Updated: May 16, 2020
Discussions surrounding core training have remained rampant for several years now. In a way, core training has become one of those subtopics that invariably boils down to “which side are you on” bottom lines. Some of the conventional ‘pro’ core training beliefs include increasing localized core strength improves ability to strengthen extremities, improving gait/run/sprint mechanics, and improving ability to tolerate, resist, and transfer external forces. Conversely, some of the ‘anti’ core training crowd points of contention include suggesting there is nominal value or ‘transfer’ in isolated core training, the core is already involved in any or most primary lifts, or that it may be valuable, but is so low on the priority list that they can’t fit it into training.
Over the last three years, I have worked exclusively with athletes from the military community. As such, these athletes are inherently injured, and most of them need to return to duty. I have a very unique opportunity to work the delicate balance of rehabilitating injuries while still applying conventional strength and performance training. What this has led me to realize, in short, is that the trunk/core/pillar or whatever you want to call it, is a major player in both performance and injury management (including both preventative and rehabilitative). In my personal opinion, designated core training is a non-negotiable component of training. The question shouldn’t be binary, but rather, assessing how much core work should be implemented with your athletes- which doesn’t need to be the same (amount or type) for every athlete you see.
Definitions and Framework
I’m not typically one to get too caught up with semantics, but I feel a major part of the apprehension surrounding core training is a sweeping misconception of what the core actually is. Before we do anything else, we need to specifically define what the core is and then discern how it applies to the athletes/populations you work with. My personal definition for the core includes any muscle that directly acts on, or attaches to either the thoracic or lumbar spine, the pelvic girdle, or the rib cage and directly or indirectly contributes to spinal stabilization, pelvic control and/or mechanical function of the pillar including absorbing and transferring forces. I know this is cumbersome, but in a sense it’s important for me to be thorough to help facilitate my points to follow.
It’s important to understand that the amount of time we dedicate to designated core training should remain variable. For some athletes, we may only need to dedicate 5-10% of our total training time to core work. For others, including many of my athletes, this time dedicated may jump to 50-60% of our total training time. Injury history or current injury, surgical history, sport/duty demands, and movement traits (i.e. capacity, competency, capability) are all considerable variables in determining how much core work we do. There is a caveat, though. When an athlete only needs (or has time for) 5% of their training to be core work, that 5% is critically important. It’s imperative to address specific deficits and to be highly efficient with time and movement selection. When an athlete doesn’t have many deficiencies or glaring weakness, that last 5% can have a tremendous impact on function and performance.
To that end, we’re initially looking for obvious muscular weaknesses, movement restrictions, soft tissue restrictions and joint-specific mobility deficiencies. Although this is a bit generalized, I sort of group my athletes into one of two categories for programing my core work- Is this athlete more likely to sustain injury because they are too stiff to avoid it or too soft to endure it?
What this essentially means for me is that athletes who are “too stiff” get more designated mobility/flexibility, bending, rotation, and soft tissue work. Conversely, for the athletes who seem to lack the sufficient stiffness or requisite strength to tolerate forces, the programming will predominantly include controlling terminal ROM/stability work, anti-based movements (i.e. anti-flexion/extension, anti-rotation), and general fundamental strength patterns. As we know, almost every athlete will fall somewhere in the middle. This is where you apply true individualization and apply what’s needed of each based on what you see.
In this article, I’d like to cover a few different topics pertaining to the core that collectively determine how I observe, assess, and apply core training with my athletes. It’s important that as you’re going through this, you take the material in context with your athletes. I promise you not everything in here will apply directly to you, but something absolutely should.
It All Starts with the Assessment
No different than anything else in strength and performance training, we base our core work off of the athlete’s individual ability in combination with their sport/duty demands. The functional demands of sport and work are items such as need for trunk flexion/ extension, how much stiffness vs. pliability is required of them, or how much presence of rotation is found in their world. At the most basic root, what we’re looking for during our assessment is effectively “how the athlete appears to line up with what is demanded of them”. An important additive to this, is that we are not concerned with what they can’t do that doesn’t matter to them. Poking holes in someone’s strength or movement is easy, everyone has movement flaws and lacks some strength. But if it’s not required of them, how much does it matter?
When assessing my athletes, I first want to get a global feel for how this athlete is structured and developed. Some of the major items I’m looking for include:
The global assessment is very much a “take what you see with a grain of salt” process. The goal of an assessment is not to indict the athlete and bludgeon them over the head with everything that’s “wrong” with them. Conversely, we should consider this part of the assessment as nothing more than getting a broad idea of how this athlete moves without explicit instruction. We’re looking for basic relationships between muscles and joints, and how those relationships look in motion. We want to keep a keen eye on problem areas or areas of concern, and then see if we notice any obvious compensation patterns while executing various movements.
Once we’ve conducted our global movement assessment, we want to then look at localized regions with an isolated view. My big-ticket items as they pertain to the core here include:
What these assessments provide me with is a recipe that tells me what ingredients are needed. Passive mobility is my way of assessing basic need for foundational mobility work. Active mobility is assessing the need for isolated terminal stability and possibly motor control work. Finally, manual muscle testing is showing me how much foundational strength is needed. The goals here then become very straight forward- work to close the gaps between active and passive ROM and improve strength where deficient. Getting the hips moving and functioning correctly is the centerpiece for productive core training. If the hips move like shit, our time spent on improving core strength will likely be for naught. In some cases, this can even propagate injury risk for the athlete, as the applied strength methods will only exacerbate the poor foundation found at the hips.
