Core Development Conceptualized
Conceptualize the core not just by muscles but through position and movement, engaging the body in full. With this, you can be physically efficient and circumvent potential injuries. Understanding this cognitive process then physically interpreting it is the baseline to all movement patterns and keeping your spine safe from injury.
Grossly simplified, the human body is a car. The spine is the chassis with the shoulders and hips being the engine. It does not matter how big and bad the engine is, if the chassis is damaged, the car is useless. You can sell a conditioned ‘66 Pontiac GTO for up $60k. If the chassis is damaged, the value is cut down by 80%. Suffer a back or spinal injury, it could potentially be life-threatening or greatly affect your future quality of life.
Understanding core training is a holistic approach that cannot be compartmentalized by abdominal exercises. It must be conceptualized through position, movement, and full-body musculature.
What stabilizes your spine is your pelvis and the musculature running from just beneath your chest to your glutes, academically labeled lumbopelvic-hip-complex (the core). This is home to your center-of-gravity (COG) and through this, the baseline to initiate movement.
The core is designed to stabilize your spine from excessive rotation, flexion, and extension, and to transfer force from the hips and shoulders.* Your hips and shoulders are responsible for handling rotational/flexion/extension responsibilities, not your spine.*
Ideally, you never want your spine under load in a flexed or extended position, a rounded back in a squat or a severely arched lumbar during a deadlift. Yes, you can get by temporarily moving in a poor position but eventually, your body will fight back with an injury.
A major component of athleticism and injury prevention is the ability to absorb, transmit or apply force through your kinetic chain. The powerlifter who loads 800lb on his back going for a record squat. If one segment in his kinetic chain is off, serious injury is at play.
He unracks the bar then squats down. On the ascent, he loses his core tightness causing his back to low-back to round. Now 800+ is compressing his lumbar spine, at a specific spot such as L4 or L5 disc, potentially causing a rupture.
If his kinetic chain is sequenced properly, he can properly absorb the weight with his muscles and joints, with his spinal discs optimally compressed, then transmit 801lb of force into the barbell to complete the lift safely. There are no energy leaks or kinks in the kinetic chain. Like our GTO, you cannot harness the engine of your shoulder and hips if your core chassis is improperly positioned.
The same principle applies to every dynamic movement. Stabilizing your mid-line then using your hips and shoulders to generate power.
Ken Griffey Jr. possesses some of the greatest athletic ability ever because he could synchronize and transmit the energy from his hips and shoulders through the kinetic chain into a 98mph baseball, all without thinking twice. He began his swing by slightly altering his COG then generating torque in his hips and shoulders to rotate around his center-of-gravity to launch homers.
Stabilizing your midsection is not exclusive to your abdominal muscles, it is a full-body movement engaging your hips and shoulders.
For some, tightening your core is conceptualized as either arching your back (elongating the abs, shortening your hip flexors and compressing the low back) or simply rounding over and squeezing your abs intensely. Both positions expose your low back to injury and you are unable to transfer energy through the kinetic chain. Try throwing a baseball, football, softball, etc… with an arched back. The energy you are trying to transfer from your hips into your shoulder to throw is leaking at your low back, deteriorating your power output. Yeah, you can still throw but it will not be as efficient or powerful had you assembled your core.
The body works on a first come first serve basis. To augment the strength of your hips and shoulders, they have to be loaded properly at the beginning of movements because whatever is loaded first, will be worked the most. Initiate an RDL by rounding your back, your lumbar spine is going to work the hardest.
Maximizing your hips and shoulders begins with setting and maintaining your core throughout the movement.
To stabilize your core, you want to create a straight line down your ear through your shoulder, ribcage, and hip.
- Engage your glutes by slightly creating torque in your hips (squeeze your butt)
- The pelvis should be positioned underneath your rib cage
- Glutes support your pelvis
- Glutes are not contracting maximally, just enough to maintain position
- Abs and obliques maintain your rib position over your pelvis
- Like the glutes, not contracting 100% maximally, just enough to maintain position
- Bracing for a max-effort squat would be the equivalent to contracting at 100%
- Shoulders are pulled back
- Externally rotated
- Not rolled forward
- Stable position
- Head set back and balanced over your shoulders
From this position, your spine is neutral and the core musculature is activated to properly stabilize your spine and apply force through the kinetic chain. The torque applied to the hips and shoulders, through external rotation, means you can generate force safely without exposing your body to injury.
Remember to properly activate the muscles used to stabilize your spine and transfer force, you have to assume the proper position THEN engage the musculature THEN maintain this state as you transition from movement to movement.
Cognitively grasping and physically interpreting proper core stability is the baseline for physical literacy.
Dr. Kelly Starrett, Glen Cordoza. (2015). Becoming a Supple Leapord: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. New York: Victory Belt Publishing Inc.
Jeff Sydes, C. (2018, July 5). Core Stability: What Is It and Why Is It Important? Retrieved from Nationwide Children's: https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2018/07/core-stability
Trey Thornton is a NASM Certified Person Trainer. He spent 4 years interning with the University of TN Chattanooga Athletic Performance Dept. along with spending time at Harvard University Strength & Conditioning. He attained his Bachelor's in Exercise Science From UT Chattanooga and coached at D1 Sports Performance in Bowling Green, KY before joining the TF Staff.