Guest post by Pat Costigan
Most would agree that mopping a floor, throwing a baseball, and going on a family bike ride, are easier with a strong core. But what are the components of the body’s core and how are they best trained?
Some suggest that the core includes the muscles of the lower trunk—for example, the abdominal, the back extensors, and the rotators. Others feel that the core must also include the muscles of the shoulders and hips. Regardless of your definition, the core connects the hands and feet—the main points of contact with the world—and a strong core makes the transfer of force between the two more efficient.
Imagine pushing a lawnmower, but between your hands and the lawnmower handle is a block of Jello. When you apply a force the Jello squishes and the force deforms the Jello rather than pushing on the handle – an inefficient loss of force, not to mention a slippery, Jello-related injury. If instead of Jello, there was a solid block between your hands and the handle then any force applied to the block would be instantly transmitted to the handle—an efficient transfer of forces. A strong core allows an efficient transfer of force from the feet to the hands or vice-versa.
Research on core strength considers both core endurance and core strength; endurance being akin to stability and strength referring to force production. While athletes do both core endurance and core strengthening exercises, there is very little evidence to show that core exercises improve high-level athletic performance. Likely because these athletes do so much other training that you cannot tease out the effects of their core training.
However, research suggests that, even for athletes of endurance and strength, endurance must be developed before strength. This makes sense when you consider that many daily activities benefit from a stable trunk—standing, walking, going up stairs, household chores. Without endurance, the core tires and you would not be able to maintain a trunk stable enough to produce force, which risks injury. Once you have increased your core endurance you can work on strengthening exercises that require the core to generate force while maintaining a stable trunk.
Common core endurance exercises are the plank-style exercises that require extended hold times. Strength exercises require the core to produce a force and include exercises like sit-ups, back extensions, toes-to-bar, as well as the complex exercises like squats and deadlifts.
Focus on core endurance then add strengthening and then, for athletes, add sport specific movements. Any other order is inefficient and increases injury risk.