By Carl Valle
Every few weeks we see a new approach to core training or new core exercises, but core training is an old concept, starting before human beings began walking on two legs. Twenty years ago, the mythical hype behind core training was out of control, and now it’s come back full circle with more rehabilitation exercises that overpromise sports performance and injury resilience. And while preparing the core is a task that is a near religious experience for some, others simply don’t bother with it.
This article is radically different than most. It’s about empowering coaches to make their own programs, not promoting exercises that are the flavors of the week. Any coach reading this “midsection manifesto” will change what they do or they’ll feel supported for not overthinking their programs.
Dismantling the Hype and Guru Nonsense
A common formula exists in core training articles. A sequence of anatomy lessons turns into eureka moments that, of course, lead to the eventual exercise video catalogs. There is nothing wrong with exercise lists, functional anatomy, and a little storytelling provided the information has some teeth and history behind it. New information needs to be thoroughly vetted and refined over seasons and years, not released rapidly to push new ideas where the goals are to get more eyeballs for affiliate codes and to promote the latest “core training” education product.
To counter the never-ending promotion of watered down content, I’m proposing just the opposite, empowering the individual to investigate the information better and avoid baby food approaches to continuing education. Five simple steps to accomplish this are:
- Think Independently—Reflect honestly on what the spine and pelvis are designed to do and what you can do with this marvelous system. Coaches often feel the need to be part of a movement or to join a school of thought. This is not only dangerous, but it also interferes with the ability to problem solve. Unfortunately, core training is usually tied to certifications and education providers instead of the exchange of accessible ideas.
- Work Backwards—Evolutionary biology tells us why the human body is what it is today. Studying outside of the species is not a waste of time, but it does have limits. Sports are becoming more explosive while the human body isn’t changing. Looking at the evolution of injury patterns and lack of physical education is a great way to prepare for the future.
- Be Realistic—Expectations from core training are a piece of a puzzle, but some have made it a silver bullet for everything connected to injuries and performance. It’s sensible to address the core with a well-rounded program, so we don’t overload an athlete beyond their capacity or neglect the core because it’s time-consuming. Reducing the expectations is not an act of failure or giving up; it’s acting wise, so strategies are not foolish and risky.
- Look Distally—Many problems with core training stem from a lack of appreciation of the foot and the impact on joints like the shoulder. Remember that core training is total body training; the originator of the term core treated the human body as a system. While I’m a huge Spinal Engine fan, a car without wheels isn’t’ going anywhere.
- Be Practical—One of our most difficult responsibilities is to individualize a program for athletes when resources, mainly coaching, are not easily scalable. We can learn a lot from other sports and non-sport activities. We need to apply training to help many athletes at the same time, each of whom has slightly different needs.
I hope these perspectives are fresh. I’m not trying to be cute or appear cutting-edge. Core training can seem complicated when experts talk about sports hernia surgeries and breathing patterns. But nature is on the coaches’ side by having helped the human race survive and thrive a long time. We just need to give the core a little help.
Learning Resources for Core Training
Don’t learn the tricks of the trade—learn the trade and become your own expert. Networking with people who experience successes and failures is part of the process. When pursuing the truths in training, look for the people who are crunching the numbers or searching for real cause and effect in their training. Remember, many gurus work with people and believe their methods succeed because they need to appear this way to sell to the masses.
I look to other coaches, sports medicine practitioners, researchers, and anyone who has a good head on their shoulders. Here are some of the experts I go to for good information.
- Strength and Track Coaches—Coaches who create workouts and see first-hand the day-to-day effects of these sessions are my lifeblood. Their creativity and ability to juggle different variables make these practitioners instrumental to solving problems and challenges.
- Surgeons and Rehabilitation Experts—Surgeons often get a bad rap, but they’ve witnessed first-hand what happens when foolish training gets out of hand. Like no other professionals, they tend to see patterns of who’s getting hurt and who’s failing.
- Researchers and Scientists—Common names like Stuart McGill are obvious starting points but always look at those who do intervention studies or deep dives into tissue and anatomical investigations. Coaches and rehabilitation professionals provide the checks and balances between science in isolation and application.
Other surprising areas are acrobatic and artistic activities, such as diving and performing arts. Some coaches will state the obvious: large NFL athletes and tall NBA players are poor populations with which to use dynamic training. Before I apply a training plan to athletes who have less extreme situations, I like to know what’s possible.
Current and Future Trends in Core Training
Training trends come and go, and some resurface at intervals. The current spotlight on the core highlights breathing function and postural restoration.
