September 27, 2010

How To Train The Core For Maximum Performance And Development

The term ‘core’ is typically synonymous with the image of a well developed set of abs, concealed by little to no bodyfat. And while a well developed, lean midsection is commonly considered as one of the more appealing muscle groups in the eyes of both men and women, the abs are just one of many muscles making up the core, and their purpose goes beyond their visual appeal.

Generally when one struggles to either increase their strength, or bring up a lagging muscle group, the first thing that comes to mind is to look locally, and train the lift/bodypart more. Logically this makes sense, because why would you look elsewhere than directly at the area in which improvement is sought.

Unfortunately, this narrow minded approach fails to provide an effective solution for most, because the reason a bodypart is lagging, or why strength has ceased to increase, is not because the lift/bodypart is not being trained. In fact, it’s assumed that if the lift or bodypart in question is important to you, then it’s already receiving a great deal of attention in your training program as is, and doing more of what already isn’t working may only end up overworking your body’s capacity to recover, thus being completely counterproductive. In these cases a more global outlook may offer the perspective needed to identify the limiting factor.

What most people aren’t aware of is that the body is designed for core activation to precede movement at the extremities (hips, shoulders), which means if the core isn’t firing when it’s supposed to, the amount of force you’ll be able to produce through the extremities will be compromised. Because the body’s primary focus is spinal stability, and the core’s primary function is to protect and stabilize the spine when the extremities are in motion, it’s often the underlying issue in relation to not being able to get stronger, or develop a lagging bodypart.

The neuromuscular system has a built in governing effect beyond conscious control over how much strength it will allow to be built, but as long as the body is in balance, the sky’s the limit. It’s when things become imbalanced that it exercises this governing effect in attempt to protect the body from getting too strong and ultimately placing the weak link in the chain under unbearable loads. More often than not, that weak link is the core.

The core is specifically responsible for applying various amounts of force to produce and maintain trunk flextion/anti-extension, trunk extension/anti-flexion, trunk rotation/anti-rotation, trunk lateral flexion/anti-lateral flexion. Multiple muscle groups work in synch to produce all these movements, the major players being the abs (rectus abdominus and transverse abdominus), the obliques, the erectors (paraspinal/erector muscles), the lats, the glutes, and the adductors to name a few.

When these muscles fail to provide the amount of force needed to provide stability, or maintain that force for the necessary duration, the inability to lift more weight may present itself. Therefore, it’s important to determine if the lack of progress is a core related issue or not and there are a few ways to do this depending on the movement/bodypart.

Lower body

The easiest way to determine whether or not the core is the limiting factor for lower body movements is to test the strength of a bilateral lift vs. a unilateral lift. The two movements that come to mind are a squat, and a split-squat since the front leg involved in a split squat goes through an identical pattern as both legs when performing a squat. Also, if greater depth is reached during the split-squat, then it’s likely that core stability is the issue. The front squat, Romanian deadlift, and good morning (to determine if there is a weakness higher up the chain) could also be used to round out lower body testing as well, but generally bilateral strength vs. unilateral strength is enough.

In this case, if the split-squat strength is significantly more than 50% of the squat strength, then it’s likely the core is the limiting factor as logically you should be able to lift almost double with two legs compared to one, and inability to do so would indicate that core strength is not up to par with leg strength.

The next step would be to perform asymmetrical split-squats by holding half what you can split-squat in one hand, at shoulder or hip height, in the same hand as the front leg, and perform as many reps as you can, then repeat for the opposite leg. Generally you will find that one side is weaker in relation to the other, and thus you’ve identified where your focus needs to be to correct the imbalance of the core so that your strength can begin to climb. The asymmetrical lunge that was used to identify the weakness would also be used to correct the imbalance with 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps per leg performed twice a week.

Upper body – push

Identifying whether or not the core is a weakness for lower body movements is much easier than the upper body simply because the majority of lower body movements, aside from leg machines, are performed while standing, and therefore the core is needed to produce force and provide stability. The upper body is a little bit trickier because the majority of pushing movements are done in a manner in which stability is provided by an external source (bench) as opposed to an internal source (the core). But just because the bench provides stability does not mean that the core cannot be a limiting factor however, as the body still adheres to the old adage, ‘you’re only as strong as your weakest link’.

Because the core is needed to produce force statically, and not dynamically, for upper body strength movements, the best way to identify whether or not the core is the limiting factor is to test the endurance of the core statically when performing a strength movement, which is best done from the plank position. The movement best suited for this is the plank-up, which is basically a triceps dominant push-up. Basically you get into the push-up position, but instead of lowering your chest to the floor, you lower yourself onto one elbow, then the next, assuming the plank position, and then reverse the movement by placing one hand on the floor, and then the next, and extending your arms until back in the starting push-up position.

If you lose your core positioning, as in your core begins to sag, before your triceps give out, then the strength-endurance of your core needs work, and static holds, AKA plank variations for a set period of time are best to accomplish this. If your triceps give out first, than you know that your core has the strength and endurance needed to withstand most nearly any upper body pushing exercise that you’ll do with your current level of strength.

