Core Training Myths: The truth about core training in fitness and sports

Around the turn of the century, a new buzzword began to circulate among experts in the fitness and sports industry–“Core” was the buzzword and a new revolution was born in sports and fitness training.  Article after article appeared in journals and magazines touting the core as the area we need to focus on the most to lead healthier, “pain-free” lives.  The media picked up on the buzzword.  With so much exposure, just about every issue or injury from low back pain to poor sports performance, which we had previously attributed to other issues, were now believed to be miraculously cured by targeting the core.

In the 1990’s, the industry claimed low back pain was primarily affected by the hamstrings. Today, the industry and the media blame back pain and everything else on a weak core.  This was and is 100% incorrect.  Back pain can be caused by any one of hundreds functional issues.  Experts in sports training, fitness, and even physical medicine (yes this includes highly respected doctors) also blamed many injuries and poor sports performances on poor core strength.  With so much exposure and demand for improvement,  every “fitness and medical expert” began creating exercises and programs targeting the core.  The physical ailments and sports performances people seek to improve are also affected by many factors including learned behaviors or techniques which create imbalances (but that’s another post all to itself).

It is my belief that because the hundreds of thousands of professionals who work with people on their sports, fitness, and health goals placed too much emphasis on this one particular area of the body, we are now seeing the results of the failure of the industry to properly educate consumers on how to truly balance their bodies and lead a healthy lifestyle.

Many experts, and as a result, fitness seekers and athletes all around the world have over done it with “core training”.  It was believed by some “so-called experts” that almost every problem in the body stemmed from weak core muscles.  And according to those experts, if you could just strengthen your core all your problems would be solved and fitness goals attained.

Well… I call BS!.  And over the next 1,000 words or so, I intend to explain why.

The body is divided into three planes. Sagittal, Coronal, and Transverse.

The “core muscles” and what it takes to train them has begun to cause an epidemic that needs to be undone.  Why is it that while the industry has focused on the “core”, the number of people suffering from back pain around the world has increased. In addition, we have seen a rise in other “core related” injuries?

The “core muscles” have been incorrectly identified by the average person.   In fact, I’ve searched the web, and most experts define the core as the abdominal and lower back muscles.  Most people believe the core can be trained by performance exercises on a stability ball; adding resistance to abdominal exercises; and by performing numerous other activities we now call functional training.  In truth, the core muscles are made up of all the muscles which meet in the center of the body’s planes.

In reality, the best way to define the “core muscles is “all muscles which affect the position of the pelvis”. This includes muscles originating and inserting at the pelvis and all of those muscles which affect pelvis position.  This also includes some muscles of the lower body which are neglected when “training the core”.  The pelvis moves in multiple directions and is essentially the first indicator of true stability (which is what we are trying to accomplish with “core training”).  Now keep in mind, pelvis movements can be and are affected by movements of all the segments and muscles around it. This means, the core is affected by both feet, both legs, the spine, and the arms (because the arms are attached to the spine via the trunk).

The ideal pelvis forward tilt is 7 and 10 degrees in men and women. some experts would say that a desirable forward pelvic tilt is 0-5 degrees in men and 7-10 degrees in women.  Those are desired averages, but we are not striving for average, we should be working towards ideal.  Based upon my research of thousands of people from all walks of life, the actual average is greater than 17-20 degrees of forward pelvic tilt. This is more than twice the ideal.  And the majority of participants in my research are athletes who supposedly have the best fitness levels and training.

While I do want to make it clear that training the core is important, I want to clarify that “core muscles” previously targeted through isolation and functional training are no less important than any other muscle in our body. In fact, what has happened as a result of the over emphasis on the core muscles is the following:

1) Any muscle when focused on as the muscle group to target can be OVER-trained and as a result, OVER developed.

2) Any muscle group when targeted can be exercised improperly, negating any real benefits that would have been gained had the exercises been

performed properly.

3) Compensation injuries can occur as a result of over-training or over emphasizing any muscle group.

In truth the core is the center of the body where forces cross the mid-point of the body splitting the into multiple planes.

For simplicity, the body is split into halves from upper body to lower body (Transverse plane); Front side to back side (Coronal Plane); and left side to right side (Sagittal plane).  In order for the body to become balanced, exercises must target all areas of the planes in some cases through multi-planar exercises (Functional and rotational movements in all directions).

The X-Plane divides the body diagonally from left hand to right foot and from right hand to left foot.

One aspect of multi-planar training that is rarely taken into consideration is the fact that in an effort to seek balance, those planes are affected by work that is done diagonally from left to right and right to left, from upper body to lower body.  What does that mean?  The body is divided into the three (but really four) planes. However, the left arm does its job in conjunction with the right leg.  The right arm, works with the left leg.  So the new, “X-Plane” has to be trained as well.

A muscle is over trained and over developed when it is targeted more than its opposing muscle group (in all planes).  If I only work on my right bicep and not my left, its obvious that my right arm would be stronger, more dense, and heavier than my left when doing activities that require both arms.  If we spend time isolating the low back and abdominal (which the average person defines as the core), we end up with abs/low back that are significantly stronger than our feet, lower leg muscles, glutes, hamstrings, possibly even quads.

As a result, instead of strengthening the body’s ability to transfer energy and have support from the  “core” to perform functional movements, we are actually weakening, the core and its ability to perform true functional movements.  What is an indicator that the core has been over-trained or improperly trained?  That’s the easy part.  We will see people suffer more injuries to hamstrings, the groin, chronic low back pain, and a the presence of a severely forward tilted pelvis (anterior pelvic tilt).

This negative pelvis posture can lead to an increase in ACL/meniscus knee injuries, plantar fascia injuries, patella tendonitis, groin pulls, hamstring strains, shoulder injuries, low back/spine injuries and pain, abdominal strains, neck pain/discomfort leading to surgeries of the cervical spine, and hundreds of other physical issues.

So let’s stop isolating the core and begin to work on developing balance in the body, in all planes, not just at the “core”.  Fitness should be achieved by working to develop the entire body…From the Ground Up! 

In future writings, I will address some key exercises, which if done properly will provide more true benefit to the “core” than the road the industry is currently taking to a healthy core.

Follow Zig Ziegler, the Sports Kinesiologist on Twitter @zigsports. Zig is the author of he soon to be released book, Absolute Kinetix: Fitness From the Ground Up.

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