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Today’s topic inspiration: Coaches, what are your preferred methods for training the core for performance both on the field of play and in the weight room?
“Core training” can sometimes be a misleading term. Training the core – the musculature of the abdominal corset, the system of muscles surrounding and supporting the lumbar spine – means training specific movement patterns such as rotation, flexion, and extension in the effort to create stability in the spine while the upper and lower extremity generate power.
The midsection represents the crossroad of a complicated system of forces – ground reaction force acting from the ground up and gravity acting from the top down- interacting in a very dynamic way with the muscle-skeleton system in the effort to create movement.
The “core” works in synergy with the prime movers of the hip and shoulder girdle to create unilateral and bilateral movement pattern, ipsilateral and contralateral muscle actions supporting the movement of the limbs (the “structural” role of the core) or transferring force along different kinetic chains (the “functional” role of the core) ultimately creating a solid, efficient system.
The glenohumeral joint and the coxo-femoral joint, the direct link between the axial and the appendicular skeleton are, as a matter of fact, free to move in any direction creating complex movements in the sagittal plan, the transversal plan and the horizontal plan.
Each muscle surrounding this joints has a proximal and a distal insertion: the first creates a point of support for the second to move, as the muscle shortens to create tension. The midsection is the “active” link that creates support at the proximal level for the limbs to move efficiently. This means that training the core is training complex movement patterns in such a way that primer movers work in synchrony with the mid section – the rectus abdominis, erector spinae, internal and external oblique, transverse abdominis, and multifidi – in order to create efficient movement.
What is efficient then? Efficient is moving without “leaks,” without wasting energy along the kinetic chains working together to articulate movements. A strong core provides a solid support for muscles to contract; a solid core also provides optimal alignment between upper and lower extremity creating mechanical efficiency.
So, what is, then, core training? Core training, in my opinion, is training movements to improve efficiency. It is motor control that provides quality in the execution of different motor patterns: if an athlete is training to get stronger, well then his/her midsection will get stronger as well. The same is true for local endurance. Core training is, therefore, a consequence of biomechanically-sound exercise; the need of isolating the midsection arises only in case of major muscular imbalances or deficit in neuromuscular control.
Using the breath to create tension is an easy way to activate your core, a lot easier than consciously trying to contract your core musculature. I like to create pressure in the torso by taking a deep breath before an exertion, and forcefully exhaling a small amount of air from the mouth in a pressurized “hiss”.
In between reps it can be hard to inhale deeply without losing tension, so try to “sip” air in small and sharp inhales. The key is to learn how to create tension both while breathing air in and letting it out. A good way of learning this is by holding a kettlebell by the horns and pressing the bottom of the bell into your stomach.
From this position, exert pressure against the bottom of the bell with your torso by taking a sharp “sip” of air through your nose. Now perform a hip hinge while continuing to press the bell into your stomach and maintaining stiffness in the torso.
Exhale air forcefully from the mouth as you stand up powerfully, letting out a sharp “hissing” sound. This teaches you to use the breath to maintain a stable torso while moving through a full range of motion at the hips.
This is a crucial lesson in allowing for the safe and efficient transfer of forces from the hips, into the ground, and through the torso. If you want to develop power and athleticism, you’ll need to know how to do this effectively.
That being said, it’s equally important to learn how to maintain core stiffness independent of what the breath is doing. This can be a little tricky. My go-to here is to exhaust myself with a dynamic drill like a plyometric or power routine to the point of being completely out of breath. I then immediately drop into some variation of a plank. Assuming you maintain proper form in the stabilization exercise, you will maintain stiffness in the torso while you catch your breath, letting your diaphragm move freely as you stabilize.
Remember that your core is designed for endurance and it needs to be trained often. Always be mindful of engaging your stabilizers during any given exercise. Make every exercise a core exercise.
When referring to “core” training, lots of things must be taken into consideration. I consider all of the components that contribute to protecting the spine, a part of the core (spinal column, latissimus dorsii, gluteal complex, and the multitude of abdominal muscles).
I believe that it is important to create a base of core strength and familiarity through integration with the core muscles.
I initiate training with isometric exercises such as planks, side-planks, and Tall Kneeling Pallof holds, each targeting the core musculature through different ranges of motion; anti-anterior/posterior flexion, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation.
Once this base is established, I progress each movement into a dynamic variation in order to teach stability through movement. Variations such as body saws, ab rollouts, farmers walks, suitcase carries, rack carries, Pallof holds with lateral steps and bounds, partner ball wrestling are all great.