Hanns Johst was a famous Nazi writer who came up with the line „Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver“. Okay, I may overdramatize the situation here but at the moment I feel almost the same way about core training. And don’t get me wrong, I used to be a number one fan of everything related to core until it became mainstream: you can find questionable articles and opinions about core training from every single webpage and still be all confused. The last drop that made the cup run over was when I once again saw my athletes admiring their six-packs during the gym session and discussing how they should be improved in order to look better. This was the moment when I realized that repetition is the mother of learning and someone should write another (!) article about core training.
What exactly are we talking about?
What if I told you that core does not equal abs? I bet you have heard urban legends about it but the truth is that there are around 30 muscles that form the core. Funnily, people still have the idea that abdominal muscles are all what we need for living and breathing. Simply put, some smart people have described the core as a box where the abdominals form the front, paraspinals and gluteals the back part, the diaphragm is set as a roof and the pelvic floor and hip girdle are at the bottom.
Why is core training the holy grail of show business?
Since the core involves so many muscles, training it has many valuable outcomes. As the name itself refers, this is where the movement starts. I like to think of the core as a bodyguard (ironic, yes!) in a typical action movie: there are many internal and external forces that influence our movement; strong core enables control over both of them. Core muscles take the fire and absorb the first shock. They protect you and help all your other structures to work more efficiently while a weak core limits many aspects. For example, playing basketball can be a curse and the blessing at the same time. Every step is unknown, the body has to put in tremendous effort to be able to work in defense and offense, to manage cutting, pivoting, jumping, landing, screening, hand-checking etc. A strong core can be one important factor that helps you to control your body when being tackled and oftentimes it will take you to a 2+1 situation instead of a failed shot. So in addition to keeping the injury risk lower, a trained core is also important for generating additional power. A strong core radiates strength to the limbs and allows them to perform movements with a force they would not normally achieve.
It’s all very nice but how should one train then?
Before cutting to the chase, we have to understand that in general there are two types of core training: stability and strength. Stability is about maintaining spinal position and preventing any movement (example: plank exercise). The more stability we have in our spine and pelvis, the more effective we are with our upper and lower body muscles. In return, strength is about creating force to move the the spine and hips into flexion, extension and rotation (example: crunches). Ideally, stability comes first: we need a certain amount of stability in order to train strength.
Here’s what I suggest you do:
- Perform free-weight exercises, especially the big lifts (squats, deadlifts etc) – they activate your core highly. Crunches can burn but squats involve the whole body offering you versatile benefits. Just be aware of your muscles while lifting.
- Involve your deltoids and gluteal muscles – do not isolate muscles, integrate them! Activation of abs and lumbar muscles is highest during the exercises that involve your limbs
- See every exercise as a workout to your core. Be aware of your body and acknowledge that whole body exercises – such as push-ups, pull-ups, hip extensions etc. – can produce the same amount of activity in certain muscles than crunches and sit-ups but without additional harm
- Be sport-specific. We cannot prepare 100% for every situation that can happen during the game. Therefore our bodies need to be prepared by adding dynamic, ballistic and explosive movements
- Add unilateral exercises. Take care of your weak side and develop your single-limb strength – movements where both sides of the body work equally are rare in sports.
- Use anti-rotation/-extension/-flexion exercises that force you to maintain a neutral spine and work on your stability by creating good tension.
- Take time to activate your core muscles before the practice – it is as important as warming up any other muscle group! Do not look at the core training like something you will always and only have to do after the practice.
- Don’t overdo it. Give your body some rest, find time to do corrective exercises and take care of your muscles. Keep the exercises rational and safe. Balancing on two exercise balls may look awesome but can bring more trouble than it’s worth.
Girl look at that body, I work out.
Core training is like raising kids or buying a new car. Just type the phrase in Google and you’ll see how millions of people try to teach you what would be the best thing to do. Tons of articles, all by „proven experts“. Basically, it is like in the X-Files – the truth is out there.
Although athletes should be focused only on their results, they still want to look good by the pool. And for some reasons, they think doing crunches will help them to achieve it. On the other side there are still many old-school coaches who have the idea that the more you suffer the stronger you get. Now, I agree that elite sport is about exceeding your limits and working your ass off but worshiping the burning sensation does not always lead to great results. You just end up walking like a wounded penguin and are unable to do normal exercises for 3-4 days.
If you want to have a body like young Brad Pitt had, then fix your nutrition and work out: try to involve as many muscle groups as possible, vary your exercises from time to time and add some HIIT training. Simple, isn’t it? However, in order to improve your performance, one has to put a bit more conscious effort into training.