Middle In Motion

Everyone’s talking about developing a strong core. But what does that really mean, and how is it accomplished?

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the Director of Athletic Development for the New York Mets and President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 14.7, October 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1407/middlemotion.htm

Core training is one of the loudest buzzwords in today’s strength and conditioning circles. Most coaches have learned to "start with the core" and that "a strong core leads to a strong athlete."

But what are the nuances of core training? What does a "strong core" really mean? And how do we turn this buzzword into an effective, practical part of our training programs?

The core is an integrated functional unit consisting of the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex and the thoracic and cervical spine. It is a muscular corset that lends integrity and support to the body. In addition, it serves as a swivel joint between the hips and shoulders that relays all movement of the body.

The core also functions as one of the largest links in the body’s system of links, often referred to as the kinetic chain. Functional core training is all about taking advantage of this linkage, making the parts of the chain work together in harmony—from toe nails to finger nails—to produce smooth, efficient patterns of movement. A strong core accelerates, decelerates, and dynamically stabilizes the body during movement. Without a fully functioning core, efficient movement is not possible.

Therefore, we must shift our focus away from individual muscles to integrated movements. Current thinking would have us focus our training on prone and supine positions that emphasize drawing in the stomach to activate the transverse abdominis and the internal obliques. This is ineffective, however, because the brain does not differentiate between individual muscles. The brain recognizes patterns, which consist of individual muscles working in harmony to produce movement. It is unreasonable to think that two muscles could play such an important role or that they are more important than any other muscles. This leads to a fundamental underlying philosophy is that all training is core training.

Principles & Concepts
Effective and functional core training is based on two simple principles. The first is to train core strength before extremity strength. A strong, stable core will allow the extremities to better do their job. Therefore, we should train the core first, in both training sessions and training programs.

The second principle is that dynamic postural alignment is the foundation for functional training. Posture and a strong, stable core are integrally related. The larger core muscles known as "anti-gravity muscles" play a major role in maintaining a sound, functional athletic posture.

Each sport has its own specific postures, and each individual within a sport has his or her own posture. The combination of the two produces great variability. Our goal should not be to fit everyone into certain parameters of a correct posture, but rather to understand what each athlete requires in his or her activities and adjust accordingly.

Along with these two principles, there are a few concepts to keep in mind relative to core training. These concepts relate to balance, gravity, force production and reduction, and proprioception.

Balance is a key aspect of movement that is closely related to the core. Balance is control of one’s center of gravity and body angles to create an equilibrium. Movement is a state of dynamic equilibrium consisting of a constant interplay of imbalance and balance—it is the body constantly trying to regain balance to perform efficient movement. The muscles of the core play a decisive role in balance because of their location and function. Core training must include balance training to be effective.

To fully understand core function, we must also understand the role that gravity plays in loading the body. Gravity has an increased effect on a body in motion compared to one at rest. Therefore we must learn to overcome its effects—to cheat it and even to occasionally defeat it.

Gravity and its effects must be a prime consideration when designing and implementing a functional core training program or we are not preparing the body for the forces that it must overcome. Therefore we must be aware of our orientation to gravity when we are training the core. When standing, we are parallel to gravity, and when lying or seated we are perpendicular to gravity. The demands of individual sports will dictate the primary body position we should use to train the core. For most sports, the great majority of core training should be performed in upright and moving positions.

Force production is what we see as the end result of a sprint, jump, or a throw. It is a shot on goal or a spectacular dunk. But often the key to movement is the ability to reduce force. This is not as easy to see, but it plays a big role in creating quality movement as well as preventing injury. The muscles of the core play a major role in deceleration. A good functional training program will work on the interplay between force production and force reduction with core training literally and figuratively at the center of the program.

Ultimately, what links everything together into a complete functional program is proprioception. Proprioception is awareness of joint position derived from feedback in the sense receptors in the joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. It is a highly trainable quality. We must strive to constantly change proprioceptive demand throughout the training program. In fact, this variable should be adjusted more frequently than changes in exercises.

Before designing your core training program, a thorough assessment of your athletes’ core strength must occur. Traditional assessment methods usually seek to isolate strength of individual muscles in a prone or supine position. Instead, you should implement a functional assessment, using positions that simulate the posture of the specific sport.

I like to divide assessment drills into two categories: movements driven from the top down and movements driven from the bottom up. In the first category, I usually use medicine ball exercises such as chest passes off two legs and one leg, overhead throws (again, both single- and double-leg), and a rotational throw where I compare the distance of throws off the right and left leg. In the second category, I use balance tests, excursion tests, and a lunge, jump, and hop test.

I also assess athletes by taking video of them during their sport activity. I try to video their actions from the front, side, and rear, if possible, and judge quality of movement. I also look for any patterns of movement that might reveal problems.

Along with testing these specific qualities, it’s also important to carefully assess other areas of the athlete’s performance to make your program effective. Areas to consider include:

• Demands of the event or position.
• Physical qualities of the athlete (size, skill, etc.).
• Dynamic postural analysis.
• Injury history.
• Performance and training history.

