For athletes, we know the role that the central core plays in terms of stabilization and force generation. As it is becoming widely recognized, core stability is necessary for efficient biomechanical function to not just minimize excessive loading on joints but also maximizing force generation during strength activities. However, we also know that strength athletes usually have a fully loaded programs (warm-ups, lifts, accessory movements and conditioning). So the question is, is programming “extra” core work absolutely necessary? Since I’m all about optimizing every minute of training sessions, let’s really think about this.
Before getting into it, I want to point out that core stability and core strength are often confused with each other. Although related, they are in fact are two different things. Think of it this way, sure having a great deal of core strength can build muscular potential, but if you have poor core stability, then it does absolutely no good. What’s most important is how well you effectively utilize your core stability.
How much core stability training?
Core stability, although important, doesn’t need to be the main focus of an athlete’s program. Nor is it always necessary to dedicate an entire session to, and a great deal of supplemental core movements may not be necessary. And I’ll tell you why.
Let’s look at powerlifters. These strength athletes have their primary focus on squat, bench and deadlifts, so they may already receive a great deal of core stability training with these lifts (Willardson, 2007). It has been demonstrated that training with higher intensities of the back squat had greater core muscle activation when compared to a plank (Tillaar, 2018). Specifically, results concluded that a 6RM back squat had greater erector spine activation than a plank. If this is the case, with 2-3 hour long powerlifting-focused training days, it may not be necessary (or reasonable) to add a significant amount more of core-focused movements.
This of course will vary on the status of athlete (beginner, advanced) as well as their injury history. To optimize training sessions, many times additional core stability if needed can be intertwined into sessions (warm up and activation movements are my favorite) as well as during accessory movements. I will give suggestions later on.
What About Balance Training
Although you may see many individuals performing exercises on unstable surfaces like bosu balls, balance boards, etc., does this really serve a purpose for strength athletes? As far as training on unstable surfaces goes for powerlifting, I question if there is any additional benefit. The majority of training is focused on heavy resistance. So aside from some safety concerns (performing something like a press on a swiss ball), my concern would be how well unstable training transfers to powerlifting performance. I can understand how sports that are played on unstable surfaces may benefit from this type of training, however, it may be best to practice squats, bench and deadlifts on the same surface powerlifters compete on (Willardson, J.M., 2007). I am not opposed to it, and while this type of training has become popular over the last several years, there is little evidence supporting this approach. So to answer this question, I might consider it in an off season, for a specific injury or prehabilitation method, or during a time when access to full barbell equipment is limited.
Something I always like to mention, is that when an advanced athlete trains balance on a stable surface, static balance may have a ceiling and thus, training it may have no benefit (Fleck and Kraemer, 2014). So, I see how it would benefit unstable surface sports like swimming, snowboarding, surfing, but the majority of sports are done on a stable surface. Here’s my best example: I was recently introduced something called a “stunt stand” for cheerleaders. It’s a newer apparatus that looks like a block but allows flyers to train balance without a partner while staying close to the ground. This is a great example of balance training that would benefit an unstable surface activity (that I also wish was around when I was a competitive cheerleader). For powerlifters? Likely no need to train this way, but never say never.
Although there is not much research on the cause and effect relationship for the athletic population (most research is based on general populations), I do feel core stability is something an athlete can benefit from. Most importantly, to improve core stability, exercises should be sport specific to mimic similar movement patterns (Willardson, J.M., 2007). That’s why, I personally choose movements for my athletes that build upon the squat, bench and deadlift positions in hopes to resist shear loads and minimize excessive spinal or joint movements. Overhead squats, dumbbell exercises and unilateral squats, presses and deadlifts are a few examples that I use that can assist with building core stability (Willardson, J.M., 2007).
I also prefer exercises that challenge the body to react to changes while the athlete tries to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis. An example of one may be something like kettlebell marches, where the hip and shoulder position are more challenged while the athlete tries to keep neutrality throughout the core. What exercises may depend on the athlete’s level of experience and sport. These may include anti-rotational, anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion movements that resist all forces from all directions.
To wrap this discussion up, sure there are conflicting results of the effectiveness of core stability training, but I do believe it’s important to understand how it may carryover to improve performance while keeping the athlete safe. And for strength athletes, it may not be necessary to overwhelm them with excessive (and trendy) “core” exercises. Continue to think about how you can use your time well during training sessions.
Happy training friends!
Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2014). Designing resistance training programs (4th ed.). Human Kinetics.
Tillaar, R., Saeterbakken, A.H. (2018). Comparison of Core Muscle Activation Between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. Journal of Human Kinetics. 62:43-53.
Willardson, J.M. (2007). Core Stability Training: Application to Sports Conditioning Programs. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1(3), 979-985.