Time to use your imagination.
Pretend your body is a seesaw and your hips are the pivot point in the middle. As one end of the board goes up and the other goes down, and vice versa, you want that board to be rigid. If it bends, it could break, and there goes the seesaw.
Or, your body is a house. Place that house on top of a solid foundation and it will stand strong and tall for decades. Put it on an unstable, cracked foundation, however, and the house will fall apart. It could be the prettiest home on the block, but if it’s on a faulty slab, it’ll crumble.
Now, you’re shooting a cannon from a canoe, and the outcome is predictable: The cannon is powerful and its ball is lethal, but with every shot, the canoe gets damaged and eventually it sinks.
Your core is the middle part of that seesaw board, the foundation of the house and the base on which the cannon sits. If it’s solid, the rest of your body will be able to function at a high level in the gym or in competition. If it bends, cracks or is a tiny boat floating on water, it will give way and, like the seesaw, there goes your performance.
“If you drew a straight line from your hips to your shoulders and you use your hips as that pivot of the seesaw, you don’t want anything to bend along that line,” says Dr. Brian Strump, owner of CrossFit Steele Creek and Premier Health & Rehab Solutions in Charlotte, N.C. (crossfitsteelecreek.com). “All your limbs pull from the core, so if it isn’t working properly, you’ll have increased risk of injury, your motor control for sports will be worse, and you won’t be as strong.”
Definitions of the core vary slightly from trainer to trainer, but virtually everyone agrees that the core is way more than just the abs. Strump regards the region as “just above midthigh to right below the shoulder, and everything in between,” which includes anything named “abdominus” (rectus, transverse), the obliques, the muscles of the lower back, the diaphragm, the upper hamstrings and hip flexors, and all the small muscles in that area that most people don’t realize exist — in other words, pretty much any muscle in the midsection and hips.
But as many muscles as there are in the area, there are more benefits to having a strong core. The baseball pitcher will be able to throw harder with less strain on his arm, the basketball player will be more agile with better body control, and so on. For the CrossFitter, novice to competitor, virtually everything you do in the gym is enhanced — exercise technique improves, strength numbers go up, WOD times go down.
“The stronger and more efficiently your core works, the less force you need from all your other joints,” Strump says. “The problem we see in most people that can’t properly squat adequate loads isn’t necessarily that their legs aren’t strong enough but that the core isn’t strong enough to support the weight. Just because you have huge quads doesn’t mean you’re going to squat a lot of weight. Your core needs to be able to support that weight across your back. Kettlebell swings become easier, back squats become easier, you’re not having to rest as much during workouts. Maybe I can do a set of 20 or 30 reps as opposed to 10 or 15. You should see bigger squatting numbers, bigger deadlift numbers, and it will even increase the number of push-ups you can do.”
Increased efficiency and body control have a lot to do with this. Take a kipping pull-up or muscle-up, for example. Neither of these exercises can be performed for an appreciable number of reps without efficient movement. The legs can’t be flailing wildly, and the arms need to stay within an acceptable path of motion so as to not waste energy. And it’s the core — the meeting place in the middle between the arms and legs — that largely determines whether form gets sloppy or efficiency prevails. It’s the puppet master pulling the strings on your physical performance.
“With a stronger core, an athlete will have better body control and better coordination in terms of knowing where their body is in space,” Strump says. “The more efficiently the core can work, the more efficiently the hips can work, the better an injured knee can feel, the less force that’s needed to dispense through the shoulders and elbows and wrists. If it’s a CrossFit competition, an athlete would recover faster and feel less worn down between events.”
World of Hurt
The benefits of a strong core are numerous, while the consequence of a faulty one can be any number of injuries: “lower back strains, disc injuries, hip pain, pulled hamstrings and shoulder injuries,” says Strump, who’s also a licensed doctor of chiropractic in addition to being Level 1 CrossFit and CrossFit Olympic Lifting certified. “The most common thing I see is lower-back pain. The muscles of the lower back should be there to keep your spine from hunching over,” he says. “You can tell when someone lifts poorly. You look at their back and you can see the shoulders and spine get rounded. That forced flexion is a very common way for people to injure themselves. Most people are weaker in those posterior pulling muscles.”
