Functional movement, or the ability to move and respond without restriction, as well as to move and respond effectively and with intention, begins with an understanding of what core training is and is not. The ability to align the spine and activate the muscles necessary to achieve proper positioning is a key skill. Core activation and stabilization impacts all movement and power generation. Equally important is to train this power center with the understanding that it links upper and lower body movement, and its key function is stabilization.
- Identify the performance purpose of core training.
- Understand the importance of quality of training over quantity of training.
- Define the role of the core as it relates to stabilization and its contribution to rotation and power development.
- Learn to train the core as a stabilizer and as a mover.
- Understand the science and learn about the anatomy behind core bracing, neutral posture and core training that transfers to life and sport.
Understanding Core Training
In the not too distant past, many people believed that functional training was limited to core training only. Core, balance and functional training are simply a part of a complete approach to integrated, whole body training. Core training will always be sensationalized in the media for all of the right reasons, as well as for all of the wrong reasons. Spot reduction and high volume reps aside, allow me to highlight the actual role of the core.
What is core training? The core represents more than anterior abdominal and lower back musculature. The core consists of fascial lines and various muscles that work synergistically in this interconnected web (see Serape Effect illustration below).
In a way, targeting the core can involve working from your chin to your toes. The core affects and contributes to all powerful and high quality movement. The core is the link, via stabilization, that bridges power transfer between the upper and lower body, and ultimately contributes to force development in rotary sports that include punching, throwing, striking, swinging and kicking.
Bottom line requirements for core training include development of 1) stability and 2) a strong, integrated link between the upper and lower body. This bridge between upper and lower body must be able to provide stabilization of the core and serve as a springboard for power development.
Complete core training must involve all the muscles of the torso, and include training of these muscles simultaneously with motion that should involve the hip flexor, hip rotator, gluteal and hamstring muscle groups. Being able to create stability in the core region allows for a smooth transition of power between the upper and lower body, which equates to applied- or functional-power development. This powerful link cannot be developed by only training the trunk musculature in isolation, and often is optimized in standing positions.
The Anatomy of Core Training
Most of the muscles of the core/torso and their associated fiber directions are oriented in horizontal or diagonal directions. This anatomical design lends itself well to rotational force production between the hip and opposite shoulder, especially when coupled with ankle, knee and hip extension movement. The so-called “serape effect” is specifically the result of interaction between the rhomboids, serratus anterior, and the external and internal obliques, along with contributing factors from the body’s fascial lines (anterior, posterior, lateral and spiral).
The Serape Effect
The serape effect first described by Logan and McKinney (1970) helps one to visualize what the core musculature is anatomically suited to accomplish, especially as it relates to rotational power development. The serape is a scarf-like blanket worn by natives in some areas of Mexico and South America. It drapes around the neck and shoulders and crosses near the waist, tucking into the belt area. Visualizing how the serape is worn captures the functional design of the torso muscles’ crisscrossing nature. In essence, how the serape is worn reflects fiber direction of the torso muscles, which in turn determines muscle function and movement capability.
Neutral Spinal Posture
Neutral posture can be defined as avoiding the extremes of sustained spinal flexion or extension, or positioning the spinal column and pelvis in a manner that reflects a mid-position between the extremes of these two joint actions. A total approach to abdominal and back strengthening, back wellness and functional balance training must include the concept and teaching of neutral posture. Avoiding the extremes of sustained flexion and extension should be taught for both the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) areas of the spine. Likewise, intentional movement that causes a shift from neutral posture is not an issue of right or wrong, but one of appropriateness as related to movement demands.
Being able to “set” or establish neutral posture when desired helps to conserve the integrity of spinal discs, ligaments and joint integrity, as well as enhancing movement capability. Awareness of neutral posture encourages a return to, or maintenance of, proper spinal positioning during activities of daily life or sport movement.
