I hate the word core!
What is your core?
I define it as anything covered by a corset and sexy underwear.
Core strength is about ensuring the spine doesn't deviate from its neutral position. The stronger you get the less the spine will deviate or more importantly the more you can move. Now, if the trunk/spine does deviate the supporting muscles should be able to pick up the slack and keep you protected. Trunk strength means, that no matter what movement you try, Long Slow Distance (LSD, and not the kind that drop on to your tongue), short duration high intensity, lifting heavy things fast or slow, your spine will be protected.
If I gave you a grand piano and then took the body or the box of the piano, and had you play it would the sound travel well?
If I replaced the box with a floppy sheet, would the sound travel well?
The trunk is the box. The stronger the trunk the more energy can be transferred through the body to the appendages. The more strength that is transferred the better the performance.
If we look at the body as a car, the hips are the engine the trunk is the transmission and the appendages are the wheels. If you have a great engine and a crappy transmission you are not going anywhere very quickly. If you have a decent engine and an awesome transmission you will transfer power well and be able to get places much more quickly than the above and if they do beat you they will hurt themselves. They wont be able to maintain that level of performance. They/the car will fall apart.
So what is not your core?
Your 6 pack muscles. Those are designed for a little bit of trunk flexion (pulling the chest toward the thighs) and to keep your guts in place. So, those sit ups, Swiss ball crunches, abdominal machines and the like, are actually detrimental. They don't teach your body how to use your trunk in a functional way.
What does it mean to use your trunk in a functional way?
It means to protect the spine as you take yourself through any ROM that you need. If you are trying to push a canoe overhead, carry a heavy backpack, carry an infant, pick up that giant TV up off the ground, if you were 8 months pregnant, or in a fist fight, do you have the trunk stability through all of those ROM's the entire time.
If your back is sore than no you didn't. All the sit ups in the world won't teach you to pick up a #300 pound object off the ground and move it.
About 2 months ago I was helping a friend move a #350 steel base plate and he was in my way so, when he put it down I just picked it up and carried it 15 feet to a van and gently put it into the van. Because of its shape I couldn't keep a neutral spine and hold it, so even with a spine that was not in an optimal position I not only didn't hurt myself I comfortably (as much as you lift comfortably lift a steel base plate) moved it. This is a strong "CORE" or trunk. I had to get to a full depth squat pick up one end lay it on my thighs and then pick up the other end. My trunk had to work and stabilize through my entire ROM.
If crunches and Swiss balls are not going to teach us how do we train out trunk?
If we watch a person from the side and they contract their "core" they should actually shrink all the way around circumferentially (another new word) and vertically. The spine shape should not change. It should remain in a neutral position. This compression locks everything into place. This does a number of things, it protects the spine, allows us to increase our intraabdominal pressure (we will talk about intraabdominal pressure later) and allows for more energy transfer.
I am not saying that it should stay this locked down for an entire movement. It is supposed to be fluid and dynamic, and it should contract and release in gradients. It isn't binary, on or off, it is fluid. However, if you are trying to do something super heavy or super strong then you need the maximum amount of contraction possible.
Deviation. The spine should remain as neutral as possible. The more neutral the more balanced we can be. Now, it will deviate, rotationally, flexionally ( I just made up that word and I am proud of it so back off), both laterally and front to back. The key is that it is protected during movement and would have only the amount of deviation that is absolutely necessary. An example, is a burpee(jumping squat thrust). Why do people jump back into the push up position and let their hips fall, and why do they jump forward and let their sacrum and lumbar spine tuck under?
Some will say it is because they are weak and need to get stronger and while that is true it is most often because humans are goal oriented and lazy. The problem with the goal orientation is that they want to get those reps done instead of getting them done at maximum intensity while keeping the spine stable. They are lazy because it is more difficult to keep the spine stable and fight gravity and or a load than it is to let it fall apart/collapse. They instead let the non-movable portion of the tissue (spine and connective tissue, now yes connective tissue has stretch but very little, if you stretch connective tissue by 4% you lose joint stability) take up the slack. The problem is that the muscles that support the spine remain weak and the person training will injure themselves. By letting your spine deviate more than it needs to, you trunk will under a play load (skiing, running), under work load (moving TVs, hot water heaters, changing your tire), or under stress load (fighting, driving all day, sitting behind a computer writing on a blog) will not be able to maintain integrity.
