Core training has been a major buzz term over the last couple of decades. We hear it and immediately shut down – because let’s be honest, training your core sounds almost as exciting as standing in line at the DMV. Plus, we quickly realize that core training is often confused with abdominal work. “Five Minutes to Flat Abs”, “30-day Six Pack Training,” you know, those fitness videos filled with washboard abs, sweaty crunches and bouncy stability balls? Well, we can assure you, that isn’t the focus of this post. And although core training can be likened to the unwanted dog, left at the pound, it is indeed fundamental and might be the significant chunk missing from your training, so you’ll want to read on.
In reality, your core is more than just your rectus abdominis (abdominals). It’s also your transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, erector spinae, multifidus muscle, pelvic floor muscles, gluteus maximus, medius and minimus and your scapular stabilizers. Think of it like every muscle in your mid-section from your shoulders to your hips. So to strengthen your entire core, you can’t just focus on one area, you’ll need to target all the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, mid and upper back, hips and abdomen.
It’s not sexy. It’s not exciting. It’s not talked about often enough. But in terms of athleticism and powerlifting, it’s necessary and functional. Yes, albeit boring and monotonous, core training is undervalued an underappreciated when it shouldn’t be. It’s no secret that heavy lifters are susceptible to injury (as with any sport, really). And as our common, shared goal to become as strong as possible without injury is next to impossible without developing a core that generates power, provides stability and in turn, enhances performance. As you train and progress, if core weakness is detected it can decrease efficiency, cause strength leakage and lead to a multitude of injuries, including: disc bulges and herniations, lower back pain, a wonky sacroiliac joint, and strains and sprains to name a few. On the flip side, proper core training first promotes better movement patterns and increases neuromuscular control to heighten postural awareness. Also, the strength developed throughout your mid-section will prevent unwanted movement, and provide stability, thus resisting force and protecting your spine. We know that excessive spinal movement can cause injury. So to decrease unwanted movement, we focus on increasing torso stability, right? And we all know that increased stability translates to more power and more efficient limb movement. Bonus for you, because that also means better lifts (win-win). So the question comes up, are you taking initiative to work on core strength outside of your training program? How often? And if you aren’t, why not?
A common misconception is that heavy lifts, specifically squats and deadlifts, will give you the core strength you need to get by. Sure these big lifts can benefit the posterior core (like erector spinal and lower back muscles), but that is only a small piece of the puzzle. In reality, squats and deadlifts do very little for anterior core activation. So unfortunately, flexing your abs during a lift probably won’t cut it if you are looking to progress, lift heavier and keep your body safe. So instead of replacing core exercises with big lifts, instead, a core specific training program should be supplementary to your training. This, theoretically, does not need to take much time and can be performed during a warm up or after a training session. That way, you can tackle areas missed in your training program while enhancing performance and increasing injury resilience.
So for example: Let’s say you are dealing with SI joint pain or dysfunction from time to time due to hyper-mobility in the joint. When aggravated, it hurts to sit, is painful to bend over, and you are definitely forced to take off time from training. Strengthening and activating your core muscles correctly will be essential to stabilize the sacroiliac joint, specifically your trunk. The transverse abdominis and internal obliques help resist shear loads, compress the joint and maintain stability, so building up and progressing these areas will be most effective.
Or let’s address those dreaded disc herniations. We either know someone or have experienced this issue ourselves. They are painful, can be a long recovery and sometimes a spine will never feel or act the same again. A lot of times, disc issues can be avoided with a little prehab, specifically some functional core training. Essentially, the idea is to toughen up your core and it will better absorb forces that are loaded on the bar. By taking the pressure off your limbs, your spine doesn’t have to pick up the slack due to inefficiency and weakness.
Now that we’ve scared you with some potential injuries, maybe you are wondering what type of exercises to do? Everyone is pretty familiar with the basic core strengthening exercises you might find on a chart in a physical therapist’s office. These are things like standard planks, dead-bugs and bird dogs. And while these are great and do serve a purpose, they shouldn’t be the only types of core training incorporated in your program, especially for lifters. Static positions and movements that stay in the sagittal plane of motion won’t suffice to resist force in all directions, something that will keep you safe as you lift heavier. Think about it, if you are only training your core in one steady position or in one plane of motion, how well will this carry over to movements where you aren’t holding still or if move slightly out of line? (Spoiler: it won’t). Instead, a balanced approach that also includes dynamic anti-rotational, anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion movements that resist forces from all directions should be encouraged as they are essential to improve core health and durability.
So to minimize risk of injury and maximize function in your lifts, you’ll need to teach your body how to react to changing environments. And no, none of these are crunches (note: crunches actually can put the lumbar spine into flexion and place a large, unnecessary amount of force on the spine). And although typically, core training should be selected on an individual basis depending on the athlete’s needs, these are some great staple exercises that any lifter can include in their training and benefit from.
Some examples are:
Landmine Twists: A great movement for anti-rotator function while staying in a standing position. Start with small weight first (not much is needed) and think about preventing movement. Take barbell overhead, and rotate side to side in a controlled manner. There should be a slight bend in your knees and your hips will face forward, staying still throughout the movement. Repeat side to side.
One Arm Suitcase Carries: Carries are good for anti-lateral flexion and obliques. Keep a neutral spine, hold a single weight in one hand to the side of your body and walk. Focus on maintaining a steady, upright position as the weight pulls you side to side. Repeat on the other side.
Palloff Press and Hold: A challenging anti-rotational movement that works both static and dynamic stability. Stand far away enough that you can feel tension in the cable. Keep shoulders and square and extend hands away from body, resisting tension, while maintaining control in a smooth manner. Hold, then return to starting position.
Ab Wheel/Rollers: A classic core exercise tool used for anti-extension training. First, brace your abs tightly. Keeping your core engaged, roll forward, starting with small movements to make sure you can keep a neutral spine. As you get stronger, you can progress and make your movements bigger.
Weighted Planks / Plank Variations: Sure we said planks were too easy, but that’s why we are taking them to the next level. Advancing your plank with added weight is valuable for the anterior core and to challenge stabilization under loads. First, make sure your spine and pelvis are in a neutral position. Next, add weight and hold. Concentrate on keeping core engaged and maintaining a neutral spine. Variations of standard planks that challenge stability and control include: side planks, 2-point high plank, Spider-Man plank, sliding high planks with reach, and alternating leg lifts in high plank.
After you feel comfortable and adapt to each core exercise, it’s important to note that you should progress by modifying the exercise, adding resistance or adding repetitions. A progressive routine is important to have in place so you can continue making greater demands on your body and in turn, make further gains. We all know that in powerlifting, if you don’t progressively overload your muscles (by adding more resistance or adding more repetitions) then your body doesn’t have a reason to make further adaptions and will only continue to perform how they are accustomed to (also known as a “plateau”). So why not train your core the same way? By making adjustments you can get stronger by introducing unfamiliar movement patters allowing for increased gains. So don’t forget to kick it up a few notches, add more weight, add stronger resistance bands, add reps or modify the exercise. A perfect example of this is taking your standard plank and progressing to a 2-point high plank. Because let’s face it, the better you get at your core strengthening, the safer and more effective you will be when moving serious weight.
There you have it; true, effective core training to improve training in a nut shell. A handful of exercises one or two times a week isn’t a huge commitment when you see the big picture. And while this isn’t meant to give you a 6 pack, it lays the foundation for something more valuable – building core toughness and sturdy spine that will prevent pain and injury. And a stable spine paired with a strong core is truly something that any athlete or lifter can benefit from. Stay healthy friends.