Friday, June 15, 2012

"Core Training": A Layman's Guide to Cutting Through the Crap

By Andrew McGunagle

I cannot stand the term "core training". Unfortunately, the phrase has been adopted into mainstream American culture and, for better or for worse, I hear it uttered almost daily. The funny thing is that 99% of the people who casually drop the word "core" in a conversation have no idea what "core training" actually entails. In an effort to educate the general public, the following article will outline contemporary "core training" principles. Hopefully, this article will clear up some confusion, alleviate some individuals' back pain, and decrease the number of times that I cringe during a typical week. Read on to be enlightened!

What is "Core Training"?
The main reason I despise the term "core training" is because it's meaning has become so generalized and diluted. Presently, everything from standing on a Bosu Ball to dancing is advertised as "core training". In addition to erroneously encompassing nearly every form of exercise under the sun, "core training" is currently touted as a magical cure-all.
"Core training"?
I want people to understand that "core training" is nothing more than one facet of a well-rounded strength and conditioning program. In some cases, it can have a positive impact on an individual's sports or lifting performance and it can improve their lower back health. However, "core training", by itself, does not provide otherworldly results. Also, while the muscles of the torso are stimulated in nearly every human movement, there is a major difference between "exercising the core" and specifically targeting the muscles of the torso with purposeful and intelligently programmed exercises. This article will focus on the latter, as the former is nothing more than a silly marketing strategy used to get the ill-informed public to pay "professionals" for an hour of random movement.
"Wow, that must be great for her core!"
(Note: For the remainder of this article, I will replace the term "core" with the word "torso". I want there to be a clear distinction between the information I am providing and the baloney that you hear in the public sphere. "Core training" is for suckers; training the torso is for purposed individuals.)

How Should the Torso be Trained?
The lower (lumbar) region of the vertebral column demands stability. While some of this section's stability is derived from the anatomical structure of the lumbar vertebrae themselves, the muscles surrounding this portion of the spine are crucial players in this area's integrity. If we want to improve the torso muscles' ability to provide stability (i.e. the ability to maintain position and resist movement) to the spine, then the methods we use to train them should reflect this objective. Utilizing exercises that promote movement at the lower back proves to be counterproductive, as moving the spine through various ranges of motion when we want that segment to maintain it's position makes no sense. Therefore, traditional abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups, curl-ups, crunches, side-bends, and twists, are out. Exercises that improve an individual's ability to stabilize their torso in multiple planes of motion are in. The adaptations induced by training are highly specific, so it is logical to train the torso muscles in a way that mimics and improves their intended function rather than using movements that promote dysfunction.

Do we want to see the spine move here? No.

Classifying Torso Exercises
Contemporary torso training exercises are commonly partitioned into four categories: anti-flexion exercises, anti-extension exercises, anti-side flexion exercises, and anti-rotation exercises. Flexion, extension, side flexion (or, lateral flexion), and rotation are four of the main movements that the spine can do, and "anti" refers to resisting these movements. The simplest example of a torso stability exercise is the plank:

You've probably done it before.
Most people have done this exercise and have felt the muscles of their torso working while in this position. When done correctly, with the spine held rigid in a "neutral" position, the plank is an effective anti-extension exercise. As you assume the prone position that characterizes the plank, your abdominal wall is bracing in an effort to prevent your lumbar spine from sagging into extension.

Beyond the plank, there are a wide variety of exercises that train the muscles of the torso to resist flexion, extension, side flexion, and rotation. An exercise that never fails to get quizzical looks and inquires in a commercial gym is the Pallof press (also know as the anti-rotation press).

The Pallof press.
The Pallof press can be done using either a resistance band or a cable column. With your arms held up in front of your chest and the pull of the resistance running perpendicular to your arms, extend your arms away from your chest. Hold this position for a second (or more, if you are doing longer isometric holds), then move your arms back to the starting position. When your arms are fully extended, the rotational force from the resistance will be at its greatest, and you should be bracing the muscles of your torso hard to resist this pull. For a more in-depth explanation of the Pallof press, click on this link. Or this link.

A Few Notes
-If getting a six-pack is the only reason that you do abdominal exercises, then you must understand that your eating habits are more important than any of the torso exercises that you do. You can sculpt the most amazing set of abs on the face of the earth while in the gym, but they will not look very good until you get rid of the layer of fat that covers them. Lock down your nutrition and then do torso exercises that improve your abdominal muscles' function. Not only will you get the six-pack that you desire, but you will also have a healthier lower back to boot.

-The torso connects the powerful hips and legs with the relatively weak upper body. Therefore, having a stable torso is incredibly important for a myriad of athletic movements. In order to transfer the power that the lower body muscles generate up through the body, the torso must be held rigid. Without this necessary torso stability, energy will "leak" out at the midsection and make for inefficient movement and substandard power production. Whether you want to knock down a running back, throw a baseball fast, or simply play a sport well, it is in your best interest to improve your torso stability.
Torso stability = big hits.
-Torso stability is an important aspect of the power lifts. The Valsalva maneuver, which entails inflating the midsection by taking in, and holding, a large breath before a heavy lift, is effective because it improves stability. Wearing a lifting belt in conjunction with this maneuver allows for even greater stability, and this stability can enable a lifter to move more weight than they can without a belt. It is important to remember, however, that the stability that a belt provides is largely artificial. The multiple layers of muscle that comprise the abdominal wall, in conjunction with the muscles of the back, work as the body's natural lifting belt. Therefore, strengthening these muscles and improving their ability to provide stability can reduce a lifter's risk for spinal injury and, potentially, improve their performance.

-I say that improving torso stability has the potential to improve a lifter's performance because not every lifter will see their lifts benefit from torso training. Your ability to move heavy weights in the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift overwhelmingly depends on the prime movers for each of these individuals lifts. The muscles of the torso are not prime movers; instead, they offer stability and allow for force generated by the lower body to be transferred up the kinetic chain and into the bar. If torso stability is sub-par, then force will not be transferred with maximum effectiveness. In this case, improving torso stability, and thereby shoring up a weak link, may allow a lifter to move heavier weights. If a lifter's midsection is sufficiently stable, then torso training offers limited rewards in terms of performance enhancement.

Further Reading
Hopefully, this summary has opened your eyes to modern methods of torso training. At the very least, you will no longer fall victim to the "core training" tricks of the many marketing wizards that plague the fitness landscape. If you would like to learn more about torso training, then be sure to check out a few of the following articles:

(Note: Sure, they use the term "core". But, the information that they provide is good, so I can live with it.)

21st Century Core Training by Mike Robertson

Can't Turn This! by Bret Contreras

Bulletproof That Back by Eric Cressey

Anterior Core Training by Michael Boyle    

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