For example, if after assessing a soccer forward, I find she has poor dynamic posture and is deficient in medicine ball exercises with her left leg, I would likely design a program with an emphasis on correcting these problems. I would stress to her the importance of maintaining correct posture in all exercises, and I would increase exercises that strengthen the left side of her body. I might also try to find game footage that shows her missing a play because she was insufficiently powerful accelerating from her left side, and show it to her.

Training Tools
Progression is the key to any good training program, including developing core strength. It is essential to achieve mastery of each step before moving to the next. Start with easy and simple basic movements and progress to harder and more complex ones. I have found it more effective to emphasize a few simple movements than to add exercises.

You can classify drills into four areas:

• Stabilization
• Flexion/extension
• Rotation
• Throwing/catching.

This structure allows us to distribute exercises based on classifications to ensure adequate recovery and effective coverage of all aspects of core movement. My suggestion is, for a six-day-a-week schedule, to train stabilization every day; train flexion/extension with a major emphasis on Tuesday and Friday and a minor emphasis on Monday and Thursday; make rotation a major emphasis on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday; and have a major emphasis on throwing and catching on Tuesday and Friday.

You also want to choose exercises that work the core in all planes of motion. For example, you should make sure you include:

• Trunk flexion and extension, which will work the sagittal plane.
• Lateral flexion, which will work the frontal plane.
• Trunk rotation, which will work the transverse plane.
• Combinations and catching, which will work all three planes.

Exercises should begin in the most challenging position the individual can fully control. As the athletes master simple movements, you can modify the drills to make them more challenging.

Modify the amount of proprioception by using:

• Balance beam
• Balance board
• Stability ball
• Foam roll
• Airex pad
• ABC ladder™
• Mini tramp

Modify the loading parameters by using:

• Bodyweight/gravitational loading
• Power ball/kettlebell
• Physioball
• Dumbbell
• Tubing
• Weight vest
• Bodyblade
• Medicine ball
• Stretch cord

You can also alter body position. I like to change the athletes’ posture from sitting to kneeling to standing. I also switch between walking or running. I use bilateral and unilateral stances. Some exercises are with partners, while others are solo.

With the increased emphasis on core exercises, there are many drills to choose from. Learn how to select the core training tools that are most appropriate for the task at hand. Combine tools with a specific purpose and goal in mind. Constantly evaluate exercises and environmental modifiers. The key is understanding the purpose of each drill and choosing accordingly.

Yearly Guidelines
Core training should be incorporated daily throughout the training year. Volume and intensity should be regulated in concert with the total workload in all components of training and the objective of that particular training cycle. Here are some suggestions:

Volume Guidelines: Because of the structure and function of the core, relatively high volumes are necessary to achieve any significant training adaptation. For rotational movement, the exercises are usually done in sets of 20 repetitions. For total body throws, the rep range is usually six to 10 repetitions. For wall throws or partner throws, the number of repetitions is typically 20.

Number of exercises: Use a range of six to 10 exercises per session with the number of reps based on the training objective for each session.

Time requirement: Core work should typically take 15 to 20 minutes each day. But it does not have to be done all in one block. It can be distributed throughout the workout at strategic points.

Where in the workout: Core training can be accomplished during the warmup, when rotations, chopping, and flexion and extension movements are especially effective. Throws should be done as a segment of the workout or as an actual workout in itself in order to ensure high intensity and proper mechanics. After the main workout or during cooldown is the least desirable time to train the core.

Table One: Sample Program
The following is a sample core-training program. The basic rotations can be done during warmup and are always one set. The other exercises can vary from one to four sets depending on the time of training year and your overall goals.

Basic Rotations
One set of each exercise x 20 forward, then backward
Walking Wide Twist
Walking Tight Twist
Walking Over The Top
Walking Figure Eight

Cable Core Trainer (Stretch Cord)
Flexion/Extension x 20
Twisting x 20 (10 each side)
Chop x 20 (10 each side)
Big Circles x 20 (10 in same direction, 10 in opposite direction)

Medicine Ball Rotations
Standing Full Twist x 10 each direction
Standing Half Twist x 10 each direction
Half Chop x 10 each direction
Seated V-Sit Throw x 20
Seated Side Throw x 10 each direction
Solo Med Ball Sit Up x 5 each direction

Medicine Ball Partner or Wall Throws
Overhead Throw x 20
Soccer Throw x 20
Chest Pass x 20
Standing Side to Side x 10 each side (cross in front)
Standing Cross in Front x 10 each side
Around the Back x 10 each side

Total Body Throws
Because these exercises are used to achieve maximum explosiveness they are never done for volume.
Single-Leg Squat & Throw x 6 each leg
Single-Leg Squat & Scoop Throw x 6 each leg
Over The Back Throw x 6
Forward Through The Legs x 6
Squat & Throw x 10