The truth about core stability

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The take home!

1. First and foremost, make sure you are moving correctly! Technique is paramount when working the core. Functional movement screening with one of our coaches is a great way to learn proper mechanics and get to know your body a little better!

2. Develop a solid foundation in controlled focused lower load core exercises, mix it up between static, dynamic and unilateral drills (Deadbug, Pallof press, side planks, single leg work etc) Working the “unit” is key, isolation exercises (e.g. sit ups) have been shown to have minimal benefit!

3. There is no substitute for compound lifts! Hit the basics; squat, deadlift, push, pull. These are great general strength builders; the core musculature plays a pivotal role going through these movements.

4. Once you’ve mastered the basics start to progress to loaded carries, bilateral and unilateral (Farmers walks, stone carries, suitcase carries, overhead carries) This will be a perfect recipe for building the ultimate core and driving your strength potential through the roof!
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Beware, some heavy reading below….

Core stability is a contested term and there are a range of factors to consider when looking at how to condition the trunk for sport performance. This blog will begin by discussing two competing definitions of core stability and go on to examine the differences between core stability and strength. We will then briefly examine the muscles that make up the trunk before going on to discuss three effective strategies for conditioning the trunk for sport performance.

When defining the term core stability, two perspectives are important, Panjabi (1992) presents a broad/rehabilitative definition of core stability suggesting “the integration of the passive spinal column, active spinal muscles, and the neural control unit, which when combined maintains the intervertebral range of motion within a safe limit to enable activities to be carried out during daily living.” In contrast, Kibler, Press and Sciascia (2006) defined core stability within the sporting environment as “the ability to control the position and motion of the trunk over the pelvis to allow optimum production, transfer and control of force … in integrated athletic activities”. There is an important distinction between these definitions of core stability. Sporting activities mostly require greater dynamic movements and an increase in loading/force through the core musculature, in contrast with static lower intensity movements performed by the general population in everyday tasks within the rehabilitative sector.

As we progress we must clarify the distinction between core stability and core strength. Faries and Greenwood (2007) suggest differences between the two with the former referring to “the ability… to stabilize the spine with and without motion of the lumbopelvic complex” (14) and the latter referring “to the ability of the musculature to then produce force through contractile forces and intra-abdominal pressure” (11). Due to the perceived relationship between stability and strength one can correlate based on these definitions that we would need sufficient stabilisation of the trunk in order to maximise strength potential. As Lee (1999) suggested, “core stability is not about the ‘quantity of motion’ and the ‘quality of the end feel,’ but about the control of systems that allow load to be transferred and movements to be smooth and effortless.” Using the above definitions of core stability, a potential sporting example could be that of a pitcher in baseball who would need sufficient core stability in order to produce maximal strength with control whilst throwing.
 
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There is no substitute for compound lifts!
 
When examining the most efficient strategies for improving the trunk for sport performance we must look at the different definitions of what makes up the core. Fig defines the core as “the area between the sternum and the knees, with a focus on the abdominal region, low back and hips” (2005: 40). Bergmark’s (1989) model labelled core muscles as “local” stabilising muscles in relation to the spine and “global” muscles attached to the pelvis which produce movement and force. It was presented that training both local and global muscles would improve core stability and strength, allowing for proper biomechanics which would also reduce the risk of injury. I believe it would be prudent to consider the role of hip mechanics in relation to core stability. Sahrmann explains that an essential element of core stability is the ability “to control and stabilise the spine and to maintain optimal alignment and movement relationships between the pelvis and spine” (2001:69). We can assume based on these findings that trunk training for performance involves a large proportion of musculature, not solely attributed to the isolation of abdominals.

