Not another article about core training! If you haven’t been living in a cave, you would surely have noticed the trend of doing planks, side planks, etc. Gyms and fitness magazines are screaming that you need to develop ‘core strength’ to protect your lower back. In this article, I will cover three main schools of thought on training.
But first of all what is the core? It is made up of superficial muscles (rectus abdominis aka sixpack, etc) as well as deep muscles of the abdomen, lower back and pelvic floor. Some researchers also include the diaphragm as part of the core. In essence, the core wraps around the body much like a cylinder, with muscle fibres running horizontally, diagonally and vertically.
Properly engaged, it puffs out in a 3D fashion, and provides stability to the spine. Tom Myers uses the term ‘tensegrity’ to describe this, while I think the analogy of an umbrella is probably easier to visualise!
As the diagram shows (CLICK on the above picture for a larger view), there are three schools of thought with regard to core training. The core endurance and strength approaches are self-explanatory. Just a few comments regarding core endurance and strength.
*Endurance – Unfortunately, in the spirit of competition or challenge, some have opted to challenge oneself by holding the plank position for as long as possible. The problem is that when you are tired, you will use sloppy technique and you run the risk of injury. A lady in the UK got injured (read here Planking challenge), although it is not entirely clear if her low back injury was solely due to holding the plank for long periods of time.
*Strength – some potentially risky exercises such as the Turkish getup are getting popular.
You may run the risk of a low back or knee injury if you are not careful. Other radical examples that could injure the lower back include using a sledgehammer to hit a tyre (mma inspired exercises), etc.
*Stability – this school of thought is rather varied. It is concerned with activation of the deep core muscles and researchers such as Prof Paul Hodges have used diagnostic ultrasound to verify that the deep muscles are engaged.
Visualisation cues are also given to help switch on the deep muscles, hence there is no concern for counting reps, feeling the muscle ‘burn’, etc.
In the early days, sucking in the stomach was thought to be the way to engage the deep muscles (see article low back Pilates). Nowadays, two styles of breathing are more common – bracing (popularised by Prof Stuart McGill, low back biomechanics expert) and natural (not sure if there is such a word, but proponents include neurodevelopmental physios, DNS, etc).
What is my take on the whole core training approach? I (Ben) tend to favour the stability approach because not many people can fire the deep core muscles. So if they can’t fire the deep muscles, chances are they will just tense the whole body, hold their breath, fire the superficial muscles, etc when asked to perform a plank or side plank. Once they can fire the deep muscles, then we can progress to mini plank, etc.