Upper body – pull

If you look at the orientation of the muscles around the core you’ll see spiral-like ‘X’ patterns all over the place, and the reason for this is because this overlapping design provides the absolute greatest amount of stability possible. Some examples of this are the internal obliques compared to the external obliques, and from the upper body to lower body you’ll notice the obliques run in the same direction as the opposing adductor muscles of the thigh, and the lats run in the same direction as the opposite glute muscle.

If any of these muscles are relatively weak, especially the ones whose orientation coincides with their own, then the body will exercise its governing effect and prevent you from generating the amount of force that you would otherwise be capable of. For example, the lats and glutes work together on the back side of the core to stabilize the spine while walking, running, climbing, etc. If the glutes are weak, or simply not firing, the lats will be inhibited when performing movements like a chin-up, in which they are the prime mover, although this can simply be improved by squeezing the glutes. Doing so promotes a posterior pelvic tilt which the body perceives as the spine being in a safe position, therefore allowing the lats to produce maximal force. This ‘trick’ can be used when performing any exercise, not just with chin-ups.

Core training

If you want well developed abs, then yes, crunches are going to help, as will any exercise that works the abdominals dynamically through a full range of motion as long as the tension is great enough. But, if you want a core that will enable you to lift more weight, and carryover to increasing the capacity to build bigger muscles then crunches aren’t going to cut it. If you want to strengthen the weak link in the chain and increase your capacity to lift more weight and build more muscle, than a different approach is needed.

The core should be trained in a manner in which the results carryover to your goal, and generally this means contracting isometrically for a specific amount of time (dependent on the duration of the sets in which the core is needed to provide stability), while the extremities perform work through various planes of movement and ranges of motion, as well as operating as part of a chain working through various degrees of rotation and multiple planes.

Single plane, single joint training can disrupt neuromuscular coordination and create neural confusion because muscles aren’t supposed to be worked this way, and doing so results in faulty recruitment patterns, which is generally why performing more work with the hopes of bringing up a lagging bodypart doesn’t work. The neural confusion is what causes the development of bodyparts to lag and become stagnant, and if you’re already performing a ton of work which created the problem in the first place, then doesn’t it stand to reason that more of the same will only make things worse, not better? It should be obvious that you can’t develop a weak or unresponsive bodypart with the same training that made it that way in the first place.

Training multiple joints, in multiple planes enhances neuromuscular coordination, which means more efficient fiber recruitment, crucial for bringing up a lagging bodypart. Proprioceptive demand can be increased by simply taking traditional movements and adding a multi-planar, multi-joint movement to them. The increased demand also increases the overload to the working plane of motion without negatively affecting the amount of weight you can use, unlike if you were to perform the same movement on an unstable surface like a bosu-ball. Adding this element also increases oxygen debt, and caloric expenditure.

Proprioceptive demand increases neuromuscular coordination and can also increase muscle demand and fiber recruitment which can help bring up weak bodyparts, because weak bodyparts are generally weak because of innervation. Muscles get stronger and respond better when they’re trained as part of a movement chain, which is why training a weak muscle as part of a movement chain forces it to adapt to the strength demands of the whole movement, and it will ultimately respond better during traditional isolation work due more efficient fiber recruitment and force production. Adding these movements on separate days allows for ample recovery, but still challenges the muscles neurologically since muscle innervation is effected differently in different planes of motion.

Practical applications

The plank position teaches and develops activation of the core in a manner which will carry over to traditional strength movements because the core is needed to provide stability so force can be maximally produced elsewhere. The options are pretty much endless when it comes to increasing the difficulty of the plank, some of the more common ways including elevating the lower body onto a stable or unstable surface, elevating the upper body onto a stable or unstable surface, removing one point of contact leaving you with three points of contact, or pretty much any combination in between.

Olympic lifts with barbells or dumbells, burpee variations, asymmetrically loaded strength movements, asymmetrically loaded strongman movements, strength movements performed unilaterally, jump variations, lunge variations, and push-up variations are all movements that include various degrees of rotation and multiple planes in which the core participates as part of a chain, and can all be chained together as well to create a positive metabolic effect, one that is needed to burn fat off so that the muscles of the core that everybody dearly wants, can be seen.

Chaining exercises together in the form of a circuit increases energy expenditure and lactate production throughout the whole body, which acidifies the pH to which the body responds by elevating growth hormone, which stimulates the release of fatty acids into the blood to be used for energy. This internal environment can be effectively and efficiently created by combining a heavy/slow movement with a fast/light movement, with the option to tack on an abdominal movement, and performed as a circuit, or by performing a sequence of movements performed back to back with the same implement (barbell, dumbells, etc) as part of a complex, the goal being to simultaneously involve as much muscle mass as possible, and having those muscles work as hard as possible (which is done by lifting with max speed – think of a car engine, the bigger the engine, the more fuel that is burned, and the faster the speed the more fuel the engine uses).

