Core Training – the top 6 training mistakes

There is a lot of focus on core training at the moment with athletes from all kinds of sports proclaiming its benefits. The Internet is full of videos and articles from various “experts” showing you a number of different exercises to strengthen your core.

Unfortunately not everything you read is correct. In fact there are numerous studies that show core training for runners has NO effect on running performance or injury prevention.

Here are some qoutes taken directly from research papers.

“Few studies have observed any performance enhancement in sporting activities despite observing improvements in core stability and core strength following a core training programme.”*

“..there was no association between improvements in LPS [Lumbo-pelvic stability] and improvements in athletic performance.”**

“Based on the current literature, performance of groundbased free weight movements might be better for the development of core strength and power due to the force, velocity, and core stabilizing requirements that are similar to the demands of sports skills.”***

“It appears Swiss ball training may positively affect core stability without concomitant improvements in physical performance “****

The reason for this lack of benefit in tradtional core training exercises, in my opinion, is the exercises prescribed to strengthen the core aren’t specific enough to the athletes sport.

Here are the six biggest mistakes made in many core training program’s

Be warned almost every exercise you will have seen recommended to train your core makes most of these mistakes. Whilst you may be wondering how so many people can get it wrong remember that if the exercises were effective then you would think that studies would confirm that core training has a positive effect on running economy or performance or a reduction in injury rate but the evidence doesnt support this. Clearly something is inherently wrong with the current core training approach.

1. Keeping a Neutral Spine

Almost all the core exercises recommended or demonstrated on videos such as planks, side planks, dead bugs etc, work on the principle of using your core muscles to maintain a neutral spine.

A neutral spine is the natural position of the spine with all the curves of your back in good alignment – lumbar, thoracic and cervical. Once you have this position the exercises are designed to challenge your abdominal muscles to maintain neutral.

To understand why limiting motion of your spine is not beneficial think about someone who has very bad back pain. The type of pain that causes their whole spine to become immobile so that when they turn their head their whole body follows. If you can, recall how they look when they walk and you will see a very unnatural, stiff and restricted ability to move. This is what happens when you immobilise the spine.

When we run our spine rotates, bends sideways and tilts forwards and back with every step. Too much movement and you have a problem, not enough movement and you also have a problem.

So whilst a neutral spine is an excellent position to maintain if we are going to lift a heavy object it is impossible to maintain whilst we run. If we could manage to maintain a neutral spine when we ran our running would look very unnatural

Why then do we spend time exercising muscles to restrict any movement of the spine?

Neutral spine is a position you move through, not one you maintain. We need to ask ourselves why we are aiming to prevent spinal movement when the spine has so much movement available to it. The problems occur when the body doesn’t have the strength to control the movement or too much movement occurs at a particular joint.

Core training exercises should be trying to restore movement where there is a lack of mobility and strengthening muscles to control movement where there is a lack strength.

2. Performing exercises in a lying rather than standing position

In 2010 the Annual Summit of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), stated that vertical core training is more effective than traditional core training methods.

Why then do most core training programs still use exercises lying on your side, back or in a plank position?

When we are in a horizontal position like in a plank the major load we have to deal with is gravity which acts perpendicular to our spine. When we run we have to deal with gravity acting in the same direction as our spine plus the forces involved when we hit the ground and as a result of the forwards momentum of our body.

Performing core exercises in a horizontal position doesn’t teach the core to deal with ground reaction forces or momentum. It does teach the core to control the forces of gravity but at a 90 degree angle to what the body has to deal with when we run. Is it any wonder that research hasn’t found core training to be of any or little benefit for running?

3. Working muscles in isolation

Most core training exercises work the core muscles in isolation i.e the exercises are designed so very few other muscles are necessary. This is meant to allow you to focus on working the core muscles more effectively.

There are a number of problems with this approach. The first being muscles don’t work in isolation when we move. They work in conjunction with the rest of the body. Every movement we make is a complex sequence of a number of muscles; just taking a step involves 200 muscles

Unless the brain knows how to recruit which muscles in which order and at what intensity, movement is compromised. Training muscles in isolation doesn’t teach them to integrate with the rest of the body.

Instead of isolating muscles there are ways we can emphasise certain muscles whilst simultaneously teaching them to work alongside the rest of the body.

4. Not working in three dimensions

Movement of any joint can occur in three different planes – forward and back ( the Sagittal plane) side to side ( frontal plane) and rotating left and right ( transverse plane). When we run we experience loads in all three planes.

For example when our right leg hits the ground gravity acts on our hips causing the left side to drop since the right side is supported by the foot being on the ground. This causes movement in the frontal plane as the hips to tilt to the left

With our right foot on the ground our pelvis is rotating to the right as our left leg swings forward.

As we land our pelvis is driven forward by momentum so it tilts forward.

To train the core effectively we need to train it to control all three of these movements. This is something that traditional core training does not do.

5. Performing exercises slowly

Running involves taking approximately 90 steps per minute. Which means one strides ( from right foot hitting the ground to left foot hitting the ground again) takes approx 0.33 of a second.

Given that the benefits of an exercise are specific to the speed of movement used in the exercise, i.e. if you perform an exercise slowly then your body will adapt by becoming better at performing the exercise slowly, it makes no sense to perform core exercises in a slow controlled manner.

6. Using Static Holds

Many traditional core exercises involve holding one position for a period of time to increase the load on the core. Given that when we run each stride only takes 0.33 seconds and in that .33 of a second we are continually moving, there isn’t much of an argument for holding a plank for 60-90 seconds.

So if traditional core training exercises are ineffective then what are some effective exercises?

In this post I discuss core training in more detail and explain three different exercises that would be more effective.

*Optimizing Performance by Improving Core Stability and Core Strength:
Hibbs, Angela E.; Thompson, Kevin G.; French, Duncan; Wrigley, Allan; Spears, Iain
Sports Medicine: 1 December 2008 – Volume 38 – Issue 12 – pp 995-1008

**The effect of a 10-week training regimen on lumbo-pelvic stability and athletic performance in female athletes: A randomized-controlled trial: Jonathan D. Mills , Jack E. Taunton, William A. Mills
Physical Therapy in Sport 6 (2005) 60-66

***Core Stability Training for Healthy Athletes: A Different Paradigm for Fitness Professionals: Willardson, Jeffrey M. PhD, CSCS
Strength and Conditioning Journal (2007) Volume: 29, Issue: 6, Pages: 42

****The Effect of Short-Term Swiss Ball Training on Core Stability and Running Economy
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2004, 18(3), 522–528