This is the first post in our three-part series on core development. There others are Core Training: Why Hard Effort Does Not Always Equal Success and Core Class, Boot Camp... Great Ways to Get Stronger? Not Necessarily....
The lumbar spine is not meant to greatly twist and flex, and the disks in the back are harmed by those movements. Sit ups, crunches, leg lifts and the like are completely counterproductive to your goal of becoming a better athlete.
There is so much misinformation out there about core "strength" and core "training." Athletes have been misled by years of improper training guidance, including any number of popular core (fad) "strength" programs that are at once deceitful in their marketing promises, and often very harmful.
If you are an athlete interested in good health AND better performance, it is time to learn the real story of the core--what it is, how it works, what it is designed to do, and how to develop proper core strength and stability.
What Is the Core? What Is Its Purpose?
You may think of the core as isolated abdominal muscles such as the familiar transverse abdominals, obliques, and anterior abs. In fact, your core is the ENTIRE trunk from your hips and pelvis to your neck and cervical spine. Its purpose is to be your body's foundation for
all of your sport movements. The purpose of this foundation (your core) is to STOP or control motion, not create it. This is critical! In fact, athletic stability stops or controls motion (in the pelvic girdle for example) in the presence of motion somewhere else in the body (such as in the swinging arms and legs of a runner). This is a hugely important concept that we will cover more in-depth below. We will also talk about how the core is designed to provide "reactive stabilization" and work as an integrated unit synergistically with every other part of your body.
Your Core Must Be Stable
The true goal of core development is to create STABILITY, which is central for superior athletic performance, protection from injury, and overall good health. The pelvis and the lumbar spine, in particular, must be rock solid. Why does this matter?
Most athletes have no idea, but core stability is how you transfer power to your arms and legs. Without stability in the pelvis and the lumbar spine, your big agonist muscles, or prime movers (glutes, quads, hamstrings, lats) cannot activate. Most athletes haven't a clue that their ability to generate ballistic output and speed originates from a neutral pelvis and a stable lumbar spine--never from the limbs alone.
The more stable the core, the more power you can generate with your extremities.
The lumbar region in the human skeleton
Core stability allows your entire kinetic chain to fire at optimal efficiency. So if you swim, bike, run, moving from a neutral pelvic position with a stable lumbar spine is the fundamental basis for your ultimate performance potential. All your hopes, dreams, and goals for training and racing start with a stable core.
Reactive Stabilization. What's That? And Why Should I Care?
The core is also designed to reactively stabilize during dynamic movements. In other words, the core kicks in to prevent inefficient motion in the presence of motion elsewhere in the body. For example...
As a runner swings her arms and legs, a properly-functioning core reacts to stabilize the spine, pelvis, and shoulders and allow for the transfer of power to the legs. This reactive stability, coupled with proper mobility, muscular balance, and overall functional strength, allows for the optimal firing of your big prime movers. The supporting stabilizing muscles can then go to work to keep good biomechanical form over long distances.
Reactive stabilization of the core is very close to the silver bullet athletes are constantly searching for.
Employing a stable core is how your true athleticism emerges as you stop wasting energy and are able to transfer EFFORT from your sport-specific movement into SPEED throughout your training and racing.
Have a Strong Core? It Can Still Be A Weak Core
This is a really important paradox for athletes to be aware of. Even if your core is strong--i.e. isolated abdominal muscles are well developed--if it is UNSTABLE, there is no doubt you are LEAKING SPEED. The instability is guaranteed to lead to compensation in all of your movement. As a result, you are forced to use the wrong muscles to power your way through training and racing. Your risk of injury is also much, MUCH higher.
Working the Abs
Many athletes have been led to believe they are enhancing their training by doing exercises like sit ups and crunches. Many popular "cult" training programs that are thought to be "cutting edge" and cool, include these kinds of exercises.
Core stability has no relationship whatsoever to working abdominal muscles in isolation.
Exercises like these allow motion to occur through the lumbar spine, negating, as we explained earlier, the functional purpose of that area of the body. The lumbar spine is not meant to greatly twist and flex, and the disks in the back are harmed by those movements. Sit ups, crunches, leg lifts and the like are completely counterproductive to your goal of becoming a better athlete. Strong abdominal muscles in an unstable core do nothing to stabilize you at the precise moment you need to mitigate unwanted movement to create power and speed.
To ignite your core into the wellspring of powerful athletic movement that it is designed to be, you must train the "core" in a functional, sport-specific, and authentic way. Quality functional movement and strength training is the way to go.
Training Core Stability
To build a stable core we recommend you have a scientific gait analysis conducted at a reputable institution. Find the root causes of your weakness and imbalances then, with help from a carefully-selected trainer, objectively and scientifically rebuild thorough core stability. You need to carefully research various trainers and select one who has a deep understanding of core stability and functional strength training. Rather than crunching, you should be working a perfectly executed (we can't stress the perfect execution part enough) planking regimen. A well-designed regimen will include front and side planks, moving planks, and longer continuous plank holds.
When you have a truly stable core, it is then--and only then--that you can safely and effectively increase load and dynamism in training. It is then that your sport-specific training will really begin to work, and the results you have been searching for will begin to manifest.
We will continue this series on the core with two additional posts. We will examine the insidious infiltration of the "training" mindset into core development. Then we'll delve into how core development is more than just picking some random exercises and expecting great results.