In the past, influences from rehabilitation systems marked a spike in Swiss ball sales and unstable surface training which later was replaced by a new wave of products like suspension trainers. Old tools, like the classic ab wheel, were scoffed by some coaches. But my experience using Akrowheels was so positive, I decided to buck the trend. A proponent who was once against the ab wheel later suggested rollouts for “anti-extension.”
Strongman-like exercises are proliferating again. Carries have made the course but have yet to excite scientists about how they transfer to training. How a unilateral suitcase carry exercise improves performance in lateral cutting and change of direction is great in theory, but exhaustive investigations into how it works and why isn’t available. Some research on performance following core training is available, but the programs studied seem mild in intensity and volume.
Testing the core with criteria or subjective screening still occurs, and provocative tests for neurological problems have been staples for decades. Most core tests look for spinal dysfunction or muscle weakness. These tests are often awkward when they’re new to an athlete but can be learned and passed in testing due to the athlete’s familiarization with the test.
The future involves research grade technology connecting clinical evaluation real time and will eventually become commonplace.
A Middle Ground Approach to the Core
Moderation is a hard sell, but extreme one-sided approaches mostly fail to deliver. I stopped experimenting for a few years when I became emotionally linked to the disappointment I felt when new approaches did not work. Later, I started experimenting with training variety. At first glance, I haven’t seen any connection between variables and exercises.
I practice a general philosophy with the following principles:
- Use a combination of rehabilitation, strength and conditioning, and novel sources.
- Treat the core region like the rest of the body, without bias or neglect.
- Have measurable goals and evaluation processes that are repeatable.
- Create and refine a safe and effective system of teaching, overloading, and integrating.
These principles stem from my experiences and are influenced by comparative anatomy of the animal kingdom, locomotion and gait analysis, and respiration and digestion. Based on what I’ve learned, I find many of the theoretical concepts proposed by some coaches online to be overly concerned with stability when the true focus of core muscles is to help with locomotion and standing.The true focus of core muscles is to help with locomotion and standing. Click To Tweet
With overhead throw and dolphin kicks in swimming, we can see other earlier, innate functions, but even the spinal engine theory uses the term controller rather than power generator.
“In our opinion, the spine and its surrounding soft tissues has evolved from being the primary source of power to that of a controller of the power delivered by the hip extensors.”—Serge Gracovetsky, The Spinal Engine, page 349
The human body can perform marvelous feats of athleticism. But the ability to perform motions is not the same as the ability to excel at them. If the motions performed are not contraindicated, it’s reasonable to conclude that preparing for extreme feats is worth leveraging during training. All exercises that create mechanical strain are risky, but how we implement them provides the primary vehicle for safety and effectiveness.
The key is to have a balanced and wide approach that covers your needs while providing enough flexibility to adapt to any sport, any need. Excessive influences like overzealous bracing, drawing-in, and robotic approaches ruin the natural, fluid actions of the body’s highly coordinated abilities.
Providing a sane level of overload should amplify the core’s existing functional abilities while not overtraining it; sporting actions usually recruit the muscles systemically.
Exercise Selection and Expectations
Eventually core training boils down to exercise selection, which is what often draws a lot of readers to an article. Coaches want new variations, or they want reinforcement that what they’re doing is the right choice. While I think it’s important to show a few exercises I believe are important, nothing here is new or exciting.
What you’ll find valuable is some deep thinking about how many programs succeed while taking vastly different approaches. Still, some parameters are necessary for keeping things safe and sane without resorting to circus tricks. This section explains how I classify core exercises and what I do to estimate the level of strain.
Indirect core training will come from the game or sport and the supporting training that prepares the body generally. Coaches usually think about overloading specifically, but in the world of specialization, long seasons, and poor training availability, it’s better to complement core loading with harmonizing agents like mobility and supportive exercises.
Stuart McGill has an array of exercises that are excellent for fine-tuning the body, such as bird dogs and various low-level isolation drills. These exercises are called motor control movements. Most of them are great for early rehabilitation and for athletes who need something mindful to do during cool downs and self-care work.
I’m all for traditional core training that is prone or supine, but I recommend only spending a third of your time on lying-down activities. Many of the best exercises are not functional because they can overload tissue when performing them in alternative forms, which simply doesn’t allow heavy strain. If I’m going to do anything lying down, it needs to create overload and not just provide busy work that looks safe.
