The Link: Core Training for Sports Performance
What Makes up Our Core?
Written By: MacKenzie Jackson
The core is the great link for sports performance transference and stability. The term “core” is commonly used incorrectly when referring to the abdominal muscles. Most people when using the term core are just referring to rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles), obliques and transverse abdominis (stabilizing muscle). However, the core also includes the latissimus dorsi (lats), gluteus maximus, trapezius, multifidus and the erector spinae (back muscles) which are located posteriorly (back side). The posterior and deep muscles are often neglected when referring to the core. The deep muscles include the transverse abdominis and intercostals (diaphragm muscles).
Most people believe that a strong lower half is the key to increasing athletic performance. However, I would argue that the most important part of the body is the core. The core is the link between the upper and lower half of the body. That link needs to be strong for the upper and lower body to work as one. This creates a strong association between the upper and lower half. This is the hardest part for young athletes to figure out and learn to be in control of their bodies. A weak core can lead to poor posture, back pain and dissociation between the upper and lower half.
Benefits to Core Training
There are many benefits to strengthening one's core muscles including improved posture, decreased back pain, pelvic alignment and increased sports performance. Today we are going to focus on improved sports performance. Every sport and position uses core muscles. The more we strengthen and stabilize these core muscles, the more efficient we become doing a movement. If our core muscles are not being recruited, another muscle will be recruited to compensate. Overcompensation of muscles can lead to fatigue, soreness, tightness and even injuries. A strong core is the link between the upper and lower half.
How to Properly Activate the Core Muscles
To create a strong, healthy core, movements in all three planes should be present. A common mistake when exercising your core is to only focus on sagittal plane movements which focuses on the rectus abdominis only. There is also a lack of trunk extension to target the multifidus and erector spinae. To target all of the core muscles, frontal and transverse movements need to be included.
Core training should be done after a warm up but before the workout. By training your core first, you are increasing an internal warm up. Isolating core training also recruits more muscle fibers. Recruiting more core muscle fibers before a workout will increase the chance of muscle recruitment during a workout. This is great for young athletes who forget to engage their core during other full body movements. It becomes involuntary because the abdominal muscle fibers are ready to fire. This can be very beneficial in injury prevention.
Pelvic alignment is very important when activating the core muscles. Most young athletes have an anterior pelvic tilt (pelvis is tilted forward) which creates an arch in the lower back. This is due to tight hip flexors and a weak posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings). A common cue to create a neutral pelvis is to tell the athlete to pretend they have a tail and to tuck it between their legs. This draws the sacrum in anteriorly, elongating the spine. Neutral pelvic alignment is very important for proper posture when running and protecting the back during lifting. If you notice an athlete's ribs flaring, it is usually an indicator that their pelvis is tilted forward. Cueing the athlete to knit their ribs together and to push their belly button through their spine can create a neutral pelvic alignment.
Research for Core Training
Kwong-Chung Hung et al. (2019) explored the effects of core training on endurance and running economy in college athletes. This study consisted of a control group and a core training group for 8 weeks. Three core training sessions were added to the core training group a week. Hung found a significant improvement only in the core training group in endurance and running economy.
Core training stabilizes the trunk and pelvis which improves posture and technique. The link also transfers force from the lower half to the upper half of the body and vice versa (Cassik, 2011). An example is when a baseball player uses his lower half to generate power to hit the ball. The force is traveling upward through the link to the arms to swing the bat.
Pilates Core Training Exercises
Chest lift is a Pilates core exercise that focuses on the rectus abdominis. This movement is a small crunch that occurs in the sagittal plane. Spinal articulation curls the rectus abdominis in.
Criss cross is also a Pilates core exercise that targets the internal and external obliques. This movement occurs in the transverse plane while the opposite elbow touches the opposite knee.
Swimming is a back extension exercise done in Pilates. You lie prone with your arms and legs extended to the opposite sides of the room. The opposite leg and arm lift 6 inches off the ground. The multifidus and erector spinae are recruited during swimming.
Glute Bridge is a core exercise lying supine. Spinal articulation occurs starting with the sacrum (tail bone) and the hips raise towards the ceiling while keeping the shoulder girdle on the ground. The gluteus maximus is targeted during glute bridge.
Teaser is a Pilates core exercise that targets the deep abdominal muscle: the transverse abdominis. The muscle fibers run horizontally which makes it more difficult to target. Teaser is when your arms and legs are extended in
front of your body while balancing on your sit bones. The transverse abdominis is a stabilizing muscle.
Core training can be very beneficial in improving sports performance. Strengthening the core can improve posture, decrease back pain, improve pelvic alignment and prevent injuries. A strong link is the foundation for athletic success.
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