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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Improve Your Core Stability

"Core Stability" has become a buzz word in the fitness community, right along with "Functional training".  What is "Core Stability" and how do we train it?

The "Core" is the midsection of the body, comprised mainly of the Rectus Abdominis, Transverse Abdominis and Spinal Erectors...

This area of the body, and the muscles associated, is referred to as the "core" because all energy is transferred through this area during body movement.  "Core" strength is very important for energy transfer.  If your "core" is weak you will lose a lot of energy during a specific movement, but if it is strong (or stable) minimal energy will be lost.

For an example lets look at the deadlift.  In the following picture you see a well performed deadlift, with a flat back (strong "core").

With a strong "core" she is able to keep her back straight throughout the entire lift.  The importance of this is highlighted by Mark Rippetoe, a leading power lifting coach...
"The force that makes the bar go up is generated by the muscles that extend the knees and hips, and this force is transferred up the rigid spine, across the scapulas to the arms and down to the bar.  The weight leaves the floor when the quadriceps extend the knees, but for this to happen the hamstrings and glutes must anchor the hip angle in its position.  The hamstrings pull down on the pelvis from below, and the glutes hold it from the top of the iliac crest; if the back stays flat this allows the force to travel up the rigid back held at a constant angle while the quads push the floor." -Mark Rippetoe Crossfit Journal Article
If the "core" lacks the stability needed to keep a rigid spine energy will be lost and a missed lift or injury may occur.  This is why the deadlift is one of the best "core" stability exercises.

What makes a good "core" stability exercise?  According to "Low Back Disorders" by Dr. Stuart McGill...
"Ideally, good stabilization exercises that are performed properly groove motor and motion patterns that ensure stability while satisfying all other demands.  Thus, an exercise, repeated in a way that grooves motor patterns and ensures a stable spine, constitutes a stabilization exercise (McGill, 2001)."
The two most important aspects of a "core" stability exercise are that it must...
  1. Groove Motor Patterns:  Teach you how to move efficiently.
  2. Ensure a Stable Spine:  "Core Stability"
The most effective "core" stability exercises are compound, multi-joint, resistance exercises.  Three of the most effective are the Squat, Deadlift and Overhead Press, when performed with moderate to heavy loads.  The "core" is not going to get the same beneficial training response with light loads.  Every one of these movements groove motor patterns and require a stable spine.  This is why these movements are also great "functional" movements.  They not only strengthen the "core", but groove motor patterns that can be used outside the gym.

Common Misconceptions About "Core" Training

Training on unstable surfaces such as stability balls and BOSU balls has become very popular in the fitness industry to train the "core".  Performing certain movements on an unstable surface, in theory, is suppose to force you to recruit a larger portion of the "core" muscles than you normally would for the given movement.  This will create a stronger "core" which will lead to an increase in performance.

That's a neat theory that sells a lot of balls, but the proof simply isn't there.

Now before I start telling you to go pop all the stability and BOSU balls in your gym I want to clarify something.  Training on unstable surfaces does have it's place in the rehab world.  It has been shown to decrease chances of re-injury in post ACL reconstruction cases and help speed up muscle activation when used as part of a rehab program.  These positive outcomes happen because the first part of the above theory is correct.  Performing certain movements on an unstable surface does force you to recruit a larger portion of the "core".  This affect can be very beneficial in a rehab setting.

Increased strength and performance?  There is proof that in untrained individuals, working on unstable surfaces will increase "core" strength.  The problem with these studies is they are testing untrained individuals.  I can increase an untrained person's 1RM (1 Rep Max) back squat by having them do all bike workouts, but is that the best way to increase their squat strength?

Working on unstable surfaces does nothing for a trained individual when it comes to increased "core" strength and increased performance.  You will be well served to spend your training time working on the main lifts (Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press) and some "assistance" movements (Pullups, Pushups, Situps, Hip/Back Extensions).  If you want to get advanced, I would recommend the Clean & Jerk and the Snatch.

Here is a great example of "core" strength.  I guarantee he didn't develop that strength by exercising on a ball.

That is about 413 pounds at 141 pound body weight

Oh yeah... here's some science stuff if you want to be nerdy like me and read more about stability training.




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