Over the past decade core training became the new, hot thing in the fitness business, as everyone from coaches to trainers to fitness consumers caught core training fever. But just like so many other trends that have dominated the fitness business, there’s less to the core training panacea than meets the eye. So, as usual, rather than just parrot the accepted line and support the position that core training is the most important part of your exercise program, I’m going to do the opposite, in David Letterman Top-10 style, and give you the top four reasons not to make core training the focus of your workouts.
And of course, I’m going delivery them in reverse order of importance. Actually, the best reason is the last reason, the others are all about of the same importance. So here we go.
The definition of core isn’t correct and changes depending on the source. Depending on who the guru is, the definition of core changes. The worst practitioners of core training will tell you the core is made up of the abdominals. Slightly better/not as horrible, but still embarrassing are those who include the lower back muscles in the equation. Others experts will include the muscles around the hip and the gluteal muscles, the hamstrings and the mid-back, either all or some. I’ve heard some ridiculous discussions about what defines the core. In reality, all proper training is core training and to set an arbitrary boundary to the mythical core is to ignore the dynamics of the body. And it’s a waste of time.
The exercises selected to strengthen the core aren’t proper, even if you accept the many (and sometimes, limited) definitions. For the sake of argument, even if we take the word of the proponents of core training, the exercises prescribed to “hit” this area stink. That’s a bit harsh, I know. I used to use the term, “inefficient and ineffective,” but “stinks” really resonates. I don’t really care if I offend anyone by saying this because I am trying to save people time, effort and disappointment.
When it comes to developing the core, that core proponents insist is the core, remember the following; crunches stink, working on the mat stinks, using the balance/stability ball stinks, working your oblique muscles on the back-hyperextension bench stinks, exercises that emphasize “stillness” or bracing have limited effectiveness (they kinda stink), and you cannot “turn-on” your abdominal muscles when doing specific exercises designed to strengthen the core. You cannot turn on any muscles, actually, but that’s a different story for another search engine optimized bit of content.
When it comes to working on a balance/stability ball, research shows that more muscles are activated – and this activation is stronger – when doing an exercise off the ball. So when performing a military press sitting on a balance ball, your “core” is doing less work than when the same exercise is done while seated on a stable bench or standing. And you should always do the standing version of any exercise.
As upright animals our core doesn’t work as well – or the same when – when lying down. The vast majority of people – fitness professionals and coaches, too – don’t realize that the standing position is far superior to any other position, including lying down, sitting down or on hands and knees. Our species has evolved to the point where we walk upright, which both requires and allows us to perform advanced mental and physical processes.
In our everyday lives, whether we are walking, running, standing, golfing, playing football, jumping rope, etc, gravity affects us in a specific way relative to our standing position. Performing any exercise lying down or on all fours changes the way gravity affects us and, therefore, has little, if any, carry over. Any exercise you do lying, sitting or on all fours will only strengthen you in those positions. Using your arms for weight bearing is like using a high-tech electronic gadget as a paper weight.
When I tell people this I invariably get the response that these prone/supine/all-fours exercises are hard to perform. But so what? Is something that’s harder to do, by definition, better for you? Certainly not. Performing exercises on one and/or two feet is much more difficult, effective and appropriate than any exercise performed in these non-natural positions. Working in these non-standing positions is difficult because it’s contradictory to our basic physical and mental nature.
Any “core exercise” performed in a non-standing position only helps performance in that position and does nothing for you in the real, everyday standing position. Working the hips/glutes/low back while on all fours or in any position other than standing is inefficient.
Research indicates that a stronger core doesn’t correlate to improved performance. During the past decade the growth of this school of thought was not accompanied by any research that supported the assertions that core training could prevent injury, fix back pain or injury or improve performance. As a matter of fact, as time goes on, the research that has been done has served to point out the limitations of core training.
Most recently, researchers from Indiana State University found that there was no correlation between core stability, as commonly measured, and strength and improved performance. What this means is that all of the prone, supine and all-fours exercises that have been promoted as “core strengtheners” are extremely limited in their effectiveness.
This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t work on improving core strength. What this research indicates is that core strengthening should not be the main focus of a training program and that there are other, more specific exercises that should be employed to strengthen to core and improve performance.
Exercises that require movement while in a standing, two or one-footed stance are the most effective way to build functional, purposeful core strength, or what is also called a “reactive core.” This isn’t just for athletes, but for us regular folks, too.