Question: Is specific “core” training necessary for optimal performance or are basic structural resistance training exercises sufficient?
Specific core training is necessary for injury prevention and for optimal athletic performance, but it should not be the primary aspect of training. Furthermore, specific core training is more necessary for some sports, positions, and individuals than others, so it is important to consider a detailed needs analysis before making program recommendations.
It is necessary to clarify the definition of “core” and the purpose of “core training.” McGill (2010) describes the core as the lumbar spine, abdominal muscles, back extensors, quadratus lumborum (QL), latissimus dorsi (lats), psoas, and the gluteal muscles (glutes). The main focus areas of core development are core stability- to maintain functional stability around the lumbar spine, and core strength- to transmit power to the limbs (Hibbs, Thompson, French, Wrigley, & Spears, 2008; McGill, 2010; & Reed, Ford, Myer, & Hewett, 2012). When considering the inclusion of specific core training in a program for athletic development, it is important to know if the athletes have previous injuries or current low back pain (LBP). Much of the research makes a distinction between training for rehabilitation or for sports performance; core training in rehab. focuses on pain reduction and muscular endurance, whereas core training for sports performance focuses on developing strength and power (Hibbs et al., 2008; McGill, 2010; & Reed et al., 2012). If an athlete has a history of or is at risk for low back injury/pain, it is recommended to include some of the exercises specific for core training related to rehab. in that athlete’s program to prevent injury/pain.
Core stability is required by all for basic functions, such as coordination and balance, and having a stable core allows the torso to stiffen, thus preventing motion and protecting the spine, as well as transmitting power generated at the hips (Faries & Greenwood, 2007 & McGill, 2010). Core strength, however, is needed by some athletes more than others based on the sports and positions played. For example, athletes who play contact sports need strong anti-rotation muscles for protection, and athletes who need to transfer power or who play sports that require rotational power also need a strong core, including lats, glutes, QL, and obliques (Lehman, 2006; McGill, 2010; & McGill, McDermott, & Fenwick, 2009). Moreover, core stability must be established before athletes try to develop core strength to improve performance; program design must be progressive: a.) corrective/therapeutic exercises, b.) movement patterns, c.) mobility/stability, d.) endurance, e.) strength, and f.) speed/power/agility (McGill, 2010). Thus, the exercises, intensity (low load and intensity for stabilizing exercises and higher load and intensity for strengthening exercises), and other variables must be appropriate for the desired outcome (McGill, 2010).
Unfortunately, there are no gold standards to measure core stability or core strength (Faries & Greenwood, 2007 & Hibbs et al., 2008). This makes it challenging for coaches to identify weaknesses within their athletes. Similarly, there is no way to fully isolate the measured outcomes of core training while athletes are also participating in other training and sport practice (Reed et al., 2012). These confounding variables make core stability, core strength, and the specific core training difficult to measure. Additionally, there is more evidence available for the direct impact of core training on rehab. than there is for sports performance (Hibbs et al., 2008). However, by improving core stabilization and preventing potential injuries, core training has an apparent indirect impact on the improvement of sports performance by allowing more time to train free of injuries (Hibbs et al., & Reed et al., 2012).
Ideally, athletes would be able to engage all their core muscles during primary lifts, but some muscles of the core cannot be isolated in that way (McGill, 2010). Therefore, it is recommended that specific core training be included in strength and conditioning programs. Note: This does not simply mean adding abdominal crunches as a finisher at the end of a workout.
Faries, M. & Greenwood, M. (2007). Core training: stabilizing the confusion. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 29(2), 10-25.
Hibbs, A., Thompson, K., French, D., Wrigley, A., & Spears, I. (2008). Optimizing performance by improving core stability and core strength. Sports Medicine, 38(12), 995-1008.
Lehman, G. (2006). Resistance training for performance and injury prevention in golf. Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 50(1), 27-42.
McGill, S. (2010). Core training: Evidence translating to better performance and injury prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32(3), 33-46.
McGill, S., McDermott, A., & Fenwick, C. (2009). Comparison of different strongman events: Trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load and stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, 1148-1161.
Reed, C., Ford, K., Myer, G. & Hewett, T. (2012). The effects of isolated and integrated ‘core stability’ training on athletic performance measures: A systematic review. Sports Medicine, 42(8), 697-706.