What is a Strong Core?

By Coach Andrea Cockerham

The idea that core training is a separate exercise category from all other movement is a huge misconception in popular media. A strong core is determined by the force your extremities can produce while maintaining stability through your midline; think spinal stability and stability of the proximal attachment of arms and legs to your torso.

So when do you need core strength the most? Let’s use this simple equation to help explain when core strength is vital.

Force (Resistance) = Mass x Acceleration

Anytime you are generating substantial force or resistance you are doing so using your arms and legs. Your core will dissipate the force so your spine doesn’t take a beating.  

An example of when you’re generating force and need a strong core is when your lifting higher loads of mass through compound movements like squatting and deadlifting. So a great core exercise is a slow squat or deadlift where you are increasing the time under tension so your core will have to fire harder in order to maintain a neutral spine. Keep in mind if you are squatting or deadlifting and not maintaining a proper torso position you are doing more bad than good with you core training.

A second example of when you are generating more force is when you are accelerating through movements like sprints and Olympic Lifts. At this point you are maximizing the equation above by accelerating, or moving faster and being explosive.

So how do we train our core?

The best core training you can do is by doing the movements mentioned above, but in a smart succession. It is important to maximize your strength and time under tension before you start to accelerate a movement. A good example would be your front squat and having the ability to squat half your body weight maintaining torso posture before you start practicing cleans, where you accelerate the eccentric and concentric portion of the movement.

Core symmetry matters

Also, we want to consistently make sure our body maintains core symmetry. Most lower body injuries are a byproduct of asymmetry where our legs attach to our torso; also called the proximal attachment. The two muscles that are highly involved with this attachment are the psoas and illiacus, which function as a unit for the most part and are involved with flexion, extension and external rotation of your hips. There is a high likelihood that if you experience lower back pain it is due to the instability or immobility of one of these muscles. If you are asymmetrical in rigidity or laxity in these muscles this can cause issues up and down your kinetic chain. If you do have an asymmetry such as one foot external rotates more than the other or one hip is higher than the other consult your coach first but it is always good to get an opinion from a physical therapist as well – mostly if you are experiencing pain.

The main take away from this read is that you training your core everyday by bringing your attention to your posture when you are siting, standing, walking and lifting. Flexion and extension of your spine is not your primary source of core strengthening – isometric or static bracing is where you get the best bang for your buck. A sit-up is not going to give you six-pack abs, a heavy front squat and diet composed of real food is.