Such injuries can be caused by not working the core enough or by not understanding all the core’s crucial functions, which can result in misdirected training. “My core isn’t strong enough,” you say to yourself, “so I better do more planks and sit-ups.” It’s not quite that simple.
“While GHD [glute-hamstring developer] sit-ups and planks may be good exercises, that shouldn’t be anyone’s main way to strengthen their core,” Strump says. “Flexion is just one of the core’s jobs; preventing movement is another. It’s like the seesaw — you don’t want it to bend or flex. If you train the core to always be in flexion, then you can’t be surprised when your overhead squats don’t improve.”
But it’s not only about pure strength. You can make all the muscles from the hips through the midsection stronger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll function properly. “You have to be able to control the core. That’s the biggest thing,” Strump says. “The muscles need to fire in a coordinated sequence. The deep muscles need to contract first to stabilize the hips and trunk; this creates a more stable base for the arms and legs to work best. So to simplify it as saying, ‘I need a stronger core’ — true, but it also needs proper mobility and stability. Mobility takes into consideration flexibility, strength and motor control. Somebody could be strong in the core but could still have poor control over his body.”
For the deep core muscles and glutes to fire before the primary movers, they need to fire in the first place. If the bigger muscles (quads, lats, etc.) contract without the smaller ones, the core will be less stable, which will result in less power and strength in the short term and increased injury risk later on. According to Strump, the core and glutes are inactive in many individuals, particularly those who sit at a desk all day, because of prolonged flexion in the torso and hips. (The glutes work to extend the hips; sitting puts the hips in a flexed position.)
“Before I squat or deadlift, I want to make sure that, after sitting at a desk for eight hours, my core and glutes are primed and ready to go,” Strump says. “I don’t want the first time I ask my glutes to work to be when I’m under a barbell with 100, 200 or 300 pounds on my back. And warming up with a lighter weight on that exercise isn’t necessarily going to do it. It might start working, but it’s not the deeper core muscles that I want to initiate to start firing properly. After I do movements that will get the glutes activated and core initiated, then I can go to the bar and start warming up.”
Check out the warm-up routine designed specifically by Strump to improve core stability and mobility. The exercises selected aren’t traditional core isolation moves like planks and sit-ups; rather, they’re movements that are intended to “turn on” the core muscles and glutes to enhance overall strength, power and body control for CrossFit workouts while decreasing injury risk.
“It’s not just about planks and sit-ups,” Strump says. “Because sometimes with the core, the muscles are strong, but you just have to put all the pieces together.”
The forgotten core muscle, according to Dr. Brian Strump, is the diaphragm, which plays a major role in breathing. In fact, learning to use the diaphragm correctly while lifting can pay immediate dividends in core stability.
“Most people breathe up as opposed to breathing out,” Strump says. “When you breathe out, the diaphragm rolls up, filling the stomach with air like a balloon, and adds stability in the core. Just breathing out can add pounds to your squat or deadlift on top of making it safer by eliciting those deep stabilizers of the lower back and pelvis.
“As a breathing exercise, lie down on your stomach, breathe in and force yourself to feel your stomach pushing against the ground. If I’m watching you, I’m looking for your butt to rise. People take breathing for granted, but before you lift a heavy weight, it’s key. The big guys who lift a lot of weight know how this is done.”
Keep your body rigid, in a straight line, from your shoulders down past your hips to train core stability.
Resist the hips from collapsing down toward the floor by keeping the entire core tight throughout.
Focus solely on contracting the glutes to initiate the movement, squeezing them through the top for maximum hip extension.
Perform this movement slowly and deliberately, rotating around the hip to turn the body to the side.