One thing I use here to help develop my boundaries and highlight weaknesses is categorizing particular movements or positions as either intolerant or deficient. When an athlete has movement intolerance (i.e. hip flexion or trunk extension) it suggests the movement is uncomfortable and produces pain. With deficiencies (i.e. anterior core strength, glute extensibility), there is no presence of pain or discomfort, but there is an obvious weakness compromising movement. We want to avoid the areas the athlete is intolerant to, and possibly look to seek external treatment to mitigate pain, but we should attack deficiencies head on. In tandem, this tells me where my initial movement restrictions and points of emphasis are.
Planning your approach
Taking everything from above into consideration here, our assessment should provide us with baseline measures for the athlete’s capabilities, limitations, areas of concern, and movement capacity. What we do next is look at these areas of need/concern and create a totem pole of priority. Everything in training always reverts back to efficiency, we inherently need to make the most out of whatever physical time we have, and with whatever resources we have access to. Depending on the physical time you have each week with your athletes, you may need to get creative with your core work. Make no mistake about it, I fully believe we need to move heavy shit and perform all the conventional movements we all know well. Incorporating core work does not need to come at the expense of your big lifts, nor does it need to compromise any other training modality (i.e. speed/plyos/accessories).
This is where your ingenuity as a coach must prevail. If you’re relegated to two, 1-hour sessions a week with your athletes, you may need to get creative, but I assure you it’s not an impossible task. There are three areas that I really look to include core work- the warm-up, intraset work, and in my accessories. Let’s take a look at these individually and see how we can optimally organize our core training.
The warm-up is the low hanging fruit of the bunch. Your warm-up should be a variable component to training. Although it is perfectly acceptable to have a baseline routine that most or all of your athletes perform, we should also look to capitalize on addressing specific areas of need. For instance, if we have an athlete who lacks requisite hip flexor strength, we can add in something like a supine band flexion or mini-band stork for their routine. Additionally, for athletes who lack sufficient anterior core strength or stiffness, we can add in simple movements like a three-way plank or band Palloff press. The possibilities are really infinite here, all you’re concerned with is that your selections address specific needs and don’t take away from the primary lifts for that day.
Here is a short list of some of my go-to warm-up options, including my baseline routine I use with just about every athlete I work with:
Baseline W.U. Core Strength Mobility Bending Stiffness
This is something that I’ve put much more emphasis on over the last year or so. Intraset work is applied in tandem with primary lifts such as bench press, back squat, or deadlift. I’ve never been a fan of pairing your primary lifts with other strength exercises. In my opinion, this is our main entrée for the day, and we need to get the most out of our big movements. However, especially for us in the private sector, we are inherently bound by time which makes 3-5 min. rest periods simply impractical in most cases. Although, yes, I’m aware of “what the textbook says” we need to find ways to make use of this time without potentiating injury risk.
This is where intraset work comes into focus. Pairing movements, that again are designed to address specific core needs, with our primary lifts is a fantastic way to optimize our time and create some density to our training. The only real point to consider is to be sure that we’re not programming items that will fatigue or takeaway from the big lift. As long as that is preserved, again, just about anything is fair game here. If we can include movements that actually contribute to the primary lift being performed, then great. But I would say that’s a secondary consideration. Here is a short list of the more frequent intraset options I program, based on our primary lift for that day:
One caveat I’d like to add here is that I would not recommend doing a ton of deep range mobility work, especially if you have athletes moving considerable weight on their primary lifts. For a lot of athletes, they rely on a certain amount of stiffness and/or tension to execute their lift. By hammering mobility drills in-between sets, we could ultimately destabilize the athlete. It’s very important to be cognizant of both when to and when not to apply stiffness or bending movements.
I would say that at least in terms of volume the majority of my core work is performed during the accessory blocks. I believe a common misconception with applying core work is that it needs to be a plank/sit-up/leg lift type of exercise. This isn’t the case. We can emphasize the core simply by modifying a few variables to common conventional movements. For example, let’s consider an athlete who is deficient in anterior core strength, and another who is rotationally deficient. For the first athlete, I will have them perform most accessory options using a goblet (1) or a rack (2) hold. For the athlete who lacks rotation, I will have them perform most accessories using a unilateral (3) or unbalanced (4) hold.
The goblet and rack holds are beneficial for athletes who lack anterior core strength or stiffness. These are also typically considered to be more “foundational” or beginner strength holds, as they promote even force distribution bilaterally. The unilateral hold is most beneficial for athletes who lack lateral core strength/stiffness or have generally poor ability to bend and rotate. As for the unbalanced load, this is a less commonly practiced method, in which the uneven load between sides forces the athlete to recruit deeper core muscles that may not fully engage under conventional loads. I’ve personally found a lot of success using unbalanced/uneven loading applications.
These adjustments may seem minor, but they can have a tremendous influence on training outcome. This is especially true when athletes are coming off of injuries. Considering that most athletes recovering from injury will develop some (if not several) compensatory patterns, we want to be even more mindful of addressing weaknesses. If we neglect to do so, we can exacerbate their discrepancies by strengthening what was already strong and reinforce improper muscle firing patterns.
As I keep reiterating, the specifics as to frequency, movement selection, inclusions and omissions will all depend on how much time you have with your athletes and what they need. It’s impossible to give a generalized scheme or parameters without knowing the details. That said, here’s a composite of core-specific accessory options I feel 99% of athletes benefit from: