Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Is Core Training Really Necessary?

Is core training really necessary? It depends.

In 2007 I think it was, there was a great article in the old USA Weightlifting Magazine by Richard Lansky called Approaching Core Strength From the Weightlifter's Perspective. In it Lansky proceeds from one of the few generally agreed upon and consistent truths of training: the SAID principle. SAID is an acronym for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands and it refers to the body's predisposition to adapt exactly to the stresses placed upon it. If you want to get good at running: run. If you want to get good at weightlifting, lift weights. When it comes to any sport specific core strength requirements therefore, it will likely arise as a byproduct of training that particular sport. Up to a point.

With this in mind, the weightlifters I train will develop much of the sport specific core strength they need from practicing the Olympic Lifts and the assistance exercises. My runners will develop most of their functional core strength from, guess what? Running. Additional core work would ideally be prescribed along the same lines as any other strength movement: to address specific, individual needs.

What is the core? I agree with Lansky's definition of the core as "...the gross musculature of the anterior and posterior trunk, hips and mid back," as well as "the smaller stabilizing muscles of these regions."  The core has three major functions for any athletic endeavor: 1) Force transfer and stabilization and 2) Force reduction and stabilization and 3) stiffening and protecting the spine. While I put number three last, it is because of number three that numbers 1 and 2 are even possible. (For more on the core and the back see Dr. Stuart McGill's "Why Everyone Needs Core Training")

Much of what the core does for you athletically (and in day to day functional terms) it should do automatically, reflexively. The deep core structure, diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidus, interior obliques and transverse abdominus are all reflexive stabilizers.  Lucky that they are. Can you imagine trying to engage your core by drawing in your navel to activate transverse abdominus for a 26.2 mile marathon? Probably not going to happen. In weightlifting the deep core engages reflexively too, although we coach athletes to "tighten up" and consciously engage the big, outer core muscles: the external obliques, rectus abdominus and lumbars. These bigger muscles function largely as "splints" for the deeper core and add security. But the deep core fires first and automatically.

Most athletes, I think, do need some additional core work to round out and balance what they do not get from their sport. My runners do a fair amount of Olympic weightlifting and kettlebell movements so they get a great deal of "free" core work that, in my estimation, carries over very well to their running. From time to time we will challenge the deep core specifically with half kneeling, small base haloes. I have a used a "core matrix" of varying movements for my weightlifters with no clear advantage observable to those who did the work over those who didn't. This lack of a clear cut advantage reinforces my notion that the lifts themselves provide significant core strength and any additional core work should be remedial: it addresses something that the sport isn't getting to. But whatever the case, it isn't crunches. Never crunches.