Core training. What is it, really?
Is it “crushing”the abs? “Blasting” the glutes? Both at the same time? (yikes!)
At its most essential, effective core training should begin with an assessment of alignment. Is the thoracic spine, rib cage and thoraco-lumbar canister aligned? If not, we must begin with low-level, simple neuro-muscular strategies to help enhance and reinforce correct alignment.
If we think of the rib cage/pelvic relationship as a “box on a bowl,” as Brett Jones has described it, it can help simplify the concept, as well as provide a straightforward visual conception of what we’d like to see. If the pelvis is a bowl, the “box” of the rib cage and thoracic spine can sit level on it, as long as no edge of the bowl is allowing water to pour out.
If one edge tilts, the box begins to “slide” off the bowl. In the case of our client, that means a series of corrective activities take place in the core musculature and CNS to correct the “slide.” Generally speaking, if the tilt was involuntary or caused by imbalances or kinetic chain dysfunction, the brain’s strategy for correction will be akin to putting out the fire in a kitchen – by any means necessary and with those most convenient.
With regard to core alignment and movement strategies, the brain will engage the muscles which are in the best position to accomplish the task of “righting the box,” even if those muscles are not the optimal ones for the job, and even if they aren’t the right kind of muscles for the job.
I generally begin core training with variations on the Neuro-Developmental Sequence. Prone raising, controlled rolls, moving to crawl position and crawls, ½ kneeling and tall kneeling positions. All of these are patterned primally deep within the brain and therefore require more “recall” than learning.
They’re also great for introducing clients to the subconscious dysfunctions many of them come to the training relationship with. Poor patterning in hip stabilization, spinal stabilization and movement stability are revealed well in positions like ½ kneeling.
I promise to fully address this sequence in another article. Maybe in Part 2.
To simplify for purposes of this writing, let me give you a simple way to think about core training (even though it is virtually infinitely complex!) At it’s most basic, core training is the development of controlled flexion and extension of the spine (and, to an extent, hips) and anti-rotation of the spine.
Flexion of the spine allows for effective movement, especially in sagittal plane movements like reaching and pushing. It allows us to get on and off the floor or ground more efficiently, something essential unless you never plan to “get on up!”
Extension of the spine has allowed, through the course of evolution, the human form to rise to a position in which we’re capable of seeing enough of our environment to be successful hunters, gatherers, builders and “do-ers.” (As an aside, it also allowed our ancestors to see the Sabre-Tooth Tigers coming…and then run!)
Extension also allows the spine to be placed in a mechanically advantageous position for pulling movements, throwing and overhead activities.
Granted, a combination of efficient flexion and extension is needed to effectively complete most complex movements like throwing, running, squatting and other multi-joint patterns, but it helps to understand the difference and specific benefits of effective flexion and extension as it relates to core training.
Anti-rotation strength and activation are critical to the management of unwanted or unpredictable frontal plane movement and forces during other movements. Change of direction sequences are greatly enhanced by increases in anti-rotation strength.
With relation to joint stabilization (postural, transitional and dynamic,) flexion, extension and anti-rotation strength and activation need to be available, efficient and at levels capable of managing the static and dynamic loads placed on the system during movement.
Core training should also serve to “turn on” the CNS and nervous system to prepare for movement and loading of the extremities and joints for both simple and complex movements. Again, this is a subject for an article of its own, but without a sufficient level of neural drive, most training activities are performed at considerably sub-maximal levels, and often with insufficient pattern control and mastery.
Think of it this way – you can’t drive your car unless the engine is running and all the systems are operational. Modern cars have computers to initiate, monitor and adjust those systems, both at the start of driving and during the time the vehicle is operating.
Your brain and CNS are to your body what the on-board computer is to your car in this (very) simple but effective analogy.
Core training, then, should include stabilization and movement that impacts multiple joints and includes multiple local and global muscle systems, rather than being focused on movement or stability principally aimed at one of these.
This is probably why planks have a higher core training and activation effect than sit-ups. The muscular recruitment patterns are both broader and deeper than the simple flexion of the “6 pack muscles” needed to shorten the distance between the base of the rib cage and the pelvis.
Pairing Planks, SB Bridges and loaded carries together accomplishes all of these.
Planks and bridges activate the flexion and extension side of the equation while improving spinal stabilization. Loaded Carries activate hip flexion and extension while training anti-rotation.
So, then, to create a simple core training complex…
Plank X 30-45 seconds
Farmer Walk X 30 yards (incl a turn)
Plank X 30 -45 seconds
Suitcase Walk X 15 yards in each hand
SB Ball Bridge Hold X 30-45 seconds
Cue neutral to slight anterior pelvic tilt (based on client need) on the planks and bridges.
Keep the scaps stable and knees soft on the walks. Enjoy!
I remain of service. Galatians 5 13:14