Core Training Redefined
There’s no doubt that training the core is a quintessential component to any training regimen. It protects and mobilizes the lower torso in every day life as well as athletic endeavors. Unfortunately the common methods and techniques to train your core are rudimentary at best.
Most of the techniques are slow or stagnant, rigid movements and positions. These patterns usually isolate one muscle group or plane of motion and train them in a linear robotic manner. These techniques may grant some initial benefit but they hardly cover the vast ranges of motion and varied speeds that the core may and often has to endure.
Training with any sort of speed is usually shunned in the gym and deemed dangerous. Though I can appreciate caution, if you don’t truly prepare your body for the demands your activities require, you are bound to run into injury or at least some aches and pains once you step outside the gym. Ironically the speeds and motions that are most feared are ever present once you swing a golf club, hit a squash ball or even when you pick up mundane objects around the house.
To truly piece together a comprehensive core training regime, one must look at the structure in question, its capabilities and range of motion.
Though there are numerous definitions of what the core is, for the sake of this article we’ll define it as all of the soft tissue from the bottom of the chest to the top of the hips. It has a natural curve when it is in neutral position and is one of the major power houses and stabilizers of the body. This structure rotates, bends forwards, backwards and side to side. These positions and movements happen at a multitude of speeds and often simultaneously (ex: bending forward and rotating).
As with any structure it never activates in isolation and rarely in a single plane of motion. That is not to say training in isolation and stagnation is useless, it should only represent a portion of your programming not the majority. Treat planks and bridge type holds as precursors to your mobilization and power movements, not as the bulk of your core program. Over emphasis of stabilizing and holding a neutral spine can result in problems of their own. I have often seen athletes, clients and trainers unable to move out of the neutral position without great effort and sometimes pain.
Though planks and bridges seem to be the initial and foundational movements in most core programs, I view them as secondary at best. Due to lifestyle, activity and training under load I’ve found most individuals need lengthening and decompression BEFORE any type of bridge or plank should be attempted.
To best grasp this concept of decompression and lengthening of the spine (without the use of complex anatomical visuals) all you need is a straw. Straws that have the flexible elbow and the accordion like ridges.
First, compress the elbow so that there is little no space between the ridges. This represents what most lower spine resemble. The lack of space signifies dehydrated and frail discs which come with a healthy serving of rigidity and discomfort. A lower back in this condition is easily fatigued by minimal ranges of motion and tends to work too hard and too soon in most complex movement patterns.
In contrast let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum. Now lengthen out the elbow portion. Stretch the straw out to its full length. Though there is plenty of room and mobility notice how unstable this portion of the straw is. This type of hyper-mobility is often seen in adolescents and individuals who engage in activities that emphasize extreme ranges of motion. When positions and movements require lengthening, these hyper-mobile spines will often hyperextend (bend back beyond the neutral position). Though hyper-mobile individuals may not feel any discomfort hyper-extending slowly or passively, once speed or load is added this often is not the case.
Just as you would with the straw, begin your workout by lengthening out the spine. Pick full body, toe to fingertip movements. Do not however just hold the position. Come in and out of position making sure each end of the movement is held just long enough to make sure you are finishing the movement with grace, power and full range of motion. If these motions are done correctly each end of the motion should feel good. The muscles will become alive, feel nourished (with blood and oxygen) and invigorated.
Holding positions too long can create several problems. If you relax and just rest on your joints, the receptors in the connective tissue shut down; thus leaving the spine unprotected as your body moves past its safer ranges. Transversely if your end positions are held too rigidly the muscles will fatigue and eventually shut down. Although working muscles to the point of fatigue is popular in commercial fitness, this promotes faulty and sub par movements with any exercises proceeding.
The key to strengthening the structure as a whole is by going in tension and completely out of tension. This allows the entire body to play its part and strengthens the muscles as well as the connective tissue. Think of shooting a rubber band or pumping water out an irrigation pump. Tension must be created to initiate movement and relaxation must occur to then let power be present. If no tension is present then no power can be dispersed; if no relaxation is allowed to occur the tension stays in the structure. When tension stays in the structure the muscles shut down and we put the spine back in the state of compression (aka: scrunched straw position).
Using the same tension/relaxation principles, proceed to move the core through forward, backward, side to side bending and rotation. When deciding which to tackle first, pick the motion you are most limited in or unfamiliar with first. This is typically rotation followed by side bending.
Time, overall goal of the workout and competency of the movements will dictate the number of set and reps. If your core exercises are just part of the workout, 2 sets of up to 10 reps of each movement should suffice. If your entire workout is focused on the core add more sets not reps. True strengthening comes from sophisticated movement and not sheer volume. If you are crunched for time (no pun intended) 1 set of each movement is adequate.
Don’t be constrained to what you’ve read in studies, textbooks and most of all media when designing your core program. Think of what your lifestyle and activities demand of it. Work in the ranges required or towards the ranges required in a pain free fashion. Once you are confident add speed little by little. Don’t be impatient and try to climb mountains in one workout. Think of each rep, each set and each workout as one step upwards towards a peak of strength, health and long-term performance.