When athletes stand on their feet, the overload will likely decrease, but there’s a higher chance for specificity because body orientation can engage core muscles more effectively. Vertical bracing can include loaded carries, but we should minimize these activities because pelvis movement in a figure eight pattern tends to be muted by the vertical loading. I prefer to use weighted vests and hurdle mobility. Remember, one person’s assumption of compensation is a smarter person’s reinforcement of the right activity if sequenced and placed properly.
Anything rapid, including jumps, sprints, decelerations, throws, and combat sport motions, create rapid pulse-like activities. It’s better to prepare skills and overload less specifically than to believe that specific exercises will create stiffness patterns fast enough. Even a bad athlete can run four strides a second at full speed. Pulsing exercises that operate in slow frequencies are not high enough, and the magnitude of force doesn’t offset the poor relaxation rates.
All of the categories above are part of the palate and do not constitute a progression in any way. Many programs that have encouraged “isolate to innervate” have caused more harm than good; athletes who are not firing well need integration instead of segregation patterns. Several athletes who live in phases or training periods that emphasize too much rigidness are often hurt just as much as those who lack stability.Athletes who are not firing well need integration instead of segregation patterns. Click To Tweet
For fluid movement, we need to allow ground reaction forces to work through the body in a controlled manner. Too much locking up and tightness loses many small, linked, and barely perceptible actions. This reduces power and increases potential injury. Many actions in movement use central pattern generators that don’t need to be coached and should simply be left alone. Over-coaching backfires by interfering with reflexive action and pollutes training with unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive motor patterns.
A smart goal is to ensure that there are no energy leaks. Don’t focus on propulsion unless you are in a very specialized sport. Golf is one example where overzealous development occurs. It seems everyone is concerned about driving distance. This results in an overtrained trunk, and back injuries more likely result from fatigue rather than true weakness.
Overcoming weakness means working backwards to what the athlete needs to control forces rather than reduce them. The reductionist thinking of anti-rotation, anti-extension, and anti-flexion is just isometric training with excessive emphasis on neutralizing forces instead of dissipating or redirecting the forces properly.
Planning Core Development for Athletes
When planning core training throughout an athlete’s career, it’s paramount that less is more. Don’t get carried away trying to play God with training. Core training is very abstract, most likely because it’s not propulsive like training the extremities.
While a strong core is essential to athletic activities, the cause and effect from planning core work to getting better results are hard to tease out. Core testing sometimes relies on instrumentation or field tests that isolate during very static situations while most coaches want to see dynamic effects that transfer directly.
The same training principles we use for other muscle groups and joint systems apply to core training. Treating the core as special usually results in overtraining by doing too much volume; don’t assume the core’s role is more responsive to endurance activities.
Here are some principles that are general enough to keep core training simple, and specific enough to be more useful.
- Range—Core training should include large amplitude movements, but excessive ranges that are not controlled and safe are potentially hazardous. Excessive twisting or flexion at high velocities beyond typical sporting actions is bad news. Conversely, avoiding speed and range of motion does not prepare the body. Progressions and recovery are needed.
- Shoulder Integrity—Many core exercises require gripping and pressing actions, and often athletes complain of shoulder fatigue or discomfort. It’s nearly impossible to have a comprehensive core training program without incidental shoulder loading. Just as major training movements hide core training, core training hides shoulder training. Be aware of all loading to the body, not just the torso muscles.
- Hip Flexion—Not using our hip flexors will not keep them supple, so don’t be afraid to recruit them. Athletes in sports with higher rates of sports hernias and groin injuries usually are victims of poor explosive hip extension, and the flexion patterns create more imbalance. Look at the breadth of the program as a whole and raise the level of resilience by performing more absolute power and strength work.
Obviously there is more to think about than just these three suggestions, but they show that coaches have a lot to consider besides inserting popular core exercises in the time allotted. I’m in favor of core circuits and alternating core in total body circuits along with more traditional program designs. The key is to pick your battles at the right time and hold your position, not to try to be impressive. Just like those who get hurt from trying to chase numbers in the weight room with leg and upper body exercises, chasing impressive feats of core strength is just silly.
Now Go Program Your Core Training
If the soul of this article resonates with you, you should feel emboldened to start implementing core training with a sense of purpose and confidence. The best way to learn is to apply and observe the consequences of simple and informed decisions. Following the wrong leader usually means you’ll learn the hard way, and at the wrong time, the limitations of their experiences and thought processes.
In an age when modern advances prompt the desire for quick results, do the opposite and take your time when applying core training concepts. Ironically, your athlete will improve faster by taking things slow.