People do all of that training and have a weak trunk because they are lazy and have the wrong goals.
Rotation. The rotation is here for a few reasons:
- Assisting the hips with power transfer
- Transfer and dissapation of force applied to the body (if you get moved by an outside force can your body transfer that energy and keep your spine protected and if it cant transfer it can it dissapate it?)
- To keep you safe so you can look behind you
- So you can smack your kids in the backseat. (not really, if you don't do that from the hips you will injure your shoulder.)
The body should be able to turn and produce rotational power but not from the lumbar spine. In truth rotational power should come from the hips (remember the engine) and the upper body rotation assists in power transfer from the hips.
The hips have two major types of power generation
- linear, back to front as in a kettlebell swing or a broad jump, and front to back as in pulling closed a garage door
- rotational, throwing a punch/ball or hitting a tennis ball
Many people think the rotational movement is one of two things:
- as in tennis or punching, the arm is the prime mover and the force generator
- an excessive spinal rotation
If the arm is used or trained as the primary force generator the shoulder and elbow will fall apart. Then the neck will also become compromised. The way it should work is the hips go through their movement and force is generated from that movement. The force travels through the trunk (this can be for linear or rotation but for this example we will use rotation) and the trunk is abruptly stopped. The stopping of the trunk forces the energy out of an appendage. If it is a throwing motion the force will continue out of the arm.
Think of keys on a long key chain, if you swing them in a circle there is a great deal of power coming out the end of the keys and it is being generated from where?
The wrist, not the keys.
If you abruptly stop the swing, the keys will speed up for a small amount of time. This is the same with throwing something. There is a rotational speed from the hips and then a sudden stop and the arm or leg (kick) moves out faster and everything remains mechanically safe. If I try to generate the same amount of power with just the arm the joints will fail.
Excessive spinal rotation, will damage the spine. If you look at a good baseball swing, punch etc. the hips open up meaning the hips lead a rotation and the trunk quickly follows, but the shoulders will have less of a turn then when people look behind them. Sit in a chair and look directly behind you. Your spine just rotated more than a professional boxer, tennis player, even discus thrower.
There are a bunch of people that try to increase their rotational ability to something of an owl/contortionist. This is not something that will help in power production and will most likely cause injury. Especially if we try and create too much rotational movement in the lumbar spine. Excessive spinal rotation will compromise power transmission and spinal stability which is what the trunk is designed to do.
Linear hip drive can be used in strength or power. Strength is lifting something without worrying how fast it happens and power is lifting something as fast as possible. Sow the hip drive can be slow and grind or quick and explosive. Both of them require a stable trunk. Picking your child up and out of the back of the car while they are sleeping and then putting them in their bed, flipping a giant tire, or quickly pulling someone's giant mean dog off of your dog. These are all movements that require linear hip drive and a stable spine. If you try and of any of these with your arms your back and or shoulders will hurt. If you set your spine you will be able to use your hips and butt and hamstrings(back of the upper leg) to perform these movements. This is bare bones paragraph because I don't think that it needs that much more explanation.
Transmission of power is the what the trunk is designed to do as far as human movement is concerned. You can not transfer power if your spine is not protected. You will hurt your spine and you will not perform what you want the way that you want.
Okay intraabdominal pressure. This is increasing the amount of internal pressure in the trunk. The more internal abdominal pressure you can create the harder all the other muscles in the body can contract. Try a simple movement like curling a weight. Do one of them with a loose relaxed gut and then another with a tight trunk. Imagine someone is going to kick you in the ribs and tighten your pelvic floor, a kegel exercise. (Tighten your ass like you are going to prison.) The one with a tight trunk allows for the arm to curl more weight. If you do it correctly you will still be able to breathe while keeping that level of abdominal tension. However, don't try and roam around the world like that. It is what is supposed to happen when you decide to perform a movement and it doesn't have to be on at 100% all the time.
