Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Do You Need Direct Core Training?

Expert marketers have long known that two things sell better than most anything else: sex and absolutisms. Unfortunately, dear reader, this blog post isn't either of those. As polarizing and juicy as it would be to write about how you should "NEVER do crunches again" or "the one core exercise EVERYONE should be doing," none of that stuff is true.

The only way to answer the question of whether YOU need direct core training is to identify who "you" are.

Before we do that, though, let's get on the same page about what I mean by the core and direct core training:
  • The core: the anatomical region comprised of the torso, pelvis, and hips, including the abs, obliques, spinal erectors, glutes, hip flexors, hip adductors, transverse abdominis, multifidus, diaphragm, etc. As the link between the lower and upper extremities, the role of the core is to transfer, generate, and absorb force between the upper and lower body.

  • Direct core training: any exercise for which the primary purpose is to train the core muscles to improve their size, strength, endurance, or control. Direct core training can come in many forms, from positional breathing to static exercises to dynamic ones, either where the limbs are moving around a stable trunk or the trunk itself is moving. (I'll give a few specific examples of each shortly.)

Now back to the who-are-you question. To aid introspection, here's a smattering of things you should ask yourself to guide your direct core training decision:
  • Are you a competitive athlete? A weekend warrior? A couch potato?
  • Do you want to lose weight? Get stronger? Reduce your risk of injury? Get on stage for a bodybuilding show?
  • Do you already have a strong midsection, or is it your weak link?
  • What types of exercises are you already doing, if any?
  • Do you enjoy direct core training?

In relation to those questions, let's consider some conditions under which you could benefit from direct core training:

1. You have a weak core -- or at least weak relative to the rest of your body. Say you're doing a push-up, for example, and your limiting factor is your abs. By limiting factor, I mean you either (1) can’t do a clean push-up at all because you can’t achieve a solid plank position or (2) core muscle fatigue forces you to end your set (as opposed to upper body fatigue). Ergo, your weak core is preventing you from maximally stimulating your upper body. Direct core training would enable you to do more push-ups.

2. Your sport or occupation requires exceptional core strength -- the more the better. For example, mixed martial artists often find themselves needing to execute powerful sit-up-like maneuvers to counter their opponents. They’re also constantly getting kicked and punched in the ribs, so for them extra muscle around the midsection acts as “body armor.” In fact, the body armor argument applies to just about any collision and contact sport athlete (football, hockey, lacrosse, etc.). A few final examples here are dancers, gymnasts, and circus performers, whose skills all rely on incredible displays of core strength.

3. You want to do whatever you can to reduce your risk of injury. Scientifically speaking, we're still not sure exactly what role the core plays in injury risk. A recent systematic review determined that certain measures of core strength, endurance, and control -- but not all -- are related to decreased risk of lower body injury. I'm of the mind that you're better safe than sorry in this respect. More core strength, endurance, and control certainly won’t put you at greater risk of injury; that much we know.

4. You are already lean and want more core muscle definition. No matter how many sit-ups you do, you won’t get a visible six pack if you have lots of excess belly fat. But if you’re already fairly trim and you want your abs to pop, dynamic core exercises against progressive resistance will help to grow those muscles (just like any other muscles).

5. You want to be able to do cool party tricks like front levers, human flags, dragon flags, and planches. These calisthenics and gymnastics movements require a ton of core strength. As such, the exercise progressions that build up to them focus heavily on the core.

6. You enjoy feeling the burn in your midsection. Simple as dat.

Direct core training can look very different from one person to the next. While specific core training progressions are beyond the scope of this post, just to give you an idea, a person with a weaker core might start off with positional breathing exercises and progress to isometrics like planks and hollow body holds and then dynamic exercises like dead bugs and bear crawls. Meanwhile, someone who’s ready to build exceptional core strength could be doing ab wheel rollouts and hanging leg raises.

One context you might have expected to see in the list above is low back pain (LBP). For many years, it was believed that core “instability” and faulty core muscle firing patterns caused LBP. Based on this premise, LBP rehab efforts have often focused on direct core “stabilization” training, especially targeting the transverse abdominis and multifidus muscles.

These days, though, it’s looking more and more like general exercise is just as good as direct core training for LBP. This is likely due to pain being more complicated than a biomechanical difference in muscle timing or strength alone. There are many other factors that can contribute pain, including both psychological and sociological ones, for which general exercise (full-body strengthening, stretching, walking, etc.) can be just as effective for many cases of LBP.

To be clear, it’s not that direct core training couldn’t be beneficial for someone with low back pain. It’s just that it’s probably not fixing their spinal instability -- because in most cases there was no instability there to begin with. The point being, we want to be careful about the narratives surrounding our training decisions. The belief that the human spine is inherently unstable and fragile can itself perpetuate pain.

As discussed above, there are plenty of good reasons why you might want to train your core directly. So under what conditions might you opt not to do so? In short, if you don’t mind not maximally stimulating your core muscles.

Here are some specific examples:

1. You already have a well-trained core. Great! Work on something else. A subset of these people are the omnipresent cardio/ab queens and kings who do the same hour of aerobic training and ab exercises every single time they hit the gym. Your abs are good, my friend. Go learn to deadlift, please.

2. Your primary goal is fat loss. In most cases, people who want to lose weight are better off doing compound movements that will hit multiple muscle groups simultaneously and provide a more systemic effect to promote fat loss. Because there's no such thing as spot reduction, direct core training will be less effective at reducing that waistline than squats, deadlifts, push-ups, rows, etc.

3. You’re short on time. Most people can only commit a fixed amount of time to their fitness. Is devoting some of that time to direct core training (or any isolation exercise, for that matter) better than doing something else? Maybe, maybe not. That’s for you to decide. (Of course, you could hire me to help with the decision 😉.)

4. You’re already engaging in compound movements that are sufficiently* targeting your core (*based on your goals, current abilities, etc.). Examples of such exercises include squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, pull-ups, loaded push-ups, farmer's carries, and all their unilateral (single-arm or single-leg) counterparts. Because all of these movement are essentially planks with arm or leg movement, the core muscles are always working hard to stabilize the torso during their execution.

Without knowing your goals, strengths and weaknesses, and current exercise routine, it's impossible for me to say whether you might benefit from direct core training.

In the end, the decision to include direct core training often boils down to a tradeoff. If you're including it, then you're likely doing it instead of something else. Could that something else give you more bang for your training buck?

Only once you've laid all that out and weighed the costs and benefits can you make an informed decision. Anyone who speaks to the contrary (i.e. in absolutes) is, quite frankly, full of shit and just trying to stir the pot.

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