Core Strength

The Anatomy

To understand the importance of the core, we first must look at the anatomy and what makes up the core. The core is a complex of major muscles that includes the rectus abdominus (“six pack”), transversus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique, erector spinae, diaphragm, and multifidus. The minor muscles include the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius. These muscles work together to stabilize the spine, preventing excessive rotation, flexion, and extension. They also work to transfer force throughout the body, which is important in day to day activities and athletic activities.

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Why You Should Care

Weakness in the core can lead to unwanted back, hip, knee, and neck pain. It also plays an important role in maintaining an upright posture and making sure force is transferred throughout the body. This can affect both active and sedentary individuals. A 2005 study by Wilson et. al showed that a decrease in core stability could predispose individuals to injury and appropriate core training could reduce the incidence of injury 2. With appropriate intervention, rates of back and lower extremity injury could be reduced.

Try this:

Stand up as you regularly would. Then actively engage your core muscles as if you were preparing to be hit hard in the stomach and squeezing your buttocks. Naturally, your body will become more upright with retracted shoulders and you avoid “slouching.”

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Though core strength is important for all populations, athletes should pay special attention to core strength and stability. Whether a golfer is swinging a golf club, or a runner is competing in a track event, the core plays a vital role in transferring power from the ground up. A 2009 study by Kimitake Sato and Monique Mokha found that core strength training helps improve running performance. Furthermore, athletes that trained their core were more conscious of their body position once they understood the importance of having good posture while running 4. The snatch and clean are two exercises that are ubiquitously performed by athletes to improve explosiveness. Both exercises require a strong core to transfer the force generated by the legs to propel the barbell upward. A weakened core will result in “leaking” of power, where the force isn’t completely transferred, resulting in a weaker lift.
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Think about it

Imagine having to throw a tennis ball as far as you can in an open field. The only resistance the ball will encounter going forward is air resistance. Now imagine doing the same thing, but along the way, the ball must go through a body of water (a “weak core”). The ball won’t make it as far because the body of water will absorb much of the force, leading to a shorter distance traveled.

Exhibit A: The water acts as a “weak core” and air as a “strong core” in our example here. The water dampens in the energy of the ball (propelling it a shorter distance) just as a weak core will dampen the force generated from the lower extremities (as many sports rely on).

This is not to say that individuals outside of athletics can neglect core strength. On the contrary, core strength is crucial in sedentary and older populations. A recent 2015 systematic review by Wen-Dien Chang et al. found that core strength training alleviates chronic lower back pain, which affects nearly 50% of the population in the United States and is the primary cause of work absence and permanent disability 6. Similarly, Xue-Qiang Wang found that core stability exercise is more effective in decreasing pain and may improve physical function in patients with chronic lower back pain in the short term compared to general exercise 7.

Think about it

If we liken the body to a Jenga stack, we see that the stack stands strong and firm when the central pieces are there. Once the middle or “core” pieces are taken away, this essentially weakens the entire structure, leading to its collapse.

Exhibit B: Weak core muscles can result in decreased athletic performance over time, leading to compensatory adaptations and potentially chronic low back pain.

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What To Do

Unlike other body parts, the core can very easily be trained outside of the gym. Individuals that would like to increase the intensity of the exercises can choose to add weights or modify the exercises to make them more challenging (for example, instead of doing a conventional plank, the exercise can be made more difficult by doing shoulder taps while in the plank position or having the opposite leg and arm off the floor). Puntumetakul et al. demonstrated that reduction in pain can be seen in as little as 10 weeks 9. Below are three exercises that can be used by everybody to reduce low back pain and improve athletic performance:

  1. Plank/Side planks
  2. Dead bugs
  3. Bird dog

Emphasize core control while performing these exercises and aim to do them 2-3 times a week for 2-3 sets of 30 seconds.

By Kareem Shahin and Alee Vladyka