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In the last edition, I introduced you to core conditioning, a more scientific and integrated approach to abdominal training for sports. The importance of the core muscles in softball has been explained and we now understand that muscles involved in a movement can be classifieds as "movers" or "stabilizers". The primary role of movers is to produce the movement while the role of stabilizers is to stabilize the joints and the spine during a movement.
Summary Of Key Points In Core Conditioning
The erector spinae (low back muscle) and rectus abdominis ("six-pack") are movers while the transversus abdominis (deep core muscle) act as a "stabilizer". The internal and external obliques are primary movers, but can also act as stabilizers, depending on the movement. The central nervous system is not programmed to think in terms of isolated muscle function. It is programmed to integrate both movers and stabilizers in any movement.
Hitting, pitching, fielding, throwing and running in softball are no exceptions, each of these actions requires the work of both stabilizers and movers for maximum movement efficiency.
Sad Facts In Abdominal Training For Softball:
- Most softball athletes still train their abs in an isolated fashion using a "bodybuilding" approach. This is as far from sport-specific training as you can be.
- Crunches, floor-based sit-ups, leg lifts, reverse crunches and side crunches still represent "exercises of choice" when it comes to abdominal training for softball.
- A "six-pack" is still associated with having a great core. Even though an athlete sporting a "six-pack" is more likely to have a good core, the truth is that many elite athletes have a very dysfunctional core because their stabilizers aren't trained properly or not at all.
Key Training Principles:
- Stabilizers must be engaged before the movers. In other words, stabilizers should be firing before the movers do.
- We should never break the stability - strength - power rule of progression or we break the athlete by creating a dysfunctional core/body.
- In sports, we must base our time allocation to core training based on core demand, not aesthetics or personal belief systems. It's the idea of training for function rather than fashion.
- Integration of both stabilizers and movers in core exercises is important to be sport-specific (Crunches, floor-based sit-ups, leg lifts and other traditional abdominal exercises do very little to integrate stabilizers).
- Core training must be three-dimensional because core demands in softball are three-dimensional.
- Always recruit the deep core stabilizers with "belly button to spine" or "pull abdominals in".
- Back and pelvis should always be stable and in "neutral" (natural curvature of the spine in the ideal posture).
Periodization Of Core Conditioning
The key to optimal athletic performance is to develop the various muscular qualities in the right order or in a sound progression (Bompa, 1994). The development of functional core for softball players should be done following the continuum of stability - strength - power.
Stability: Training the ability to effectively stabilize the spine and the joints against internal or external forces or while the body is producing a movement.
Strength: Training the ability to generate the maximum amount of force a muscle can exert.
Power: Training the ability of a muscle to contract with both strength and speed. It is also known as speed strength.
Training Core Stability
In this second part, our focus will be on training core stability. Core stability can be defined as the ability to contract the lower deep abdominal muscles to help support the trunk in dynamic and static positions, enhancing balance, stability, posture and movement efficiency. Core stability is vital to prevent injuries, correcting posture and ensuring more efficient and functional movement patterns. A dysfunctional core will lead to dysfunctional movements.
Core stability will provide back support and will enhance the execution of all athletic moves. Core stability must serve as a foundation to build core strength and power for enhancing performance. Core stability is often the missing link in abdominal training (Chek, 2001).
Key Points For Training Core Stability:
- Athletes need to be taught to recruit, isolate and maintain an activation of the deep core stabilizers with the spine in neutral. Very few can do so without consciously working on it for a little while.
- An awareness of how to isolate, recruit and maintain a deep abdominal contraction must be learned.
- Stabilizers are endurance-based muscle, therefore the contractions must be slow, controlled and low force.
- Many exercises are isometric in nature (holding a contraction in a static position).
- Draw belly button towards spine or pull in abdominals and hold.
- Proper focus is essential to achieve success.
Finding Neutral Spine
Neutral spine is the ideal alignment of the spine. It represents our slight natural curves. To find neutral spine, arch the low back as far as possible and then flatten the low back as much as possible. Be aware of the way these extremes feel, and find a low back position in between these two extremes. The middle position is "neutral spine".