Neutral spinal posture can, in an even more simplified manner, be defined as an absence of misalignment in the cervical and lumbar spine. The strongest position of the spine and the position least likely to contribute to increased risk of injury or chronic degenerative spinal disease is represented by neutral posture. Neutral spinal posture refers to the maintenance of “normal” spinal curves that are inherent to a healthy, strong and properly aligned spine. See figure below.
|Vertebral column exhibiting the normal curvatures inherent to a healthy and properly aligned neutral spine
When performing any exercise, sport movement or daily task -- whether seated, prone, supine, sidelying, standing and/or during movement -- proper alignment in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions should be considered. Decisions need to be made with regard to whether or not neutral spinal posture should be maintained (i.e., during a dynamic sport activity or when performing trunk stability exercises), or if intentionally the exerciser should choose to move out of neutral (i.e., performing trunk flexion which is typically referred to as a trunk curl or crunch exercise).
It is critical to all physical movement training and back-health to have mastered the skill of freely and intentionally moving from and returning to neutral spinal posture. Participants must also have the ability to maintain spinal neutral throughout an exercise or movement when appropriate.
Neutral spinal posture can be illustrated by the maintenance of proper cervical, thoracic and lumbar curvatures. See figure below.
|Vertebrae positioning in a flexed lumbar spine (top illustration) and an extended spine (bottom illustration)
Abdominal Bracing and Neutral Posture Application
Being able to establish a braced spine and maintain a braced core, avoiding the extremes of spinal flexion or extension, is essential to effective and safe movement. This is accomplished by maintaining a mild contraction or tension in the abdominal wall. However, abdominal bracing is very different than abdominal hollowing, which generally refers to a pulling or drawing in of the abdominal wall. When the bracing contraction is performed correctly no change occurs in the abdominal wall. McGill (2002) refers to this as muscle stiffening and terms it “abdominal bracing.”
Abdominal bracing activates three layers of the abdominal wall (transversus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique) with no added motion of drawing in, and is much more effective at improving spinal stability (McGill, 2001; McGill, 2002). When the abdominal wall is braced, it is neither hollowed nor pushed out.
Building an Athletic Core
Building an athletic core requires stabilization and bracing capability, as well as understanding how the core contributes to rotary movement (see "Get Down Get Up Rotary Self Toss" video later in this article). Besides improving performance, proper training of the core can reduce injury potential.
Functional Movement Principles for Building an Athletic Core:
- Integrate Head to Toe
- Whole body, linked movement training vs. isolated muscle training
- Linked training depends on the core linking upper and lower body
- Equalize Right/Left
- Balanced strength, mobility and stability on both sides of the body
- Balanced bilateral and unilateral movement capability
- Activate Core
- As a stabilizer and to resist rotational forces
- To initiate, or contribute to, rotational movement via power transfer and core bracing/stabilization
- Incorporate Multi-Planar/Multi-Directional Movement
- Sagittal, frontal and transverse planes
- Core activation occurs during all movement and positions
- Establish Balance and Stability
- Train balance and stability as a foundation for skilled movement
- Train transitional balance and core stability during acceleration, while on the move and during deceleration
- Volume and Load
- Practice and repetition (volume)
- Appropriate load and intensity
Integrating Balance with Core Training
Both core stabilization and mover- or isolation-type trunk conditioning can take place in a variety of positions on the BOSU® Balance Trainer. The core can work functionally in standing, kneeling, seated, sidelying, prone and supine positions, and can be challenged with mover exercises, or stabilization exercises—where the goal of the exercise is to maintain a neutral and otherwise, properly aligned spine.
Generally, functional training is tied to balance training and sport, activity, or occupational-specific practice. Therefore, knowledge of what proprioception represents, how it relates to functional or useable movement, and why you have this “body sense” is important. But, functional training is more than just balance, stabilization or proprioceptive-type training. A very narrow view of functional training would see this type of training defined as stability training for the core. A much broader and accurate definition would portray functional training as activity that “trains movement,” and would include activity that requires both static and dynamic muscular force production.
With this broader definition in mind it is important to realize that targeted muscular endurance and strength development exercises—don’t think maximally loaded squats—can be performed effectively on the BOSU® Balance Trainer. An ability to sustain moderate to high levels of muscular force production will be enhanced through a diverse number of dynamic and static movements, in a variety of positions. The entire strength continuum, which ranges from low-level muscular endurance through maximal strength and power, can be trained while developing mobility, stabilization and balance. Core training on the BOSU® Balance Trainer can be characterized as core-centric, but generally, it involves a whole body, integrated response.
