In the age of health and fitness, we have become infatuated with the idea that we need to have a perfectly defined six pack to consider ourselves "fit". All you see when you scroll through Instagram are videos of the next big influencer sharing his/her favorite ab routine.
The truth is that we've lost our way when it comes to core training. We've become more focused on a "good looking" stomach rather than on a "good functioning" core. So what exactly does a good functioning core do? Well,
Our core allows us to transfer force throughout the body in order to perform dynamic movements in our sport. Think passing a rugby ball, throwing a javelin, or even dunking a basketball. When we develop a strong core, we are better suited to express our true strength!
Our core also helps us to absorb force during contact sports like rugby, football, and wrestling. Do you think a car would go through a wall made of bricks or hay? The stronger our core is, the more force we can absorb during impact.
Lastly, our core also houses our lungs. The organs that help us bring in oxygen into the body so that we can run for longer, recover faster, and deliver nutrients to our muscles. I dare you to run a 20 meter sprint holding your breath. You'll drop down on the floor gasping for air. Training our breathing pattern, and most importantly, our diaphragm, can help the best athletes get even better.
Do endless sit ups still sound appetizing? Core training should be done with what we want our core to do in mind. Excessive arching of the spine, low tolerance to rotational forces, and poor lateral stability are just some of the many dysfunctions that have taken a back seat in the world of six pack development. Our main goal should be to be as explosive and strong as possible, while being able to tolerate high-impact collisions and come out on the other side injury free.
Now let's get into the meat and potatoes of a good core training program. In no particular order, the three components of every successful plan should include:
Anti-extension exercises: This category of exercises are those that fight excessive extension of the trunk. Without bracing our core we wouldn't be able to transfer or tolerate high levels of force. This is why we brace out of sheer reflex when we're about to get hit. If we are about to perform a squat and we have an excessive pelvic tilt, chances are you'll suffer from lower back pain at some point in your training routine. A great, basic example of anti-extension exercises are plank variations. Allowing your spine to be in a neutral position while engaging your core will give you the greatest degree of stability. One of my favorite exercises for this type of movement is the ab wheel.
PRO TIP: When performing the ab wheel exercise think about lightly contracting your abs and squeezing your glutes. This might limit the distance you can roll down but it will help you prevent lumbar lordosis, which normally feels like a pinch in the lower back. Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Anti-Rotation exercises: It almost sounds counterintuitive doesn't it? After all, many, if not all sports involve some rotational component in which the athlete must apply maximum force through a rotational movement (like a shot putter). When we perform anti-rotational exercises we are preparing our body to better handle these forces and minimize energy leaks. The more stable we can become under external forces, the more protection we provide for ourselves and the quicker we can react to them. This is a great category to experiment with uneven loads, bands, and simple bodyweight movements like bird dogs. One of the exercises we have been utilizing lately has been the banded dead bug, fighting against a band pulling the body sideways.
PRO TIP: This variation of the dead bug can become very difficult. Make sure you select a resistance band that will make it challenging to do, but that you're still able to keep the band over your chest with arms straight. When doing this exercise go slowly and fight against the band trying to rotate your body. Do a total 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps per side.
Anti-Lateral Flexion: Let's face it, the vast majority of sports are almost never played exclusively with both feet on the ground and a stable base. Whether we are running, cutting, or jumping, chances are we placing a higher demand on one side compared to the other. If we lack stability on one side we can experience dysfunctions like excessive hip swinging when running, poor posture during static movements, and a much lower ability to absorb an impact (like a side-on tackle in rugby). To train this aspect of your core you are not limited to just doing side planks. Some other exercises you can throw into your routine are off-set weighted carries, waiter carries, and Paloff press variations. One of my favorites is the single arm KB Front Rack carry as pictured below.
PRO TIP: Before you go out there and grab the heaviest kettlebell you can find think about what we are trying to do here. The weight you pick should be challenging, but still manageable to carry over 20-30 feet. Once you are set to begin, imagine you are carrying a glass of water on your head and avoid swinging side to side when walking. Do 1-2 sets of 45-60 seconds per side.
Incorporating all three movement categories into your core training program will allow you to express your maximum power on the field. Hopefully now you see that sit ups and mindless leg circles are not going to help you in your athletic endeavors. For our core to function correctly we have to train it correctly.
If after reading this you are thinking to yourself that in order to fulfill your potential you need to seek out additional help, check out our remote coaching programs! Every plan is highly individualized to tailor the demands of your sport and your individual needs. Let us help you unfold your myth!