Now that we know doing bodyweight training isn’t a huge waste of time during this pandemic (and if you don’t believe me, check out my last article), let’s explore an aspect of your bodyweight training at home that can pay dividends for your performance when you return to the gym: The core.

This week I wanted to talk about obtaining a strong core because it’s a forgotten aspect of training that actually has a ton of functional benefits. The few I want to highlight today are:

1. helps improve heavier lifts (think bench press, deadlift, squat)

2. acts as an energy bridge between the upper body and lower body

3. effective tool for injury prevention

Core strength is just one piece of the puzzle to being able to lift heavier weights and help prevent injury, but it’s a piece of the puzzle that you readily have access to at home right now in quarantine. To keep you doing less mental work, I’ll also be throwing in some unique exercises and suggestions to build your core strength in this week’s free 7-day workout program.  

When most people think of their core, they think of their shredded 6 pack (or lack thereof). In actuality, the muscle that creates your 6 pack (rectus abdominis) is just one of many of your core muscles. What most people don’t know is that your core is comprised of numerous muscles that surround your spine in the front of your trunk, back of your trunk, your side abdominals, glute muscles, and even larger muscles that connect to your shoulder and hips (think Lats and hip flexors, respectively).

We don’t need to dive deep into the anatomy of these muscles or their respective names, but do know they function together to provide stability to our trunk and pelvis. When these core muscles contract in unison, they provide a synchronous force for execution of functional activities (think walking, running, getting up from the floor, lifting heavy objects, etc), as well as 360° of stiffness around our spine to help protect it from injury (Horschig, 2018).

What a lot of people don’t realize about our core is that it serves as an energy bridge between our upper and lower body. When a baseball pitcher throws a ball, he’s most definitely using his core strength to help transfer force from his lower body, to the hips, to the trunk, then to the shoulder, and then to his arm to create enough momentum behind the pitch. With a weaker core, there may be an energy leak in the trunk that prevents enough force reaching the pitcher’s shoulder girdle and upper body to throw the ball effectively. This is a concept in the strength and conditioning world known as kinetic linking but it applies to everyone, even if you’re not a competitive athlete and don’t plan on throwing anything at 90 mph.

But if you do regularly go to the gym, are you maybe aiming to squat, deadlift, or bench press heavier weight when you eventually return to the gym? In this context, that energy bridge that your core provides is suddenly very important.

In a 2008 study, a handful division 1 football players were put through 4 different core exercises and tested with different measures to see if targeted core training around certain aspects of the torso improved their performance with their one-rep max (1RM) for the squat and bench press, along with other exercises. What the study discovered was that when the whole torso was targeted in the core training (i.e including training trunk flexion, trunk extension, right trunk flexion, and left trunk flexion), there was a significant correlation between core strength and performance measures such as the bench press and squat (Nesser et al, 2008).  

This means having a strong core can absolutely play a role in improving your performance with those exercises. And by “strong core,” I don’t mean just hammering out sit-ups until you’re blue in the face. I mean training your core in multiple planes so that you can create stiffness around your spine and improve your functional gains over time.  In fact, training muscular endurance has been found to play a more significant role in core strength compared to dynamic core exercises, which is why holding a plank for an extended period of time may be more functional for your movement practice than continuously doing sit-ups (Lee et al, 2015). This simple tweak in our programming for core exercises can give us a slight performance boost for the exercises that make us feel like a badass walking out of the gym.   

Lastly, when we train our entire core appropriately, we mitigate the risk of low back pain by allowing our trunk muscles to contract and efficiently resist forces from bearing too much load on our spine. So not only is core training a phenomenal strategy for injury prevention for your low back and hips, but physical therapists love to use a variety of core exercises as an effective treatment tool for patients with acute and chronic low back pain as well (Delitto et al, 2012).

While we still don’t have access to our gyms or our normal exercise routines, we can definitely use this time at home to build our core strength for long-term success. The great thing about training your core is that you need minimal equipment, if any, and it’s easy to monitor. Feel like a plank for 60 seconds is too hard? Try it for 30 seconds. See how your body responds to doing it consistently and that 30 second hold soon feels easy. Then do it for 45 seconds. Once that get’s easy, do it for 60 seconds, and so on. While this example of a progression may seem completely obvious, it gives you a baseline of your core strength. And, it’s an easy way to measure your progress over the course of a longer period of time.

Different core exercises can be more humbling than others, so just remember that progress is key and your movement practice will soon benefit from that progress over time.

Happy Exercising!

Nati Schnitman, CSCS

References

  • Delitto, A; George, S; Van Dillen, L; Whitman, J; Sowa, G; Shekelle, P; Denninger, T; Godges, J. Low Back Pain: Clinical Practice Guidelines. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2012;42(4):A1-A57. doi:10.2519/jospt.2012.42.4.A1
  • Horschig, A. The McGill Big 3 For Core Stability. Squat University Blog. June 21, 2018.
  • Lee, B; McGill, S. Effects of Long-term Isometric Training on Core/Torso Stiffness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: June 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 6 – p 1515-1526 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000740
  • Nesser, T; Huxel, K; Tincher, J; Okada, T. The Relationship Between Core Stability and Performance in Division 1 Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; Nov 2008; 22, 6; 1750-1754.