The Infamous Core Experiment

That training the core is important is sort of one of those “everyone knows” facts of our existence. No is going to dispute the importance of the core, although some will postulate that training the core directly is unnecessary because big and heavy compound movements like the squat and deadlift already train it sufficiently.

First a clarification of terms. When I’m referring to the “core” which is of course a hotly debated and contested term in and of itself, I’m referring to the general area that connects all of our fleshy stuff from below the chest and above the waist, all the way around. The core provides a stable base to produce, reduce, and redirect force with the limbs of the body. Let’s not argue about what we call it, k?

Besides the idiotic debates about what you should actually call this region, what people generally debate is whether or not you need to specifically train the anterior core and how you should do that. While it’s still part of the core, the posterior core gets enough work from deads and squats.

In other words, do you need to train dem abzzzzz?

I’ve always been a big advocate of training the anterior core specifically. I believe that it’s part of what has made me a strong and healthy deadlifter. In our gym training it’s not at all uncommon to have two full movements dedicated to some sort of anterior or lateral core stability training, in addition to squats and deads etc. It’s a primary, fundamental part of the training.

But a few years ago I wanted to challenge this assumption. What if it were true that you didn’t need to train the anterior core specifically, and you could actually get away with just training squats and deads. If this assumption was wrong, I would be wasting a lot of people’s time and effort with my gym programming – which means I’d be getting them worse results than if they spent that time more productively.

I decided to quietly do an experiment. Removing core training from my own programming wouldn’t be sufficient. It would be an n=1 experiment, which would be great to determine if I personally needed to train anterior core, but it wouldn’t tell me what I really wanted to know: do my clients need this?

So I removed all anterior core training from their programming for the next 5-week block of training. I kept everything else the same, and in place of where they would test anterior core variations, I put in sort of innocuous mobility drills that should have a neutral effect like wall slides and easy movement drills. To state what I think should be obvious, our normal programming consists of a lot of big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, kettlebell work, presses, and pulls.

At the end of each cycle we have “Max Week” where those who have trained consistently can re-test their maxes (from a 5rm for newbies up to 1rm for more experienced or advanced trainees). My plan was to observe the training and measure if there was a discernible difference in strength progress without the anterior core work. While far from a perfect experiment, the sample size was big enough that I would have the power to determine what effect it would really have.

That is if I could have continued the experiment long enough to see it through.

Within two weeks I started to see an undeniable uptick in complaints about back issues. Not major issues, mind you. But more people coming in complaining of little tweaks and niggles.

The effect was so immediate and dramatic that I discontinued the experiment, re-worked the rest of the cycle of programming, and reintroduced the anterior core work. The complaints vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Here are the main types of core movements that we rotate through in our programming at Movement:

  • Anterior Core Dynamic – Movements that generate movement through the core, primarily in flexion. Things like crunches, weighted, standing crunches, leg raises, leg lowers. Yes, we do crunches. Believe it or not the spine is designed to flex and it should be trained in ways it can move.
  • Anterior Core Static – These are mainly movements that resist motion such as planks, farmers walks, weighted planks, body saws, etc.
  • Rotational Core Dynamic – These are movements in which there is a twisting or rotating movement of the spine which is both generating the movement as well as stabilizing. We favor Russian twists, Palloff twists, windshield wipers.
  • Rotational Core Static – These movements focus on preventing rotation through the spine. A palloff press is the most classic example, in which you’re alternating between a short lever trying to rotate you and a longer lever trying harder to make you rotate. The goal here is resisting movement. Side planks also align closely with this category as an anti-lateral-flexion movement, as do single-sided carries and deadlifts.

In every training session we will use at least one but more often two of these categories, and over the course of a block of training we will address all four core modalities in roughly equal rotation. Depending on the specific person and what biofeedback tests bests for them some people will do more work from one or two particular categories.

One of the things I hear most often from my 1-1 training clients and online coaching clients is a combination of “My core is the strongest it has ever been” and “Thank you for making me do the core work, normally I skip it on my own.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this, and you can probably imagine that the two statements are two sides of the same coin.

Eat your spinach, and do your core work kids.

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Comments

  1. I found the same thing to be true for myself. A few months ago I was short on time due to business-related matters. But I did want to train. Had four sessions a week, and because they were short I only did compound (bang for your buck, they say) movements. I got back pain on my right side, during training, after training, and even during daily activities. Once I re-started doing ab work, the pain went away almost immediately.

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