I mean, who wouldn’t want to have legendary six-pack abs?
When it comes to actual athletic performance, though, just having a toned midsection does not necessarily mean these muscles are functioning at a high level.
An athlete like David Ortiz demonstrated a very powerful core, but the legendary Big Papi wasn’t exactly known for his shredded midsection. Conversely, many younger athletes can be lean but not have the function necessary to maximize their speed and decrease their injury risk.
What Do We Mean By Your ‘Core’?
If you want to start a long and heated argument between Strength & Conditioning professionals, ask them to define what your core is.
In terms of what most people associate with the term core, it is easiest to think of them as the muscles that function to stabilize the lower half of your torso. So, basically if you picture the role of a back brace, and how it wraps around your entire lower torso to protect unwanted movement in your spine, this is exactly what all the muscles that are lumped together as your ‘core’ are primarily meant to do.
These muscle groups include of course your abdominals and lower back muscles, but also your obliques and a lot of smaller muscles deep down towards your spine (transverse abdominis, multifidus, etc.)
The Evolution Of Core Training
First, of course, was the classic sit up.
Then came crunches, a variation of sit ups that focused on contracting your abs.
Now, we have a world dominated by planks.
Of course, this is a gross simplification of all the core drills you could do, but in general terms these 3 drills and their variations have dominated sports and fitness for the last half-century.
So has this evolution produced better results from an athletic standpoint?
To answer that question, we need to know what the role of our core is when it comes to sports and elite performance.
The Role Of Your Core In Athletics
Within the bigger role of protecting dangerous levels of movement in your spine, your core has two very critical functions when it comes to athletic performance:
- To maintain good posture. A loss of good posture leads to fatigue, poor sprint mechanics, and an increased risk of injury. So we must choose exercises that do not isolate one specific area, but rather create a co-contraction of essentially all our core muscles within the same drill. And we must be mindful that good posture happens in all 3 planes of motion – we need to resist not just a slumped shoulder position but also too much rotation and side-to-side movement in our torso, as well.
- To intermittently absorb very high forces due to gravity.. This occurs when the foot strikes the ground when running or skating (forces are much higher when running vs skating though). In the course of a sprint stride your core is under a lower level of stress when you are in the flight phase, but as soon as your foot strikes the ground the forces increase dramatically.
So any core exercise we do for athletic development ideally would address both of these needs.
A sit up does accomplish the first goal when done correctly, but not the second.
Crunches accomplish neither, and thankfully these are not used very often by athletes any more.
A plank, much like the sit up, accomplishes the first goal but not the second. And no matter how long you hold that plank it will never totally develop your core the way you need it to for elite performance.
So what types of exercises do accomplish both?
Glad you asked 🙂
Core Drills With Co-Contractions & Variable Forces
We could simply sprint with good posture and we’d get both needs in one. In fact, just sprinting with good posture is probably a better way to improve core functioning for athletics than some other exercises out there.
But exercise must create an overload situation for your body to adapt and improve. In that light, here are two simple core drills that hit the mark.
Running with weights – By simply running with a medicine ball held overhead you can achieve overload while promoting good sprint posture. The natural rhythm of your sprint stride will create the varying forces your core will experience in athletics.
First, you’ll need to stay in a perfect posture/straight back position throughout the exercise. This will create the synergy between muscles needed as you transition from low to high force.
Second, to execute this movement properly you’ll want to bring your arms slowly behind your body until you reach a tipping point where your arms (plus any weight you hold, if needed) try to knock you backwards. At this moment you’ll want to quickly bring your arms back to the front of your body and allow your core to fight the high forces pulling it back. Done correctly, this creates an immediate, temporary increase in the co-contraction needed to keep you from falling over.
Why Develop A Powerfully Athletic Core?
Sports are played a high speeds, and high speeds produce higher forces for your muscles to absorb. With each level you move up in your sport, the game gets faster and weaknesses are magnified.
Muscles that can’t handle the forces placed upon them create unwanted movement, which in turn leads to poor performance and increased injury risk.
Your core literally plays a central role in force absorption, and as these muscles become better at handling higher force they in turn help you to play faster far deeper into games than the athlete who does not.
Coaches have always made core work a part of their programs, and today sports science is teaching us better ways than ever to use our training time to produce even better results on the field. Focusing on creating co-contractions instead of isolating muscles, and using exercises that create temporarily high forces will give your players the greatest improvements in performance over time.