A strong core can enhance athletic performance and prevent injury, but you don’t need to do dozens of crunches or hold a two-minute plank to get there.
“Core stability is basically the ability to maintain postures in positions with movement. Somebody who has core stability will be able to maintain postures throughout running, jumping and cutting,” says Dave Knight, a licensed athletic trainer and Sports Performance program manager with UW Health Sports Medicine.
Even among athletes, poor core stability is an issue “more often than you might think,” he says.
Without a stable core, your body will instead rely on other muscles. For example, a golfer who doesn’t properly rotate through the hip during the swing could eventually develop back or knee pain. On the other hand, improving your core stability can help put more power into your performance.
“The role of the core is the transfer mechanism of force from one extremity to the other,” Knight explains. “The core acts as a ridged rod that the energy transfers through efficiently. Imagine a baseball pitcher pushing off the mound. Without good core stability, you may push off at a force of 100 but may only get 75 in your fingertips. With good core stability, we can push that number in your fingertips higher.”
How to strengthen your core
Core stability can also affect how your body handles everyday activities, such as climbing stairs. Knight shares these tips for developing a more stable core:
Decide your goal
Then make sure you have a plan that fits your goal. “If your goal is to exercise for health, then we need to approach it that way and have variety in your routine. If you’re exercising for performance, then we need to make sure your body is up to the demands of the sport. If you’re exercising for aesthetics, to get bigger biceps or six-pack abs, then there’s a whole different way to approach that,” he explains. “Once we can understand your goals, then we can direct you to the path that’s appropriate for you instead of just exercising for the sake of exercising.”
Don’t count on ab exercises alone
“Often times people think the solution is a musculoskeletal solution. We try to do more sets, more reps to fix it. But more often it’s actually a neuromuscular problem,” he notes. “It’s a motor pattern that the brain can’t figure out how to configure correctly. Using a musculoskeletal solution is like putting water on a grease fire. By getting stronger in the core without understanding how the core works, we’re going to spread the dysfunction. So we have to teach athletes how to properly position and move differently instead.”
Beware of self-diagnosing the problem
“The internet has been the biggest culprit behind poor exercise selection known to man,” Knight says. “The reality is you may or may not know if you’re doing the exercises correctly or what exercise is best for your goals. You need someone who gives you good guidance. That’s where coaching comes in: a trained individual can see what you’re doing wrong and give you a corrective strategy that can help you progress from point A to B.” Consider consulting a sports performance specialist or taking advantage of a program like UW Health’s CrossTrain program to make sure you’re using the optimal form.
“It’s very common to go about life and move with less than optimal mechanisms until the volume of movement leads to tissue damage,” Knight says. “But I don’t like people to wait until they have pain to do something about it.” Catching a movement problem earlier can also make it easier to retrain your brain and body.
“We like to think we’re going to correct a lifelong motor pattern in one week’s time, but it takes a lot of work,” Knight points out. The first step is to make sure you can get into the proper position, and then you’ll work on maintaining that position through increasingly challenging movements: you might progress from stepping up, to running, then running with weights, then running at a faster pace. Finally, you’ll work on maintaining the proper position while using the skills of your chosen activity.
Build variety into your exercise routine
“Exercise is like chocolate cake: We all love chocolate cake and we know it has 500 calories per slice, but we know that 500 calories isn’t a well rounded choice,” he says. “Exercise is much the same way: 500 calories burned on an elliptical machine is 500 calories burned. But burning 500 calories through multidirectional movement — running, jumping, moving laterally — that’s better for your body. If all we do is move straight forward and back like a LEGO figure, then our body doesn't get used to moving from side to side or rotationally. By moving in different ways, the body wakes up a bit. Mixing in some other movements gives your body a better vocabulary and a better engine to pull from. It’s a more neuromuscular approach.”
That’s why Knight believes in dynamic training more than planks. “The plank is a static exercise. Let’s say you hold it for three minutes. Name any other exercise endeavor where you need to stand still for three minutes. So why are we training that way?”
The UW Health Sports Performance Center offers a variety of athletic development programs and is open to the public.