Everyone likes to have ripped “6 Pack” abs, but this isn’t always what’s important for sports performance. We have athletes that come in all of the time who tell us they do hundreds of crunches every day and can show us a great looking set of abs, but when we evaluate them, we find that they may be very strong in one area of their core, but they have very little stability. Stability is the key for running fast and jumping high in sports.
Strength v. Stability
What do we mean by core stability? In order to understand core stability, we must first understand how the core works.
The core consists of several layers of muscle and tissue in the walls of your abdomen and low back. The purpose of these muscles is to not only create motion in order to flex, extend and rotate your trunk, but to stabilize your pelvis and low back. So, the same group of muscles is asked to create motion while limiting motion.
It can be difficult to understand how they can perform opposite duties simultaneously. They can do this because of their multiple layers. The outer layers (rectus abdominis and external obliques) are the muscles you see and are primarily responsible for creating motion. If you ever done crunches or situps, you know how to train these muscles.
The deeper muscles of the core (specifically the transverse abdominis and multifidus) are the muscles which are responsible for stability. When these muscles contract, they lock the spine and pelvis in place. This is important for not only preventing injury, but for performance.
The multiple layers of the core are all able to perform their duties independent of each other at the same time. This is what allows you to stabilize your pelvis and low back while twisting, turning, flexing and extending.
The Foundation for Movement
So why is stabilizing the pelvis so important? The pelvis is the foundation for the lower body. Without a good foundation, you can train the quads, hamstrings, and calves all you want, but you will always be limited.
If you have ever run in sand, you can understand what we’re talking about. As you push hard with your foot to drive against the ground, your foot has a tendency to slip out from under you, wasting valuable energy and losing power. If your core isn’t stable and your pelvis is allowed to move and rotate, you will experience a similar phenomenon. In this case, as you push with the muscles of your legs, your pelvis will rotate and move, thus causing a loss of power. This will ultimately prevent you from running fast and jumping high.
Training the inner unit of the core typically starts with Draw in exercises. To perform a draw in, start by standing upright and reach with your hands above your head. While reaching up in the air, pull your abs in towards your spine by contract them. Make sure you are able to keep breathing while performing the draw in. Hold this position for several seconds and repeat until you have mastered the exercise.
You can progress from a draw in to more traditional abdominal strengthening exercises, such as crunches and leg lifts. The key is keeping your abs drawn in and inner unit activated while performing these exercises.
Also train the inner unit by performing strength exercises (i.e. Dumbbell Bench Press, Military Press, Split Squat) while sitting or standing on unstable surfaces or on one foot. By making these simple modifications, the core becomes more active in an effort to stabilize the body. This is a great way to train the core in a sport specific manner.