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Core Training

“How many times a week can I do ABS?”

“What is the best core exercise?”

“Should I do high reps on crunches or low reps with heavy weight?”

I have been seeing a lot of questions about “core” training lately, so I figured I would write a little bit about how I approach/think about it currently.

First, we have to remember that the “core” is a lot more than just the rectus abdominus; and for that reason, it encompasses a lot more than just doing some crunches. In fact, it is this short sighted view of core training that often gets people in trouble, as they think they are doing the best they can in order to protect their back/spine.

In reality, the core consists of the lumbo-pelvic hip complex (so everything attaching to the hip), the lumbar spine, thoracic spine and the abdominals. So basically the muscles of the trunk and pelvis. These muscles are responsible for transferring force from our lower body to our upper body, and to stabilize us as we transfer force to our extremities. From here, it is very easy to see that those who are doing crunches as their only means of core training are missing the bigger picture!

So the question now becomes “How do I train my core?”

The answer to that is pretty loaded, as everyone is individual and everyone has different abilities and needs. What I can tell you is that there are some people who are going to need to start with remedial work down on the ground; such as, planks, bird dogs, kneeling chop and lift patterns, rev. crunches, etc; and some people that can go right into performing more of their core work standing up, such as, med. ball throws, standing chop and lift patterns and exercises which integrate the entire body (IE, Squat and DB press, 1-leg squat to cable row, etc.).

“What about Squats and Deadlifts? Those are all you need for core training!”

This is a common question from some and a common mantra for most. Do squats, deadlifts, cleans and other various multi-joint/“big-bang” exercises train your core? Yes, absolutely they do! BUT (and this is a big but), if you don’t have things working properly from the get go, and if you have compensation patterns, things aren’t going to be working properly! The result is usually injury and a trip to physical therapy where you do…CORE WORK!! But, you are doing the remedial stuff, where you probably should have started in the first place.

What about the remedial exercises? This is a funny one. I have tested people that have done pretty well on basic core exercises (planks, bridges and the like) but when they go to do something on their feet, it doesn’t seem to translate. Something gets lost and the movement breaks down. In her book “Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes”, Shirly Sahrmann states:

“Also, some individuals have normal strength of both the internal and external oblique muscles and yet have poor control when these muscles have to work in a coordinated pattern to prevent rotation of the pelvis. The question of task specificity is applicable to all exercises. Does an exercise performed in one plane (e.g., sagittal plane) or under one set of circumstances (e.g., lying supine) participate appropriately in a different circumstance (i.e. performing diagonal movements or performing exercises while standing erect).”

So now…”How do I train my core?”

Again, this is going to come back to your assessment and determination of where your flaws are. If you are very good at core exercises on the floor, in a very controlled and isolated environment, then you should probably be challenging yourself with exercises which ask you to take that isolated stability and begin to use it in a real situation. I like medicine ball throws and exercises which incorporate the entire body into a coordinated task such as squat and dumbbell press or 1-leg squat and cable row or split squat and cable row. Of course, the squat, deadlift and clean are always great choices for exercise in my book as long as you learn appropriate technique and you earn the right to do those movements (meaning you clean up any poor movement or posture problems before trying to develop maximum strength in these exercises).

A short story/lesson on “earning the right” to perform those lifts, which actually applies to our discussion on core training…

I knew an Olympic weightlifting coach who was very selfish. He wanted nothing more than to have a junior national champion; and not for the athlete’s sake, but for his own, so he could walk around and say, “I have a junior national champion that I train!” One day a young 15 year old kid started training with him. The kid was very skinny and wiry but had a tremendous amount of speed. Since the Olympic lifts where his first introduction to weight training and he didn’t have much in the way of strength (and very little in core strength. More on that in a second.), he quickly learned great technique and relied on his amazing speed to get under the bar. He could clean pretty much anything because he was so fast at getting under it and his technique was good enough that he could get into the position properly. The question was always, “Is this kid going to be able to squat out of the bottom once he gets under this weight”, and then “would he be able to fix the weight overhead (in the snatch) or jerk the weight overhead (in the jerk).” It was the last part there that was his Achilles Heel so to speak. He had absolutely no stability! He would put a weight overhead in the jerk and he would be shaking all over the place and about to totally crumble. He would squat out of the hole after getting under the bar in the clean and his back would be rounding and he could not stabilize the load to save his life, which made the following portion of the lift, the jerk, that much more scarier! I watched as the coach would have the kid take singles in training all night long, the entire time thinking to myself “god, I would be having that kid do lots of basic core training and stability training and practicing the technique in the competitive lifts with much lighter weight.” Honestly, if he did that he would probably be a really competitive lifter today because he would have (a) laid a great base level of fitness and stability and (b) learned to have exceptional technique to go along with his strong foundational core strength and blazing speed. However, his coach had a different plan! “If I just keep pushing the weight on this kid, no matter what it looks like, I will have my junior national champion.” Unfortunately, in the second meet this athlete ever competed in, he walked out for his second snatch, pulled the bar from the floor and in the process of trying to fix the weight overhead (and it was always a process because he had zero stability), he blew out his elbow and never competed again.

Now…Do squats, deadlifts, cleans and snatches build a strong core? YES! Are they the only thing that you need to do? NO. Are they the best starting point for most people? Absolutely not!

In a perfect world, I like to start people with the basics as we learn technique in our main lifts. Once they have mastered the basics, those exercises are integrated into the warm up just as a way to make sure everything is “fine tuned” before we move to the core exercises on our feet which we described and then the heavier loading in the main lifts.

Disclaimer: These are just some of the ideas/opinions I currently hold with regard to the topic of core training. The reason I highlighted the word some is because I am only talking about one aspect of core training (stability) and haven’t talked about the muscles of the pelvis (IE, hip mobility/flexibility) and the muscles of the thoracic spine. That isn’t to say that I may change my mind down the road as I continue to read, learn and develop what I do. In all honestly, these ideas I have shared today are a far cry from what I believed/did a few years ago. The most important thing is to continue to read and develop your ideas so that you can better serve those you work with.