just the abs or any individual muscles. The problem as renown therapist Gray Cook points out is that we usually try to address training either by “part or performance” means.
Meaning, many coaches who aim to have a stronger core think about training the rectus abdominis with flexion, the obliques with “twisting,” etc. We think about the parts that can make up the core, but miss how the core actually functions. As Mr. Cook points out, the majority of issues with core stability and performance comes down to movement patterns, not parts.
This works in concert with what much of the research has found consistent with issues of low back pain. Motor control and proper sequencing of the core muscles are more important in reduction of low back pain than actual strength of the abdominals or any specific core muscles. Training the proper patterning of the core is a specific skill, and it needs to be addressed in training.
As Dr. Stuart McGill has stated, “Core stiffness is essential for injury prevention. Core stiffness is essential for performance enhancement. Core stiffness is not optimized in body building exercises. Core stiffness requires dedicated training.”
Why Core Stiffness Matters
What is core stiffness and why does it play such an essential role in our performance in sport, our ability to produce more force and our hopes of running faster? Core stiffness can be thought of as tension throughout the body that provides a stable platform for more movement to occur.
This is why research has shown that issues like shoulder pain in throwing athletes has a correlation with a lack of lower core stability. The “stiffness” of the core creates what the physical therapy system of PNF coined, “proximal stability for distal mobility.” In essence, when the body creates a stable platform for the extremities to perform from, the nervous system allows for greater force development to occur.
The question becomes HOW do we create proper core stiffness and teach the concepts that will make a difference for the athlete. While core stability training has a huge spectrum of approaches, we are going to focus on establishing a good foundation, proper progressions, and start to show where real core stability can go in a thoughtful strength training program.
The Bird Dog
The video above includes demonstrations and essential form cues for the Bird Dog movements below. Many of the drills in this article are based on the foundations of Dr. McGill’s “Big 3” core stability exercises. The Bird Dog being one of the most important because of how many qualities we teach at once. The Bird Dog is designed to teach:
How to create core stiffness from the ground up. This means creating force into the ground with the hands and feet.
How to resist extension and rotation of the core.
How to keep the pelvis stable as the extremities create movement, like we see in running.
How to connect the kinetic chains like the Posterior Oblique System (POS) which is the lats, trunk and glutes working in concert to create stability in the same manner during locomotion.
What you will see is two foundations of the familiar Bird Dog. Most people struggle with the resisting of movement because they don’t know how to create the core stiffness, nor how to connect the chains of the body.
As explained from :00-1:37 in the video above, foundational Bird Dog can be a great screen in pelvic control and how we create a foundation for the extremities to optimally perform.
As explained from 1:38-2:37 in the video above, keeping a stable upper body while we challenge the control of the lower body is a great place to start building success in the Bird Dog. This creates a push/pull pattern in the lower body like we have in running.
As explained from 2:38-4:11 in the video above, using the sandbag allows us to strengthen the core through friction and loading, but more importantly connects the lats, core and glutes (the Posterior Oblique System).
As explained from 4:12-5:45 in the video above, the action of rowing is to accentuate the challenge in both resisting multi-planar forces acting on the core and keeping proper ground contact.
Lateral Core Stability: The Missing Link
It can be argued that the most undertrained type of core training is lateral core strength. Yes, there are the token Side Planks, but this form of core training is far more important than the casual attention it often receives. Being able to stabilize the pelvis in the frontal plane as we move is important otherwise we create a disconnect in the connection of the muscles. Dr. McGill calls this a “leakage” of energy, and the knees and low backs generally pay the price.
As Dr. McGill describes, “Interestingly, when we measure world-class strongmen carrying weight, NFL footballers running planting the foot and cutting–neither of these are trained by the squat. This is because these exercises do not train the quadratus lumborum and abdominal obliques, which are so necessary for these tasks.”
Building lateral core stability will start with many side plank progressions, but as you will see, we want to gradually get into more upright positions where we navigate gravity from more practical positions.
As explained from :00-1:05 in the video above, the Side Plank should be the foundation to our lateral stability training. Proper progression is key and making sure we are connecting the chains and driving down into the ground should require us to start from proper body position levels. Using the band isn’t to create a strong upper back as much as to tie in the lat-core-glute connection with the lateral chain of the body.
As explained from 1:06-2:17 in the video above, a half-kneeling position makes us navigate gravity and lateral stability. Using an alternating Kettlebell Press teaches us how to have a stable pelvis while we have to resist extension and lateral forces acting on the core.
As explained from 2:20-4:02 in the video above, The MAX (multiple axis) Sandbag Lunge challenges our ability to maintain the integrity of alignment and movement while we have to produce and resist force of the moving weight at the same time. This reactive core strength is one of the highest we can teach.
The Future of Core Training
The goal of the core training discussed in this article isn’t to exhaust the number or variety of exercises we can create. Rather it is to demonstrate an understanding of how real core training is essential in enhancing performance and helping injury resiliency. Coaches should understand that core is far more than “ab exercises” and what the goal of each form of core training emphasizes in the overall function and connection building in the body.
McGill S, ed. Designing Back Exercise: From Rehabilitation to Enhancing Performance (2nd ed). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007
Silfies SP, Ebaugh D. Pontillo M, Butowicz CM. “Critical review of the impact of core stability on upper extremity athletic inquiry and performance.” Brz J Phys Ther. 2015:19(5):360-8.
Hodges, P.W. and Richardson, C.A. “Inefficient muscular stabilization of the lumbar spine associated with low back pain. A motor control evaluation of transversus abdominis.” Spine. 1996; 21: 2640–2650