Core training is a concept that is often misunderstood. You regularly hear people discussing 'the best ways to get a 6-pack', or giving advice like 'make sure you use a Swiss ball' or 'add weight to your sit-ups.' Invariably this sort of training is labelled core stability training, but I would argue that the stability element is often forgotten.
The core generally being referred to is the band of muscles around the waist and abdominal area responsible primarily for supporting the spine. In an attempt to make these muscles more stable, people religiously sweat through sets of sit-ups, crunches and planks. But much as these exercises test endurance, are they really benefitting the stability of the core? As a general rule, if you're lying down allowing a comfortable gym mat to support your body in order to carry out core exercises, chances are you aren't improving your core stability however much it might be burning your abs!
To make core training more specific to stability, we need to look deeper into the science surrounding this type of training. While it is important to include the abdominal region, training should also aim to improve the function of the lumbo-pelvic area which provides the foundation for our upper and lower extremities to move, as well as to support loads that are placed on the body. This means working on the gluteals, adductors and lower back muscles, to name a few, since they are thought to reduce the risk of injury when functioning correctly.
From a sports performance perspective, core stability is not measured by an athlete's ability to wrap his/her body around a gym ball. Instead, it is quantified by an ability to maintain balance and posture in certain situations - for example, stopping instantly on one foot on a netball court. Training therefore needs to be as specific as possible to the activity we wish to perform, a concept known as the similarity principle.
In the words of a leading osteopath, Dr Eyal Lederman, core training is simple - 'train the activity and not just the muscles!' Lederman argues that core muscles do not work independently from other trunk muscle during normal daily or sport activities. So it makes little sense to focus training on a single muscle group. And even if you do, the contraction of the core muscles achieved during such exercise may be well below the level likely to provide strength gains. One recent study suggests that our abdominals may need to work at a resistance level equivalent to 70% of its maximal capacity to induce strength gains - a force level that is pretty difficult to achieve with many conventional core exercises!
So what should you do instead? Well, if you are a sports person, you should try to incorporate core training into the movement patterns that you want to produce. And, if you are a gym-goer looking to improve core strength and balance, exercises should be performed in all three planes of movement.
Dr Stuart McGill, a professor of spine mechanics, suggests that performing exercises such as the asymmetric Kettlebell carry (where the load is placed only on one side of the body) has shown to be beneficial in increasing core strength in athletes. This exercise also has relevance for the general public - take those of us who regularly carry heavy bags over one shoulder for example.
We all have different goals from our core training, but the following are all examples of exercises that incorporate more than one plane of motion, and recruit large amounts of muscle mass in and around the core area:
1. Squat and Wood Chop
Holding a medicine ball or using a cable machine, you should perform a regular squat pattern. The addition here is that during the standing phase of the squat, the upper body is going to rotate in a low-high pattern while keeping the arms straight. The challenge is keeping the feet planted, and the knees and hips square.
Perform 15-20 repetitions on each side.
2. Lateral Lunge and Frontal Raise
Using a medicine ball or set of weights, perform a lateral lunge to one side. On the standing phase of the lunge, raise your arms up to shoulder height while maintaining balance.
Perform 15-20 repetitions on each side.
3. Asymmetric Kettlebell Carry
Perform the conventional farmers' carry with only one weight. You will feel that your torso is being pulled over to one side, with the opposing side of the body working to maintain a neutral spinal alignment.
Walk for 10-15 metres, and complete 3-4 repetitions on each side.
1. Willardson JM. Core stability training: applications to sports conditioning programs. J Strength Cond Res 2007; 21:979-85.
2. Hibbs AE et al. Optimizing performance by improving core stability and core strength. Sports Med 2008; 38: 995-1008.
3. Lederman E. The myth of core stability. J Bodyw Mov Ther 2010; 14: 84-98.
4. Stevens VK et al. The effect of increasing resistance on trunk muscle activity during extension and flexion exercises on training devices. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2008; 18: 434-45.
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