So what exactly is the connection? Think of your body as one long chain with each muscle group representing a link. The core muscles (rectus abdominus, obliques, transverse abdominus, latissiumus dorsi, hip flexors, and a few others) connect the upper and lower extremities and serve as an energy transfer segment from the one end of the “chain” to the other.During activity, a muscle lengthens before it contracts (shortens), which is called a transformational zone (TZ).
During athletic movements TZ are necessary for locomotion. In the core, TZ are at the end range of torso extension, lateral flexion and/or rotation and it is very important to train through these TZ to minimize injury risk and maximize strength.
Envision a baseball pitcher – the legs and hips generate a great deal of force during the wind up which is transferred through the core to the shoulders and finally to the hand where the ball is released at high velocity. A pitcher further relies on the core to decelerate the arm and body during follow through. Pitchers, therefore, must go through several TZ in one pitch, all involving the core to either enhance loading (lengthening) or unloading (shortening) of muscles in all three planes of motion. A strong core will maintain proper posture and maximize energy transmission, whereas a weak core is a poor energy conductor that compromises technique which further decreases pitch velocity or increases injury risk. Also consider how often a pitcher stops moving all other muscles and performs an abdominal crunch motion. This crunch, or any isolated muscle movement, does not occur in sport. Obviously, throwing a baseball greatly differs from running a marathon, but the concept of sports-specific training applies to all athletic movements. During running, energy transfer works from the top of the chain down, i.e. the arms, shoulders, and chest generate force that is transferred through the core to the legs and finally to the ground. Likewise a weak core, or a core with poor endurance, can decrease performance by compromising form.
When selecting core exercises, make sure at least 75% are ground-based (standing on your feet) and performed at speeds mimicking the sport (e.g. baseball and football players should perform core exercises explosively). Also understand that numerous exercises will engage the core without isolating it – push ups, squats, lunges, standing shoulder press, and nearly any other ground-based, free-weight exercise requires core stability.
Yoga, Pilates, and Mat Exercises
Yoga has been around, well longer than you and me and maintains its popularity through improving mind, body, and spirit. Similarly, Pilates improves core strength, flexibility, and mental focus but neither practice alone improves running-specific strength. Has a running coach ever encouraged you to move as slow as possible as a Pilates instructor might? Have you ever run while lying on your back?
Yoga, Pilates, and traditional “abs” exercises should account for the other 20-25% of your core training and are best performed on active recovery days or at the end of a workout. They complement training well, but lack sport-specific adaptations.
Training the core involves a lot more than just working the abs. Crunches will increase abdominal strength and may help you get a six-pack, but as an athlete (elite or recreational) sport-specific strength should be the priority. To achieve this sport-specific core strength, perform the majority of your exercises:
1) While standing on the ground
2) In all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, transverse)
3) Through the full range of motion (into each TZ)
Mat-based exercises have their place in training, but alone are not effective in improving athletic movement.
Click Here for Exercise Examples (and print version of this article)
Justin Robinson, MA,RD,CSSD,CSCS,FAFS
Coach - Catalyst Endurance Coaching
Director of Strength & Conditioning - RU Sports Performance Center