If you can learn to contract the trunk the power will transfer more efficiently, and this will lead to playing longer, harder, faster and with fewer injuries.
bracing/compressing versus hollowing /pilates c curve
There are two major schools of thought on proper trunk contraction which are the pilates c curve/ hollowing idea and the bracing/compressing idea.
I prefer the bracing hollowing because it feels more natural. If I surprise you and as you turn a corner try and kick you in the gut you will compress and brace (basically what we talked about in the intraabdominal section). When I watch a young kid pick up something heavy, like their kid brother, they brace. Pilates, is more of a hollowing and it is more of this idea of bringing the bellybutton to the spine and the anus up towards the belly button. When I try and lift something heavy I can always lift heavier when compressing rather than hollowing. The same applies in punching, sprinting etc.
The other issue I have with hollowing is I find it very hard to feel or use my transverse abdominus. It is a muscle that wraps around the body like a back brace that box stacker's have to wear. This muscle attaches to the spine by fascia (think saran wrap but thick) and then wraps around to the front of the body. When that muscle contracts it works like that back brace or a corset. It is KEY to keeping the spine neutral.
So how do we train to brace.
Activators and exercises
We start with activators and then we introduce exercises.
Back compression crunches (also called a low back press) are an easy way to learn where all the muscles are. There is a difference between an activator and an exercise. An activator is a movement that trains the nervous system to turn on, it wont really make your muscles stronger. An exercise is something can always be made easier or more difficult and is designed to make you more fit. An activator wouldn't and shouldn't it is designed to retrain movement in a controlled environment and to ensure a person knows how to turn it on before adding it to exercise. A back compression crunch is just that, an activator to ensure you know what the primary muscles for trunk stability are and how to recruit them.
So, lay on your back and notice the lumbar curve, now imagine their is an egg under your back. Squish it. Let your chin and shoulders come off the ground a little but not like you are doing a crunch. Later you will do it without picking up your shoulders and head but now just let it be. Your back should be able to squish HARD. Begin to recruit your butt and pelvic floor. Practice 5 or 10 in a row 10 15 times a day until you can do it while laying flat and really squish the ground. Then try and remember the feeling while standing then apply it lifting something.
Kegels are the pelvic floor contractions that women are told to do. Everyone should do them. They make your whole body stronger, one reason is because it means you can get more intraabdominal pressure. When our stomach/contracts our organs will want to be squished out to the spot that is not applying the same amount of pressure as everywhere else. Think a tube of toothpaste. Lets not squeeze our guts out of the pelvic floor. Next, too much abdominal contraction with no pelvic floor can cause hemorrhoids.
A keagal is the act of squeezing your pelvic floor tight. I describe it to clients (and some don't like the image but they all understand it) "squeeze your ass like you are going to prison!" A kegel should be the whole pelvic floor but you should be able to contract your anus separate from your urethra. Think of it like being able to make a fist or tap your fingers. Learn to tap your fingers and it will give you better awareness of what is happening with your pelvic floor.
This is the idea that many people can stabilize while standing or lying down or through a symmetrical ROM. But true CORE strength is being able to stabilize through your entire ROM and do so under a symmetrical or an asymmetrical load. If you are carrying a child on one hip all the time does your spine deviate laterally or front to back?
If you are doing a body weight Overhead squat, pushing a canoe onto the top of your car, pulling the Christmas decoration box down off the shelf, moving a hot water heater will your spine deviate. You have to train the entire ROM of your body under load. A Swiss ball crunch does not fit this idea therefore it will not help your trunk stability.
The stronger the core the less the spine deviates or the more load it takes to deviate the spine.
Some good exercises to learn
Dead lift, single and double leg
Squats, front, back and overhead