Athletes, your coaches probably tell you that you need a strong core. This is sound advice – except for the fact that most people’s understanding of the function and proper training of the core is limited.
In grappling sports, such as wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and judo, a strong core is needed to improve performance and prevent injuries. But don’t just start doing crunches to make your core stronger. You must gain an understanding of your core – the muscles involved, the function, and the proper training progressions.
I’m going to share all of that with you, as well as the best three core exercises you should be doing.
The Core: What It Is and What It Does
The term core must be defined before you can understand how to properly train it. According to Dr. Stuart McGill, the core is made up of the lumbar spine, the muscles of the abdominal wall, the back extensors, and quadratus lumborum. In addition, the lattisimus dorsi and psoas pass through the core and provide a link between the pelvis, legs, shoulders, and arms.
“The core is not just a group of muscles. It is a group of muscles that work together as a unit. A weakness in any of the core muscles will affect its ability to function properly.”
For the core to function optimally, the gluteal muscles need to be the primary power generators and must work synergistically with the pelvis. The core is not just a group of muscles. It is a group of muscles that work together as a unit. A weakness in any of the core muscles will affect its ability to function properly.
Many trainers feel the core functions to initiate movement. But according to Dr. McGill, the core functions to prevent motion rather than initiate it. This definition is important for grapplers who must change directions multiple times during a match or training session (more on that in a moment).
Another important function of the core is its ability to function as a transfer mechanism. When power is generated in the hips, it is transmitted through the stiffness of the core. Every technique in Brazilian jiu jitsu requires the movement of the hips and the stability of the core.
The Core and Grappling
During a match or even in practice, grapplers need to change directions frequently and at various speeds. Often grapplers need to change directions against resistance. A BJJ looking to pass the guard has to be able to change directions while maintaining his or her balance. If the core is unable to stabilize and act as a transfer mechanism for the power being generated by the lower body, the athlete will have a difficult time changing directions and maintaining that posture. The end result is a failed guard pass and possibly getting swept.
“The end result is evidence that a strong core makes the rest of the body stronger. Improving the strength of the core will improve the overall strength of the grappler.”
Grapplers need to maintain a high strength-to-weight ratio. Improving the strength of the core is one way to improve relative strength. According to Dr. McGill, a study done on strongman athletes showed that the core assisted the hips during tasks allowing the strongman to accomplish tasks they would not have been able to using only their hip strength. The end result is evidence that a strong core makes the rest of the body stronger. Improving the strength of the core will improve the overall strength of the grappler.
A strong core is also needed for injury prevention. The physical demands of grappling increase the risk for injury. One study followed pre-season collegiate gymnasts and had them perform core exercises for ten weeks. Their results showed the exercises prevented any new back pain incidents and controlled pain in those with a history of pain.
Training the Core
Training the core requires proper exercise selection that causes the core to be stiff. Another way to look at it is that you want an ability to maintain contraction. People are quick to jump on a stability ball and do balancing movements to strengthen their core. But these movements are not effective in training the core to be stiff.
Step 1: Eliminate Pain
As with any exercise program, proper progressions and programing are essential. If there is pain associated with a specific movement, then the first step is to eliminate that exercise. For example if a grappler feels pain in their back every time they shoot a double leg, the first step for this grappler is to temporarily eliminate double legs from their training.
Step 2: Practice the Big Three
After that, you add in corrective exercises that focus on developing a stiff core. Dr. McGill recommends starting with what he calls the “big three”:
- Curl up
- Side planks
All of the big three exercises require an isometric contraction at the end range of the movement. Hold that isometric for no longer than ten seconds.
Step 3: Motor Control and Movement
Grapplers need to be able to maintain the strength of the core while in motion. In order to do this, the body must maintain stability in certain areas of the body and provide motion in others. An easy way to picture this is that during a squat the lumbar spine and core need to remain stable, while the hips must move. Good exercises to include in a core-training program are weighted carries such as farmer’s walks where the core must be stiff while the lower body moves.
“Grapplers need to be able to maintain the strength of the core while in motion. In order to do this, the body must maintain stability in certain areas of the body and provide motion in others”
Another way to categorize motor-control movements is by foot position. According to Gray Cook, you can group exercises based on foot position. An example of a group of exercises organized around foot position could be squatting, stepping and lunging. Each foot position places a different stress on the core. And in any of the grappling sports, the participants are going to find themselves in all three of those foot positions.
RELATED: Strongman Series: The Farmer’s Walk
Core training is more than doing crunches. To properly train the core, you need to understand its function first. Grapplers require a strong core to help prevent motion and to transfer power from the hips. Having a strong core allows grapplers to perform tasks they do not have the strength to perform. A proper core-training program may be the missing element to many grappler’s strength and conditioning programs.
1. McGill, S. “Core Training: Evidence Translating To Better Performance And Injury Prevention.” Strength and Conditioning Journal.
2. Cook, G “Advanced Core Training Notes.” Retrieved November 13, 2014.
Photos courtesy of Ana Nieves.