BOSU® Core Progressions
The BOSU® Balance Trainer is a “feel me” product. Truly connecting to the unique properties of this piece of equipment requires the body to feel the response that is generated while exercising on the dome surface of the ball, or with the platform side up.
Try these popular BOSU® integrated core exercises to experience the unique stabilization challenges and high level of muscle activity that occurs when exercising on the dome or platform surface:
Core Brace Plank Progression
Start with the BOSU® Balance Trainer platform side up, knees and toes in contact with the ground, and hands positioned on the platform handles. Lower your chest to the platform. Straighten the knees by tightening the quadriceps. Contract the glutes and anterior abdominal muscles to set neutral spinal posture, and brace the upper back to set a neutral scapular position. Do not squeeze the shoulder blades together. Instead, visualize driving the scapulae down into “your back pockets.” Push up, keeping a braced neutral posture. As you “turn on” and activate the quads, glutes, abdominal muscles and the upper back musculature, do so by giving an all out, maximal effort for 5- to 10-seconds in the extended push up position. Lower to the starting position, release the tension, and repeat the sequence. The focus is maximal effort and muscle tension for short duration. Repeat the entire sequence or individual progressions.
Core Lean Back to Supine Balance Progression
Start in a seated, upright position on the BOSU® Balance Trainer, dome side up. Counter balance with the arms as you lean back to a point where the torso is parallel to the ground. Maintain neutral spinal and scapular posture throughout the progression. Return to the upright position, and cross the arms at shoulder height. Lower and return to the start position. Extend the arms front, and lower to a streamlined position (hips and shoulders aligned) with the hands overhead, feet still in contact with the floor. Return to the start position. Lower with the arms extended overhead while simultaneously extending one leg. Return to the upright position and repeat, extending the other leg. Finally, lower to a supine and streamlined position while extending both legs. Repeat the entire sequence or individual progressions.
Bird Dog Arm/Leg Raise Progression
Kneel on the dome with one knee and the other leg extended. Position both hands on the front of the dome. Note the five points of contact: hand, hand, knee, foot, foot. Walk your hands to the floor and lift one arm. Return to start position, and lift the opposite leg. Simultaneously lift one arm and the opposite leg, maintaining the point of contact of the foot of the bent leg. Repeat the opposite arm/leg raise. After the arm and leg are fully lifted, flex the extended leg. Reach around with the arm and touch the foot. Return to the straight leg/arm lifted position and then, return to the start position. Lift the foot of the bent leg from the floor and simultaneously lift one arm and the opposite leg. Return to the start position. With the toes of the bent leg off the floor, simultaneously lift one arm and the opposite leg. Hold this lifted position for a moment. Bring the opposite knee and elbow toward one another, return to the arm/leg lifted position. Return to the start position and repeat the entire sequence or individual progressions on the other side.
Get Down Get Up Rotary Self-Toss
Stand in front of the BOSU® Balance Trainer while holding the BOSU® Ballast® Ball. Squat and sit on the front third of the dome. Simultaneously, extend one leg and Ballast Ball overhead. Pause, and return to a standing position. Perform the rotary self-toss by flexing and then extending from the ankle, knee and hip. The outside foot (opposite of rotation direction) should rotate, as the front foot (same side as rotation) stays straight. Repeat, and extend the other leg and rotate to the opposite side. Repeat the same rotary skill on right and left sides after extending both legs in the supine position. Repeat the sequence or individual progressions.
Begin prone on the dome with the forearms, knees and toes in contact with the floor. Simultaneously lift the hands and legs off the floor into “skydiver” position. Holding this lifted position, extend the arms and legs to form an “X.” Transition from the X-formation, to a “Superman” position, with the arms moving overhead and legs coming together. Return to the start position and repeat the sequence or individual progressions.
Creating stabilizing force production in the core region requires skill and it is critical to learn how to develop this bracing quality, whether one is static or moving. Training core stabilization sets the groundwork for force generation and the development of skill that transfers to sport performance and real life movement.