The first effective strategy is demonstrated in a study by Blackwell, Thompson, Cobb (2007). They developed a programme focused on progression over eight weeks using the NASM Optimum Performance Training model which involved core stabilisation exercises, balance exercises and strength exercise progressions. These were performed in circuit fashion during three 90 minute sessions per week. The warm up included dynamic bodyweight movements and static stretching; and lasted roughly 15 minutes. The study also implemented rotational core exercises to improve specificity in regards to the golf swing, these were added in the last two weeks of training. This was implemented because by this point, all participants had the required sufficient trunk stability and muscular strength to perform rotational movements with proper form. They found that subjects improved club head speed during their golf swings leading to an increase in performance; “10–15 more meters of carry distance off the tee… typically resulting in the need for 1–2 fewer clubs to be hit into a green” (134). The strategy used in this study, therefore, is effective because it led to a measurable increase in sports performance. It also highlights the importance of specificity in relation to core training, when devising a trunk programme for athletic performance, it must adhere to the needs analysis of the participant and that of the sporting activity.
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The second strategy focuses on the effect of core stability and functional exercises on speed and strength parameters in female footballers. Zwierko and Niewolna (2015) conducted a two-year-long study, where three stability exercises were performed during twenty minute sessions twice a week. The exercises were devised by Stein (2008), they were; a) plank with unilateral hip extension b) side plank with unilateral hip abduction, and c) glute bridge with unilateral knee extension. The participants 30m sprint times were tested and their 1RM maximal strength testing focused on eight muscle groups; rectus abdominal muscle, abdominal oblique muscle, shoulder girdle, chest, upper limb muscles, quadriceps, biceps and gastrocnemius muscle. The strength tests were performed on resistance machines in a gym. The results showed a decrease in sprint time over 30m and strength improvements in four muscle groups. There were fewer significant strength changes in the following areas; biceps femoris, gastrocnemius muscle and upper limbs. The study aimed to train participants on the notion “trunk over limbs” to develop core stability to enhance performance. This was used to suggest why some muscles elicited higher strength development than others. “If a player first improves the stability of the limbs while neglecting the trunk (lumbar-pelvis-femoral complex), this may lead to adverse compensatory habits and, in consequence, overloading and injuries” (Clark 2001; Haynes 2004). This strategy was implemented over a macrocycle, meaning a greater chance for adaptation and substantially longer trial than the other studies noted. The strategy found an increase in speed and in some areas maximal strength. The study also aligns with Kibler, Press and Sciascia’s sporting definition of core stability, stating “the stable trunk and coordination obtained are very significant in football and in other sports, allowing for a more efficient energy transfer to limbs” (2006). The three exercises prescribed in this strategy were a combination of static in nature with unilateral dynamic movement, this supports Bergmark’s model; “it was presented that training both local (stabilising) and global (force producing) muscles would improve core stability and strength” (1989).
 
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The results showed a decrease in sprint time over 30m
 
This essay has looked at three effective strategies in conditioning the trunk for sports performance. Although these strategies have been proved to be effective, there appears to be a mixture of findings in conditioning the trunk for sports performance. When assessing different strategies above, it is most valuable to note the role of specificity in devising a trunk programme for athletic performance. It must adhere to the needs analysis of the participant and that of the sporting activity. Thomson, Cobb and Blackwell (2007) demonstrate this by improving club head speed in golfers translating to measurable improvement in the golf swing. The use of low load, static stabilisation exercises are also beneficial for developing motor control, injury prevention and performance. The progression to high load strength exercises (unilateral and bilateral) and sport specific rotational exercises are important factors to consider. The combination of these techniques and more importantly the progressive nature of the mesocycle is key for maximising trunk performance in sporting activities. Going forward It would be beneficial in future research studies to identify the implications of unilateral and bilateral loaded carries on sports performance. McGill (2009) suggested that “carrying would enhance a traditional lifting-based strength program” however limited effective sporting applications have been studied. McGill found the muscles of the core musculature to yield substantial EMG readings when carrying, dragging, pushing and pulling heavy loads.

References:

Bergtnark A. Stability of the lumbar spine: a study in mechanical engineering. Acta Orthop Scand SuppI 1989; 230: 1-54.

Clark C.A. Integrated neuromuscular stabilisation training. National Academy of Sports Medicine. 2001.

Elphinston J. Getting to the bottom of things. Sports Dynam 2004; 2; 12-6.

Faries MD, Greenwood M. Core training: stabilising the confusion. Strength Cond J 2007; 29 (2): 10-25.

Fig G. Sport-specific conditioning: strength training for swimmers – training the core. Strength Cond J 200.S; 27 (2) 40-1.

Haynes W. Core stability and the unstable platform device. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 2004: 88-103.

Kibler WB. Press J, Sciascia A. The role of core stability in athletic function. Sports Med 2006; 36 (3): 89-98.

Lee D. (1999) The pelvic girdle. (2nd ed.) London: Churchill Livingstone.

McGill SM, McDermott A, and Fenwick C. Comparison of different strongman events: Trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res 23: 1148–1161, 2009.

Panjabi M. The stabilising system of the spine, part I: function, dysfunction, adaptation and enhancement. J Spinal Disord 1992; 5; 383-9.

Sahrmann S.A. (2001) Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. (1st ed.) Mosby; St Louis.

Sato K and Mokha M. Does Core Strength Training Influence Running Kinetics, Lower-Extremity Stability, and 5000m performance in runners? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2009 23(1).

Stein N. Stabilisierungsprogramme von den DFB-Juniorinnen bis zur Frauen-Nationalsmanschaft. Fussballtraininning. 2008: 20-35.

Stephenson J. Swank AM. Core training: designing a program for anyone. Strength Cond J 2004: 26 (6): 34-7.

Thompson C.J., Cobb K.M., Blackwell J., Functional Training Improves Club Head Speed and Functional Fitness in Older Golders. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 2007 2(1) 131-7.

Tse M. A., McManus A.M., Masters R.S.W. Development and validaition of a core endurance intervention program: implications for performance in college-age rowers. J Strength Cond Res. 2005, 19 547-552.

Zwierko and Niewolna. The Effect of Core Stability and Functional Exercises on Selected Speed and Strength Parameters in Expert Female Footballers. Central European Journal of Sport Sciences and Medicine 2015 12(4) 91-97.

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