These days, training the “core” is a fixture of fitness programs for both developing and mature athletes. But what exactly is the core? And what does core exercise do for the athlete? One thing is for certain, modern day core exercise has moved well past the old “AB” workout.
Core exercise developed over the past decade or so. Originally, people in therapy circles developed and adopted trunk stabilization exercises to aid in the prevention of, or recovery from, back injuries. This trunk stability movement expanded beyond the therapeutic realm into the performance world, and the age of core exercise was established. The term “trunk” was replaced with “core” to include not only the trunk but the pelvis too, and the objectives of core exercise were expanded to include performance enhancement, as well as injury prevention.
One of the basic premises underlying core workouts is that these exercises will aid in the development of core stability. Having good core stability allows the upper and lower limbs to move more effectively upon a stable trunk (and pelvis too), or conversely permits a person to maintain a stable trunk in the face of external forces like a push or a pull. We even believe that an athlete with good core stability will be able to accurately position their limbs while darting through traffic on the pitch, possibly leading to lower likelihood of injury by avoiding certain “risky” body positions.
Now, it is vital to understand that being stable does NOT mean having a rigid trunk or fixed pelvic position. We don’t want our trunk to be like an oak tree, and we don’t want it to be like a willow either. We need the trunk and pelvis to provide the appropriate foundation for movement of our limbs – whether that be for a throw in, for a corner kick, a collision, or even a header. Research studies clearly show that during limb movement the trunk muscles are not contracting isometrically to hold the trunk still, rather the trunk muscles are undergoing highly coordinated concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) contractions in response to the limb motions. The trick is to “teach” the nervous system to coordinate the trunk with limb movements through repetition, so that these systems work cooperatively in the production of movement.
Just like the goals of basic resistance training programs, core exercises for the beginner are aimed at developing strength and endurance of the core muscles. We need the muscles to be able to respond to a call from the nervous system, and if they are weak they will not respond appropriately even if the brain asks them to do the right thing! So strength and endurance training of the core is the first step in achieving core stability. Sadly, many stop at core strengthening – a two minute front plank is not the endpoint! To reach the nirvana of core stability, a key feature must be established through progression of basic core exercises. This feature is a quintessential element of core stability and is termed perturbation management. Perturbation management refers to the ability of the trunk to resist a disturbance from an external force (contact with another player) or through movements of the upper or lower limbs.
Once basic core strength and endurance are established, progression of core exercises must include movement elements which create both expected and unexpected disturbances or perturbations that have to be managed by the trunk. To use a very high performance example, the stability of a modern combat jet aircraft is not tested during straight flight but rather during high ‘g’ maneuvers. In the same way, advanced core exercises with perturbations develop the appropriate stability responses of the trunk and pelvis during cutting maneuvers in the athlete.
A very simple example of a core exercise progression which shifts from a strengthening focus to a low level perturbation management theme is as follows. Many exercise specialists provide athletes with the front plank exercise. Certainly this provides a suitable stimulus for muscle adaptation to obtain improved strength and endurance. Once the basics of the front plank are achieved, then we simply add an “up up down down” movement component where the athlete rises from elbow support to one hand, then both hands and returns to plank position one arm at a time. This variation of the front plank creates a demand on the trunk to be stable in the face of limb motion. With good feedback, the athlete can learn to activate the trunk muscles in concert with the limb motions. With repetition the nervous system creates a better orchestration of all the muscles during movement. This process of programming the brain to respond appropriately is partially achieved through a process of neural plasticity (changing the ways neurons communicate with one another).
Many athletes focus on strength of major muscle groups, for instance developing greater upper body strength so they aren’t so easily pushed off the ball, or can force another off the ball. Many upper body exercises have the trunk stabilized on a bench or pad during exercise resulting in an inadequate stimulus for neuromuscular adaptation of the core. This leads to a weak link. There are many athletes with good upper and lower body strength that are unable to transform this into performance on field, often the core limits the ability to develop of-field power.
With regular and intelligently progressed core exercise, we in the exercise science field believe that this will result in faster running, higher ball speed during kicks, improved kicking accuracy, better header ability, improved ability to stay on the ball during traffic, stronger more accurate throw-ins, better collision and stumble recovery, and lower injury risk.
With the new year upon us, if you haven’t got CORE working for you, maybe it is time to make a new year’s resolution to add it to your routine. It takes 5 minutes, 3-5X a week to develop a good core. Send me an email and I will send you a introductory core routine.
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