Core stability is confusing.
Does it mean we tighten our abdominals so hard our face falls off?
Does it mean we aim to become as stiff as the Tin Man?
Does it mean we don’t smile or breathe?
Recently, the word “stability” has perplexed me. Left and right, I’m inundated with fitness pros telling everyone to keep a stable core. Or even better, to brace their cores.
What does this even mean? And are we conveying the correct message?
In the past, when I’ve told an athlete or client to brace their core, they looked just as confused as a nun in a nudist colony.
Recently, I’ve tried to experiment and not give any cues for planks, side planks, pallof presses, etc. – all exercises that require the core to be tight. I’ll show them how the hips and feet should be positioned, and naturally, athletes move into a “braced” position.
Anyway, I’m not here to bash the term “brace.” It’s just something to ponder.
So what does core stability mean?
More often than not, people relate “stability” to staying “still.” In terms of athletic performance, this may not be the best word, especially when we also want our athletes to have healthy movement.
That being said, core stability is the balance between control and movement, as well as preventing unwanted movement.
When strength coaches and physical therapists talk about core stability, they’re focused on ensuring the low back isn’t moving or compensating when we perform actions like running, carrying load, or kicking a soccer ball. To that end, a multitude of muscles are activating to control the spine, as well as allow movement from the hip extensors and hip flexors. If the core is not stable and is flimsy, then the muscles of the hips may not be producing optimal torque.
Speaking of the hips, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the first step to injury prevention is to realize the core isn’t just the abdominals.
To that end, the core encompasses the low-back, hips, transverse abdominus, internal/external obliques, rectus abdominus, and mulifidus.
Let’s take a look at a few examples: running and kicking a soccer ball.
First, if an athlete wants to run at maximal speeds, their posture should be upright and not hunched over. And the only way to achieve better posture is to perform core training that activates the abdominal muscles without stressing the low back and forcing us into “rounding.”
Here is a short tutorial on what happens to our running when our core is not stable:
I forgot to mention that a slouched posture and internally rotated shoulders will limit our hip extension and hip flexion ability and slow us down.
So here is another exercise that reinforces stability, but allows for movement of the psoas:
If you want to optimize your speed potential, it’s best to not be doing ab crunches as your only core training.
This begs the question: will athletes die if they do crunches?
No. The world will still spin. Beyonce will still be married to Jay-Z. And Lord of the Rings will still be the best movie ever made.
Put simply, a little movement is OKAY.
Core stability, again, is the balance between control and movement (control in the abdominals and low back muscles and movement through the hips).
Especially when it comes to sports, core stability does NOT mean we train ourselves to be rigid:
Similar to running mechanics, core stability will allow us to extend our hips to their potential and follow through with movement through the psoas for a more powerful shot. Core stability also allows me to balance my plant foot properly for pristine shooting technique.
I’d also argue that there is some rotation involved through the obliques and muscles of the thoracic spine, but this comes in conjunction with movement from the hips.
A great exercise I like to have my soccer players perform is a rotational med ball toss to develop power through the entirety of the core:
And as far as improving control so posture, balance, and mobility is improved without compensation from the low back, I like to program these:
Goblet Marching – excellent for balance, core control, hip flexion (movement), spinal stabilization, posture, ankle dorsiflexion
Pallof Circles – excellent for anterior core activation. I’d argue hip mobility as I like to perform these in a “hip hinge” position to load the hamstrings and glutes. Great carryover to being able to hold off defenders in soccer.
Resisted Bird Dogs – reinforce simultaneous firing the contralateral hip, back, and anterior core muscles, allows for isometric contraction of anterior core while allowing hip extension (movement)
Again, notice how these exercises aren’t just about staying still.
Core stability training should be a multi faceted approach and include all muscles involved in controlling the spine, but ALLOWING movement at the same time.
Will doing planks and hollow holds cure low back pain? Probably not. Put simply, people need to move too and have a beautiful balance of stability and mobility.
As professor Pete O’Sullivan says, “the spine is a 3-dimensional movement system.”
And he’s much smarter than me, so I highly recommend checking out his stuff on core stability training so you have both experience and evidence based insights on the subject.
Because, you know me…I stop at the introduction of exercise science literature. ;-O