Pilates is a wonderful and intelligent method of exercise that is fundamental to building a strong core, but it is not the end-all-be-all workout. Joe Pilates developed the work to enhance core strength, mobility, and bring awareness to the body - and with those objectives in mind, he also encouraged people to use the method in the other activities they enjoyed.
In addition to Pilates method, I am also a strong advocate of different types of training that also strengthen the core. Guest author Cameron Yuen, CSCS, FMS explains the path to developing core strength and understanding how to apply it to sports and athletic performance.
Four Steps to a Stronger Core
I am a big fan of training movements and exercise in a continuum. On one side of the spectrum lies a deconditioned or possibly injured individual who has limited coordination, proprioception, and strength. On the far side, there is an athlete with perfect neuromuscular motor control to allow for a beautiful combination of power, flexibility, and agility. Core training will therefore follow this continuum ranging from isolated to integrated, depending on the current abilities of the individual. These four progressions can be scaled to anyone’s level of strength and coordination, but I recommend starting at the first stage to build a solid foundation.
Before I start, I will give a very condensed list of structures involved in the “core.” The anterior abdominal musculature forms a very dense, layered array of fibers that run in almost every direction to stabilize and control movement in the spine, pelvis, and ribs. The spinal erectors are important not only as extensors and stabilizers of the lumbar spine, but also due their role of resisting anterior shear forces on our vertebrae due to our lumbar curvature. The diaphragm forms the top of the core while the pelvic floor muscles form the bottom. Lastly, the hip flexors and extensors provide movement in our lower limbs independently of movement in our torso. The pelvis, lumbar spine, and thoracic spine are the structures that are controlled by the core and need to be in alignment for optimal performance.
Before core training can begin, there needs to be sufficient mobility in the hips and thoracic spine. In our spine, each thoracic segment is capable of creating seven to nine degrees of rotation, totaling over seventy degrees of rotation. The lumbar spine, which is a very stable segment of joints, can get a mere ten degrees. If the individual cannot find mobility in the hips and thoracic spine, they will almost certainly find it in their lower back. This is why so many people still have lower back pain despite training the muscles of the core.
To start, practice some thoracic mobilizations on a foam roller. This can be done by placing the foam roller under the lowest part of your thoracic spine. Keep your hips on the ground, arch your upper back over the foam roller and try to get your shoulders down to the ground. Repeat this process several times then move up one vertebra at a time until you reach your cervical spine.
Now that our hips are free to move independently of our lower back, and our thoracic spine can create some extension and rotation, we can start with our first stage in core training – endurance. In this stage, we should train isometrically, that is, without movement, in our core. The plank, side plank, and glute bridge are excellent starting points not only for the deconditioned trainee, but also for the athlete who hasn’t learned to fully integrate core strength into practical useable strength and needs to rebuild their foundation.
The trainee should aim to contract all of the muscles of their core while keeping a neutral pelvis and tall spine. Care should be taken to avoid excessively arching the lower back or letting the hips sag. Once these positions can be held for over a minute while maintaining perfect alignment, it is safe to move to the second stage.
2. Dynamic Core Stability
This is where most people get their dedicated core work in, and unfortunately, where most of their core work stops. In this stage, the trainee learns to use their core to stabilize the spine and pelvis while creating movement in the extremities. This natural progression towards athletic performance teaches the nervous system to reactively contract and relax certain muscles in order to maintain stability in one joint while allowing motion in another. An anti-extension example would be a plank with a rollout.
The arms and hips allow the body to extend, while the core keeps the pelvis and spine from moving. The pallof press is a similar anti-rotation exercise which allows the trainee to learn to move their arms while using the core to resist rotation in their trunk.
3. Force Reduction and Neutralization
The skill of using the core to reduce and neutralize force is rarely trained, yet it is used by everyone on a daily basis. Think of all the times you hold uneven groceries, or a bag resting on one shoulder, and you get the idea. In this stage, the trainee is subjected to an asymmetrical load and is forced to reactively brace their core to keep their pelvis and spine from falling out of alignment. Integrate that into a movement such as walking or step ups, and the body learns how to use its core strength in a more practical manner.
Just like in the other stages, if the trainee is not using their core and is passively resting on structures such as tendons and ligaments, they’re doing nothing but hurting themselves and learning bad movement patterns, and might need to regress to a lower stage.
4. Force Production
Take a moment and think of your favorite sport and the movements required by the athletes. In a baseball swing or a boxer’s punch, energy is stored in the hip as the foot drives into the ground. The hips turn and transfer force through the core to the upper back and arms where rotation can occur. The ability to use the core for force production is essential to athletic performance and injury prevention. As mentioned earlier, the lumbar spine is not designed for rotation and should be kept relatively stationary throughout the movement. To train this pattern, medicine balls and kettlebells are very effective.
Rotational chest throws closely mimic the actions performed in sports but have the added benefit of significant external weight. By teaching the movement as originating from the hips and core, and learning to get maximum rotation in the upper back without compromising the lower back, an athlete can learn to generate a serious amount of power.
These four progressions, coupled with an effective strength and conditioning program, will help develop a strong and coordinated body safe from injury. The exercises described at each stage represent a small sample of possible movements, so feel free to be creative swapping exercises in as long as they follow the parameters of each stage.
Cameron Yuen, CSCS, FMS, is a competitive powerlifter, who learned to appreciate the importance of biomechanics and optimal spinal alignment for sport and athletic performance while working as a trainer and helping injured individuals at physical therapy clinics. He has used his experience and science- oriented education to promote the countless benefits of exercise and sports nutrition to clients. He motivates and aids them to achieve numerous goals including muscular hypertrophy, fat loss, preparation for powerlifitng competitions, and rehabilitation from injuries. Cameron is currently studying pre-physical therapy coursework at University of California San Diego where he also coaches the athletes of the University of California San Diego powerlifting club. He is available for sessions in San Diego, CA and can be contacted via e-mail at CameronJamesYuen@gmail.com