Optimal Sports Performance And Core Strength Training!

Core training, especially for athletes, should be specific to the required sports skills; thus, particular muscle groups in the core may be more or less important for a given individual.

You can't turn on the television nowadays without seeing the "latest and greatest" piece of gadgetry to promising tighter abs and a firmer backside, all while emphasizing the training of core muscles. It seems that in the last few years that strength training has evolved to emphasize the strengthening of core muscles. These muscles include the muscles of the trunk and pelvis in addition to the traditionally trained muscles of the shoulders, arms, chest, back, and legs.

The core muscles consist of the following:

  • abdominals (rectus abdominis, tranversus abdominis, internal and external abdominal obliques)
  • muscular structure of the hips (iliopsoas; rectus femoris; sartorius; tensor fasciae latae; pectineus; gluteus maximus, medius and minimus; semi - tendinosus; semimembranosus; biceps femoris; adductor brevis, longus, and magnus; gemellus superior and inferior; obturator internus and externus; quadratus femoris; piriformis)
  • muscular structure of the spine (erector spinae; quadratus lumborum; paraspinals; trapezius; psoas major; quadratus lumborum; multifidus; ilio - castalis lumborum and thoracis; rotatores; latissiums dorsi; and serratus anterior).

What are the advantages of core strength training in sports performance? What equipment, if any, is required for this type of training? What is the evidence that core strength training, when added to a training program, is more effective than more traditional types of strength training? These are some of the questions that I am regularly asked as a strength training expert.

Causes In The Surge Of Strengthening Core Muscles

Training the trunk and pelvic muscles has always been part of strength and conditioning programs for athletes. Power generates from the hips - thus it makes sense to focus on the core. The recent buzz about "functional" training and "sport specific" training, that is trying to make training as performance-specific and applicable to real life as possible, has lead to an increased awareness by many strength and conditioning coaches.

Within the fitness industry, several companies have developed specialized equipment and integrated core-conditioning programs that have carried over to the fields of group exercise and personal training, bringing "core training" to the masses.

The recent popularity increase of core training is also the result of a greater emphasis that has been placed on training for dynamic, multi-plane/multi-directional movements. These movements are more efficiently developed when core strength training and multi-directional exercises are utilized.

Another factor that has been important, although often over looked, is a greater awareness of the fact that most physical activities require transfer of energy from large to small muscle groups in an efficient manner. General theory now is that core strength training provides a greater possibility of limiting injury, enhancing rehabilitation, and/or improving performance by conditioning the core muscles in a sport-related manner.

Rationale For Emphasizing Core Muscles In Strength Training Programs

When athletes produce the necessary movements in their sports with increased efficiency, their overall performance improves. Greater strength of the core musculature increases the stability of the pelvis and spine and improves body control or balance during athletic movements, thus enhancing the efficiency of movement.

The athlete generates greater power output, not only from the core musculature, but also from the stabilizing muscles of the shoulders, arms, and legs because many of these muscles are anchored to the spine or pelvis. When the spine and pelvis are more stable, the peripheral muscles are biomechanically more effective.

The torso is used either actively or as a stabilizer in just about any athletic movement; thus, it makes sense to target those muscles for strength training. Those muscles should not be trained exclusively in isolation because they work in a combined fashion to perform whole movements.

For example, when you try to improve a baseball player's swing, you don't think about strengthening individual muscles but rather all the muscles involved in creating the movement patterns of the swing.

Core strength training can enhance neuromuscular reaction and that this can lead to improved athletic performance. A stronger core requires less forceful contractions of the peripheral muscles to produce a given amount of power, so the muscles-both in the core and in the stabilization-are less likely to be injured during training and competition.

I have always trained the abdominals and lower back muscles of athletes to ensure proper technique and injury prevention. More recently, I have incorporated extensive core training routines to improve running form, balance while making quick changes of direction, and stability while absorbing contact from opponents in football and wrestling. Athletic movement is multi-directional and takes place over varying planes and thus, training programs should reflect this.

Reasons Why "Stabalization" & "Balance" Are Apparent In Core Strength Training

One of the main reasons for strengthening the core muscles is to provide a more stable platform for the actions of the secondary or stabilization muscles of the shoulders, arms, and legs. Stronger core muscles better stabilize the spine and pelvis during strenuous athletic movements.

This provides a more solid biomechanical efficient platform for the muscles attached to the spine and pelvis. More of the force produced by the peripheral muscles is directed to moving the limbs and less to unwanted movements of the spine and pelvis when these muscles are strong.

Another reason for strengthening the core is to enhance the body's overall balance during athletic movements. The best way to emphasize improved balance while strengthening the core muscles is to train in an unstable environment. This is best done by performing drills or movements that provide unexpected and varying levels of resistance-forward, backward, laterally, and vertically. Unstable surfaces can be created with foam pads and rollers, balance boards, stability balls, etc.

Stability and balance are critical athletic performance and movement. The lunge is generally considered to be an effective multi-joint, multi-muscle exercise that is common to many sports. Performed traditionally, the athlete holds dumbbells or a barbell and does the exercise in a controlled, linear fashion. But in the real world, an athlete lunges on a deep diagonal at short stop to field a ground ball, lunges for a tackle as a running back approaches in football, diving for a loose ball in basketball-the lunge is very dynamic and uses many muscles not trained in a traditional strength routine.

Adding the components of balance and stabilization are attempts to make the training more sport-specific and functional. Thus, you might have athletes performing lunges on foam pads or using medicine balls to add resistance to rotation and diagonal movements of the trunk.

