What is meant by Core Stability?
The definition of core stability is the ability to engage the muscles of the trunk of the body. These muscles work in unison and are responsible for posture and limb movement.
For me, core stability refers to the muscles of the trunk activating together to provide stiffness and rigidity. This stiffness will ensure that there is minimal energy loss as energy is transferred through the links of the body used in performance and exercise.
Gadja and Dominguez have a clear definition of the core working to create stability from their book ‘Total Body Training’.
“These muscles stabilize the body while we are in a correct, anti-gravity position or are using our arms and legs to throw or kick. They maintain our structure while we do vigorous exercises. These are the muscles that control the head, neck, ribs, spine and the pelvis. The core of the human body is those muscles that keep the trunk and neck in a tube-like form. When your core is firm and rigid, you can do the activities that it’s intended to do. If the rigidity is enhanced, then you can maximise your athletic performance.”
So, how do we use this information?
The most effective strategies to condition the core for performance and life must be based on the ‘Primal’ movement patterns that we are capable of. To Lunge, Squat, Hinge, Rotate, Push and Pull.
As coaches, this is where we assess the needs and expose possible weaknesses.
It has been shown in various studies that the act of bracing in exercises that are compound in nature, is the greatest stimulator of the trunk/core. With examples being the Deadlift and the Squat, and their effect on the thoracic and lumbar erectors of the spine and the multifidus.
Swiss ball exercises used in these studies can sometimes rival the effect, but never better the effect provided by the squat and the deadlift. Yet they do NOT come with all the other benefits that these exercises bring with them in terms of building strength, muscle and developing power. However, these compound movements do come with the sometimes-detrimental effects of direct spinal loading for older clients and those living with chronic (lower back) pain.
But when it comes to the activation of the obliques (external and internal) and the rectus abdominis (yes, the abs), the findings have shown the favoured free weight movements did not have the same benefits.
The same study saw that a press up yielded more than twice the effect on the rectus abdominis muscles as the barbell back squat. It also appeared to be twice as effective as the deadlift on the external obliques.
Creating the best strategies for core conditioning consider the client’s current and past injury history. This can require extra work on his or her trunk to ensure being able to return to form.
Many older or more experienced clients, with more years in the gym under their belt, will have very different needs. Core training can be the most important activation process in the warm-up.
From the perspective of covering all the bases, we have to consider Bracing, Rotation, Anti-rotation, Flexion, Extension and Side or Lateral Flexion.
From here we must isolate where the client is in respect of each of these movements.
For example, if he or she is a good squatter and deadlifter? We can assume that under our instruction they are fully capable of bracing. There would be little point in using deadbugs in the routine unless it was part of an activation strategy.
If the client was a high-level golfer with a very strong split squat and powerful rotational med ball throw, and the client was injury-free, would we consider a more simple and de-loaded exercise choice?
In opposition to this, would you load an untrained client with an Olympic lift variation if they are unable to hold a simple plank in an isometric position? I hope not!
To Core or not to Core?
If we look at the list of core movement patterns I listed above, from brace to side flexion, then look at an optimal form of loading for each of these in the same order, we would see an interesting pattern. We would see exercises like; squatting,med-ball rotational throws, single leg RDLs, reverse crunches, Olympic lift variations and Romanian deadlifts, dumbbell clean and press.
All of these movements that I have listed are very common in strength training, very simple in nature and not normally described as a ‘core exercise’. But they are optimal expressions of the core movement patterns I have listed.
In this case, it raises the question of how much direct core training (with the exception of the anterior core and the obliques) is needed to be optimal and strong?
In the paper “Core Stability in Athletes; A Critical Analysis of Current Guidelines“, Klaus Wirt and Hagen Hartmann look at if it is possible to target our deep core muscles? And do exercises like the squat and the deadlift not train these muscles too?
I think out of all the papers I have read, this following quote sums up the message I’m trying to convey.
“No proof has been found for special training exercises for deeper core or segmented stabilizing muscles. We were unable to find any diagnosis or articles reporting selective deficits of these muscles in strength-trained athletes (this is for core muscles with similar functions as described above, not for a comparison between flexors and extensors). Therefore, we wonder which type of data led to the demand for specific exercises to strengthen, in particular, the deeper trunk muscles or improve the ability to selectively activate them. Furthermore, there is no evidence that classical strength-training exercises, for example, squat, deadlift, snatch, and clean and jerk, affect ‘global’ muscles only or lead to imbalances between the muscles of the trunk. Data proving this hypothesis do not exist for (back pain) patients, healthy controls, or athletes. Studies inspecting EMG recordings of several core muscles have shown simultaneous activity that varied in extent and on- and off-set depending on the motor task. This is why stressing the importance of a few single muscles is not justified, and classification into ‘local’ and ‘global’ muscle groups is inappropriate. Therefore, we recommend the use of classical strength-training exercises as these provide the necessary stimuli to induce the desired adaptations.”
So in the case of lower back pain and rehabilitation, we have proof that core training will assist getting us back to full health and optimal performance. But the real concern for a trainer is in most cases optimal levels of strength and conditioning, not the isolation of deep core muscles where there is no evidence of benefit. And no real need for endless fluff to kill precious time, where real skills can be learnt/taught!
So an effective strategy is a solid movement assessment. Find weaknesses that need addressing.
When these weaknesses can be strengthened by these compound and ‘global’ movements, the right dose of effective core training should be added. But it must be necessary. Minimum dose, maximum response, and cast out what is not needed.
So here are my Top Tips
- Prime the core with the Big 3 -Stewart McGill’s Curl up, Side Plank and Bird-Dog. If you have ever injured your back and have not been introduced to these, you have been shortchanged.
- Activate Glutes – There are so many variations, just think of your client, and address the skill level and weaknesses with the right exercise selection.
- Use CNS Activators – Throwing and plyometrics, they are primal, essential to performance and fantastic activators for the trunk.
- Add in some core work in the warm-up sets of compound movements – Using techniques like the RKC plank and side planks and the pal of the press and its many variations will help you engage your trunk and help to create tension in the compound lift. As well as save time ( think training economy).
- Carry, Push and Drag and Slam and wield a sledgehammer in your conditioning.
- Sprint – This is perhaps the ultimate representation of the core stability and strength. The trunk is locked in place as the body is accelerating to its limits.
- Practice whole-body tension -When I lift I want to be rigid from toes to nose. From gripping the floor with my feet to bending the bar and locking in my lats to bracing with my whole cylinder… This is the tension and focus that you need to develop to create maximal force!
When you add core make it the right choice. Let’s say, for example, I have trained my posterior chain, I’ll add in some anterior (obliques and rectus abdominis) core exercises in the workout, which could be anything from press ups to anti-rotation landmine drills.
If my workout was very much a push or squat based (anterior) session, then the opposite, the glutes would be a great suggestion.
But it always depends and never set in stone.
Stay strong, and skip the abs class. (Note – Click this link for the science.)
Author - Fletcher Dalrymple - Personal Trainer & Mentor
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