Complexes and circuit training can, and should be, extremely fatiguing, which is a very positive thing because of the increased neural drive to the working muscles, which should carryover to isolation training for other bodyparts. When the body is battling fatigue, the nervous system has to work harder to perform motor tasks, and in times of what perceive to be desperation it will recruit the largest and most powerful motor units. Movements become more isolated as fatigue sets in (think of how much more a muscle burns the harder you push yourself), opening the door to kick start newfound growth for a lagging bodypart

Circuit training in the manner described above should be fairly self-explanatory, however complex training may be a little more complex, and because of that, here are some basic rules to follow so you can develop your own complex:

-       Technical lifts should always be performed first, although there are exceptions (such as when needing to transition from one movement to the next).
-       Alternate exercises between those that work the upper body and those that work the lower body, or if performing two consecutively for the upper or lower body then alternate between a push emphasis and a pull emphasis.
-       Pick exercises in which you’re strength is the same for most of the exercises involved, or adjust the amount of reps based on your strength for each specific movement. Because you are limited to how much weight you can use based on your strength of the weakest movement involved in the complex, performing the same amount of reps for each exercise means that some muscle groups will simply receive greater overload than others. For example, if one of the movements is a deadlift, and another is an overhead press, performing 5 reps for both may not provide optimal overload for the muscles involved in both lifts as one would likely receive optimal overload while the other doesn’t even come close, so it’s acceptable to modify the amount of reps performed based on the exercise to increase the overall demand, and thus increase the benefit.
-       Exercises should flow from one to the next, and the last rep of an exercise should easily transfer into the first rep of the next exercise.

An example of a complex would look like this:

High pull
Front squat
Overhead press
Good morning

In this example you are limited to how much weight you can use by the overhead press, therefore the amount of reps for every other movement should be adjusted accordingly. Also, in this example the most technical movement is the clean, but it is not sequenced in the first position which goes against the rules above, but as stated there are exceptions, and this would be one of them as it is used to transition from the high pull, to the front squat position. If you wanted to reduce the technicality you could simply transition from the high pull to the front squat by performing only one clean on the very last rep of high pulls. The goal is to fatigue the body as much as possible while performing movements in which the core is a part of a chain, its role to provide stability. Assuming the weight is similar in difficulty for each movement selected, the progression could look something like this:

Week 1 – 4 rounds of 5 reps, 90 seconds between rounds
Week 2 – 5 rounds of 5 reps, 75 seconds between rounds
Week 3 – 5 rounds of 6 reps, 60 seconds between rounds
Week 4 – 6 rounds of 6 reps, 45 seconds between rounds

To provide a twist, instead of performing all your reps for one movement before moving onto the next, you could perform one rep of each movement until completion of all movements, and that would be considered one rep.

For those who would prefer the circuit described above, here are some options in terms of exercises for the heavy movement, fast movement, and abdominal movement respectively.

Heavy movements:

Olympic lifts – barbell high pulls with clean or snatch grip, dumbell high pulls, cleans or snatches from the floor or the hang with barbells or dumbells, clean and press with barbell or dumbells
Front squats
Back squats
Deadlifts with clean or snatch grip
Romanian deadlifts

Fast movements:

Thrusters with barbell or dumbells
Lunges, alternating or walking
Swings with one arm or both
Vertical or horizontal jump squats
Alternating jump lunges
Bodyweight speed squats
Lunge with front reach
Lateral lunge with side reach
180 lunge with rear reach
Alternating lunges off step with front reach

*Each of these movements can be performed with dumbells, which allows for other movements to be combined into each movement to increase the overall demand/fatigue. Some of the movements that can be included are curls/cleans, upright rows/high pulls, overhead presses, bent over rows

Abdominal movements:

Plank variations – side plank, plank-ups, plank with hands on med or stability ball, plank with feet on med or stability ball, plank with feet on stability ball step offs (removing one point of contact by stepping off and touching the floor with the toe, then repeating on the alternate side), contra-lateral toe touches, mountain climbers on the floor or with hands and/or feet on med or stability ball brining knee across body to opposite elbow, knees on stability ball rotations (skiers)

Holding weights overhead and adding motion – overhead lunge, farmer’s walk, asymmetrical farmer’s walk with weight held at side/shoulder height/overhead, overhead lockout holds, transitioning from kneeling to standing and back to kneeling while holding weights overhead, isometric squat with cable resistance from the side for the obliques, kneeling and facing away from cable stack overhead press with rope

Choppers with med ball, band, or cable (pushing resistance between legs, or sides of legs)

Push-up variations – toes on ball, hands on balls, 3 points of contact with one limb elevated, t-push ups

Renegade row

Barbell rotations (w/landmine)

Stability ball reverse hypers

Stability ball hypers

The abdominal options are literally endless, but the point is rather to target the musculature directly as part of a physically exhausting circuit.

If you have any questions in regards to core training with the goal of not just developing visually appealing abs but to enhance the development of other muscles, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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