Training the nervous system plays a vital role in improving balance and stabilization. The ability of the nervous system to instantly determine the relative positions in space of all of the limbs and other components of the body and to thereby help the brain make appropriate neuromuscular adjustments is critical to performance. When strength training takes place in unstable environments, the nervous system becomes better able to make appropriate neuromuscular adjustments varying movements and instability.

Reasoning For The Use Of Certain Equipment

Stability balls, medicine balls, and foam rolls can provide a more dynamic training environment. When a strength and conditioning routine is properly designed, exercises that use this type of equipment can result in movements that are similar to movements experienced in athletic situations, hence, "sport specific" training.

Although such equipment can be helpful, it is not essential. Core strength can be developed with more traditional types of resistance training and floor exercises and by using varied resistance and posturing.

Traditional training tends to be linear with movements performed in a single plane. Challenging the athlete to achieve balance and stability while performing sport-specific movement, enables them to train the core of the body in a functional manner. Train the muscles in the ways they will be used during performance such as on uneven surfaces, in all three planes of movement, and with diagonals and or rotation.

Key Tips For Strengthening The Body's Core

It is critical to analyze the movements of any sport before designing a strength training program. Determine how the various movements should be performed and then develop resistance training exercises that closely resemble those movements.

Anyone who wants to improve core strength should use movements that are multi-planar and that include diagonal and rotation movements of the trunk. To minimize injury and to expand the types of movements that can be performed in sport, it is important to emphasize flexibility in training routines as much as strength.

Always stress proper foot placement (balance) when performing movements. Without proper balance, the athlete cannot produce optimal force and power. Many injuries result from poor balance.

Athletes should employ explosive power movements, ballistic movements, and dynamic landings during resistance training more than slower movements that rely on absolute strength. The reason for this is that most movements in sports require explosive power and speed rather than brute strength.

In resistance training it is critical that the chosen load and the volume (repetitions, sets, and frequency) are optimal- too little or too much of either and the adaptive response will be poor.

Exercises That Are More Crucial To Core Strength Training

Below are examples of exercises that are crucial in core strength development. They are as follows:

Prone Bridge (Bows and Toes)

    In a prone position on a floor mat, the athlete balances on the tips of toes and elbows while attempting to maintain a straight line from heels to head. This exercise focuses on both the anterior and posterior muscle groups of the trunk and pelvis.

Lateral Bridge (Bridge Right and Bridge Left)

    In a sideways posture on a floor mat, the athlete balances on one elbow and the side of one foot while attempting to keep the body aligned in a straight line. This exercise focuses on the abdominal obliques and transversus abdominus. Also, the lateral bridge teaches the athlete how to sense the proper pelvic position.

Supine Bridge*

    In a supine posture on a floor mat, the athlete raises the hips so that only the head, shoulders, and feet are touching the mat. The supine bridge focuses on the gluteal muscles. Stronger glutes help maintain pelvic control, which is important for movements that require hip extension.

* no illustration available

Evidence Of The Effectiveness Of Core Strength Training

Many "traditional" programs include significant amounts of core training, but perhaps this core training could be more effective. For example, rather than focusing on doing thousands of crunches on the floor-using a posture you never experience in sport, you could substitute abdominal work on a stability ball or utilize a medicine ball in a variety of different ways.

Nadler et al. (2002) published a study of the effects of core strength training on low back pain in Division I athletes. They were unable to detect any significant effect of core training on the incidence of lower back pain in Division I university athletes. However, the number of athletes who required treatment for low back pain in the study was small (14 of 236 total subjects), so it would have been very difficult to show any significant effect.

Most of the evidence in support of core strength training is observed and from the feedback of the athletes. Joe Montana used core training in his rehabilitation program after back surgery so that he could resume playing. He was one of the first pro athletes to be recognized as having used core training to his benefit.

I certainly have not done any formal research on this issue, but I have observed over several years, that when my clients have undergone core strength training, they seem to have greater overall strength. In addition, areas of balance, power, increase and efficiency in competition or general fitness clients tend to have less "daily" aches and pains.

The Best Way To Strengthen Your Core Muscles

Here are some tips that I recommend:

  • Perform core training at the beginning of each workout and make certain that you select exercises that are safe but challenging to your nerves, muscles, and bones. This activates the neuromuscular reaction in the body and allows for better performance in more traditional movements also.
  • Begin your core training with simple traditional exercises- abdominal crunches, back extensions, squat lifts, deadlifts, leg presses, lunges, leg raises, pull-ups, pull-downs-that stress the core muscles. As you improve, you can progress to more complex exercises that more closely mimic the specific dynamic movements required in your sport.
  • Perform the exercises at a controlled rate with light to moderate resistance. This helps build up your muscles and joints so that you will be less susceptible to injury. As your strength level increases, you should progress to more explosive movements against heavier loads, similar to those you might encounter during competition in your sport.
  • Vary the movements and the types of resistance that must be overcome. This will reduce boredom and risk of injury and will help you stick to your training program.
  • Perform some of your exercises on unstable surfaces such as foam mats or balance boards to improve your body's ability to achieve stability and balance.
  • Perform trunk rotations and trunk flexions/extensions with medicine balls and using rubber band devices as resistance tools. This may more closely mimic the changing resistances you encounter in your sport compared to using dumbbells and barbells.
  • Don't over emphasize one muscle in comparison to another. Spend as much time training the muscles of your back as you do the muscles of your abdomen. Otherwise, you are less likely to achieve optimal stability of your spine and pelvis and you are more likely to be injured because of an imbalance of muscle strength.
  • Improve the flexibility of your trunk and hips.
  • Be consistent in your training. If you stick with your training plan, you are much more likely to achieve success than if you train erratically.