Frans van der Merwe is a Strength & Conditioning and Musculoskeletal Exercise Rehabilitation Tutor for the Centre for Sport Science and Human Performance at Wintec. He has an MSc in Musculoskeletal Exercise Rehabilitation and over ten years’ experience working with development and semi-professional athletes in a variety of sports.
Building a solid foundation
The importance and optimal training of the “core”, or trunk muscles, has gained in popularity over the years with much debate raging over which strategy to implement to optimally train this often overlooked area, especially in relation to the prevention of injury and increasing performance.
It is very important, at this point, to take a step back and to highlight the fact that the core is more than simply what you see in the mirror. Instead, it consists of all the muscles situated on the front, side and back of the torso as well as the muscles of the hips, all of which work together to form a muscular “corset” which helps to keep this area stable. As all the muscles of this “corset” contract, the pressure in the core rises which in turn generates greater stability in the torso, both under the stable conditions commonly seen in activities of daily living and the unstable conditions often seen in sport or more dynamic activities. This process can be seen as very similar to the inflation of an air mattress. The higher the air pressure in the mattress, generally the sturdier the mattress.
Research has shown that individuals with poor core stability are generally at greater risk of lower back pain and lower extremity injuries and that sporting performance at all levels benefit from the presence of a strong core. The core can be seen as the “bridge” between the upper and lower body extremities which allows for smooth balanced movements during general and sporting activity. Research has also shown that those individuals with poor core stability or control suffer from “energy leak” which means that some of the forces between the upper and lower extremities is “wasted” or inefficiently utilized. In addition to this greater core stability has also been shown to facilitate the effective absorption and transfer of any external forces acting upon the body meaning that the body becomes more resilient to the load and direction of forces acting upon it. All of which means that the implementation of a well written core stability program will lead to better trained core muscles which are more resilient and will lead to greater performance and lower injury rates.
Traditional gym-based core training has largely focussed on isometric exercises such as the prone and side planks. A better approach would be to train and strengthen the movement patterns of the trunk specific to your individual goals so as to best deal with the activity-specific forces acting on the body and trunk. As with any exercise program it is imperative that you start with low intensity exercises and gradually progress to higher intensity or more sport-specific sporting movements. A good step-wise progression for general core training would be:
1. Core Activation: Low intensity exercises focussing on and the activation of the core muscles which control posture and stability. Initial core muscular endurance can also be established during this phase through exercises such as the bird-dog, dead bug and quadruped exercises.
2. Core Stabilisation: Placing the body in more challenging positions to challenge core stability with minimal to no movement e.g. prone plank, alternate leg lift and climbing prone bridges.
3. Core Movement: Challenging core stability whilst the body is under greater loads and speeds. This component may incorporate multi-directional or sport specific movement.
An example of the progression above may be a young rugby player who is returning from a lower back injury. The player has to first re-establish co-activation (simultaneous contraction of muscles) and firing patterns (how the muscles activate during activity) of the core muscles through the use of low intensity exercises such as the “dead bug” exercise. The next step would be to re-establish the core muscle capacity or endurance through isometric core exercises like the prone and side bridges where minimal movement is involved. Finally, the athlete can then progress on to more functional and rational movements specific to rugby.