Core training has become a staple of almost all conditioning programs. Whether it is for high-level athletes, the weekend warrior, or your average fitness enthusiast, “working the core” tends to get a lot of attention by fitness professionals, their clients, and the general public alike. Unfortunately, still to this day, there are many misconceptions on what the core truly is, how it functions, as well as how to properly design a progressive core training program.
Far too often fitness professionals are asked by their clients or prospective clients, “How do I get rid of this?” as they grab their midsection. Or, they will ask the fitness professional, “Can you show me the best ab exercise so I can lose this.” So clearly there is a misunderstanding in that many people believe if they do core exercises they will spot reduce the excess body fat in that particular region. This is a perfect opportunity for the fitness professional to educate on what truly makes up the core in regards to their physical anatomy, as well as how the core works as an integrated unit in functional activities in every day life, and that spot reducing a particular area by focusing on a few exercises isn’t the correct approach.
A common misconception many individuals make is that the core is simply the portion of the abdominal complex directly in and around the navel. The core is far more encompassing. There are 29 muscles that attach to the core and it is made up of the entire axial skeleton (cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine), and the pelvis. Simply put, if you remove the arms and legs what is left is the core.
The body is made up of roughly 602 muscles that move 206 bones. These muscles can basically be split into one of two categories: movement muscles and stabilizing muscles. Clearly, all muscles have complex roles in regards to proper human movement and most will have multiple functions depending on what type of movement the body is doing. Other factors that contribute to how particular muscles respond and react will be body positioning, previous injury, physical make up, and movement compensations. However, with as complex as the human movement system is, understanding muscles and their roles as either primarily movement based or stabilization based in their function will help fitness professionals to design and implement sound conditioning programs.
LOCAL STABILIZATION MUSCLES OF THE CORE
Provide support from vertebra to vertebra
- Transverse abdominis
- Internal oblique
- Lumbar multifidus
- Pelvic floor muscles
GLOBAL STABILIZATION MUSCLES OF THE CORE
Transfer loads between upper and lower extremities
- Quadratus lumborum
- Psoas major
- External oblique
- Rectus abdominus
- Gluteus medius
- Adductor complex
Concentric force production and eccentric deceleration during dynamic activity.
- Latissimus dorsi
- Hip flexors
- Hamstring complex
Building the Core
Local stabilization system --> Global stabilization system --> Movement system
Research has shown (1) that the muscles responsible for stabilizing the spine when functioning optimally work as a feed forward mechanism. This means that the stabilizers of the spine should fire milliseconds prior to any extremity movement in order to create a rigid platform so that the movement based muscles of the body can more effectively and more efficiently produce optimum levels of force. Within individuals with chronic low back pain, research has demonstrated (1, 2) that the core stabilizers fire either at the same time, after, or not at all upon the extremities being engaged. For this very reason working through a well designed and properly executed core stabilization program is paramount for every and all individuals who are trying to eliminate low back pain, increase their fitness, or solely perform their activities of daily living.
The starting point for a sound core conditioning program should be establishing a solid base of core stabilization. Core stabilization exercises are defined as those that place stress upon the spine but there is little to no movement of the spine. The ability to find neutral spine and resist the effects of gravity will help protect the back while providing a solid base for the muscles that generate movement (force) to work more efficiently. Teach clients to use the drawing-in maneuver (pulling in the muscles below the navel, activating the local stabilization system) and bracing (“bearing down” and activating the global stabilization system) at this level of training. Core stabilization should be established in all three planes of motion before moving into core strengthening exercises.
- Sagittal - Planks/bridges
- Frontal - Side Planks with a hold
- Transverse - Pushup with rotation/press outs
Once the proper level of core stabilization has been established, which usually takes roughly 4-6 weeks depending on the individuals stating point, they can then progress to core strengthening exercises. Core strengthening exercises are defined as exercises that begin to add more dynamic eccentric and concentric motion of the spine. Core strengthening exercises will assist fitness enthusiasts in progressing their fitness programs by aiding in the ability to complete more load bearing exercises such as loaded squats, deadlifts, as well as other multi-joint strength based exercises. During this phase of training it is important to have individuals perform the activation techniques (drawing-in and bracing) as was learned in the core stabilization phase of training. Bracing, which is a co-contraction of the global muscles of the core, such as rectus abdominis, external obliques, and quadratus lumborum, focuses on global trunk stability, not on segmental vertebral stability, meaning that the global muscles, given the proper endurance training, will work to stabilize the spine. This will provide the most stable and rigid position for the spine as it begins to handle more load in the higher phases of training. Individuals should remain in this phase of training for roughly 4 weeks (or potentially 12 weeks depending on how many phases of strength training is necessary for their fitness goals).
Just like with stabilization training, core strength should be established in all three planes of motion before progressing to the power level of training.
- Sagittal - Crunches, stability ball crunches
- Frontal - Side planks for repetitions
- Transverse - Band rotations, chops, lifts
After completion of progressive core stabilization and core strength programs, the next phase of training is power training. Core power exercises are used to improve the rate of force production by the core musculature, and to prepare an individual to dynamically stabilize and generate force at more functionally applicable speeds. In our activities of daily living we are required to move at various speeds so creating the adaption and benefits associated with power training should be a focus of a comprehensive core training program. Life is unpredictable and we may never know exactly when we may need to be able to accelerate or decelerate an object or our body weight explosively. Plus, many of the new fitness trends, such as HIIT, boxing or mixed martial arts conditioning, require high levels of power to properly participate in them. Additionally, when you look at some of the most popular fitness tools in use, such as battling ropes, kettlebells, and medicine balls, establishing proper core power would further aid in the successful use of these fitness implements. And don’t forget that many of the popular recreational activities adults participate in such as golf, tennis, softball, or any other weekend warrior activity, all have an element of power development associated with them. It is for these reasons that the development and implementation of a progressive core program is essential within any properly designed fitness program.
- Sagittal - Medicine ball (MB) pullover throw, soccer throw.
- Frontal - MB lateral throw
- Transverse - Rotational chest pass, front MB oblique throw.
1.) Ferreira PH, Ferreira ML, Hodges PW. Changes in the recruitment of the abdominal muscles in people with low back pain: ultrasound measurements of muscle activity. Spine. 2004; 29: 2560-2566.
2.) Hodges PW, Richardson CA. Inefficient muscular stabilization the lumbar spine associated with low back pain. A motor control evaluation of the lumbar spine. Spine. 1996; 21: 2640-2650.
3.) NASM (National Association of Sports Medicine). 2017. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.