Core Stability Exercises
Each exercise should be performed three times a week for a 3-6 weeks period before progressing to core strength development. We need to ensure that the athlete has a solid and stable base and the ability to isolate, recruit and maintain a contraction of the deep core stabilizers.
Tranversus Abdominis (TA) Isolation: View Exercise
The goal of this exercise is to train the athletes to find neutral spine and develop the ability to isolate, recruit and maintain a contraction in their deep abdominal muscle (mainly the transversus abdominis or TA).
- In a supine position, find neutral spine.
- Palpate about 2 cm inside and inferior from the hip bone. Gently activate the muscles under the thumbs. A TA contraction should feel like gentle tension and not bulge.
- Breath in, then breath out. At the end of the exhale gently pull the lower stomach up and in. Do not elevate the ribs. Feel a tensioning under the fingers.
- Keep the low back still and the buttocks relaxed.
- Think light and gentle. Working too hard will cause the wrong muscles to contract.
- Hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
Heel Drops: View Exercise
The goal of this exercise is to recruit the stabilizers and then integrate some movement while maintaining the contraction of the TA.
- Start with both knees and hips flexed at 90 degree. In a supine position, place one hand underneath your back (small of your back) and place the fingers of the other hand 2 cm inside and inferior from the hip bone.
- Find neutral spine, recruit stabilizers by activating the TA and pulling in the abdominals. Hold the contraction.
- Lower one foot towards the floor, only as far as neutral spine can be maintained. Return hip to 90 degree and repeat with the other leg.
- If the low back starts to arch or the pressure on the hand is reduced, neutral spine is lost. The hand underneath the low back is there for feedback purposes. Ensure that abs are tight and spine is in neutral at all times.
- Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions on each leg
Table Top or Bridge: - View Exercise
- Assume a bridge position using the feet and the elbows as support.
- Pull in abdominals, feel the squeeze and maintain contraction during the entire time. Keep breathing.
- The back must be straight (neutral spine).
- In case of pain in the low back, that is because the contraction is not maintained in neutral spine and that the stabilizers are not doing their job.
- Do 2 sets of 30-45 seconds.
Mountain Climbers: - View Exercise
- The initial position is very similar to the bridge but with a ball. The athlete must have her elbows and forearms on the ball. The body must be straight (neutral spine).
- Contract the deep stabilizers (pulling in abdominals) and hold the contraction.
- Bring one knee at a time towards the ball while maintaining the contraction. Must be done slowly.
- Don't let the back arch or round. It has to stay neutral.
- Do 2 sets of 8-10 repetitions on each side.
Swiss Ball Sit-Ups: - View Exercise
- Sit with the back against the swiss ball touching from your shoulders to the buttocks, keeping the knees bent at 90 degrees, the thighs parallel to the floor and the arms extended in front.
- Slowly curl your trunk, letting your shoulders and upper back lift off the ball until you reach a sitting position. Return slowly to the start position and neutral posture.
- Curl your trunk by pulling the bottom of your rib cage down toward your hips. Avoid pulling on the head or neck.
- Return to neutral posture between each repetition and do it very slowly to force the stabilizers to work.
- Do 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions slowly.
Cable Reverse Woodchopper: - View Exercise
- Using a low pulley cable machine, assume an athletic stance holding the handle on your side (the pulley is on the side).
- Prior to initiating the movement, engage the deep core stabilizers. Hold the contraction during each repetition to ensure a stable core.
- Pull handle across your body using body rotation and finish with arms extended high on the opposite side. Focus on using the trunk and not the arms during the rotation.
- Do 2 sets of 12 repetitions on each side.
Developing core stability is essential to optimize movement efficiency, prevent athletic injuries and maximize performance. In the next edition, I will introduce you to innovative and sport-specific core strength exercises.
About The Author
Marc Dagenais, B.Sc., MHK, CSCS, is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Personal Trainer in addition to working as an assistant softball coach for Simon Fraser University. He also runs a website on performance enhancement, training and conditioning for softball - http://www.softballperformance.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.