Senchyna: The core of the matter

The phrase “training the core” is used so often in sports and exercise that it may have lost much of its meaning.

The phrase “training the core” is used so often in sports and exercise that it may have lost much of its meaning.

Many athletes, coaches and even lay people have at least a vague understanding that the core is the muscular area around your trunk, and it is an important area to exercise and keep fit. Although the myth persists that you can trim down and lose belly fat by doing core exercises – you can’t.

So what is the “core” and why is it important to exercise?

There are many definitions of what muscles comprise the core and depending on who you talk to you will get slightly different answers to this question.

Some define the core as the abdominal and back muscles acting together; others describe it as a girdle or cylinder of muscles that surround the trunk attaching the rib-cage and the pelvis; still others characterize it as a box comprising muscles of the anterior, lateral and posterior trunk along with the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles. And some add arm and leg muscles in the definition. There is no absolute right or wrong way to define the core.

Why are these muscles important?

Various studies have shown that there are many benefits to core training. A strong core reduces back pain in athletes and non-athletes alike; it can help to stabilize an athlete; it can help improve throwing or kicking velocity (or club-speed in golfers); it improves posture (and therefore strength) in sports that require a crouch position (such as hockey, football and rugby); among many other benefits.

But the reason you train the core, and the methods you should use, ultimately depend on the specific demands of the sport or task involved.

The reason the core is so important is that it is a conduit for the transfer of force from the ground, through the legs and into the arms. If you are lifting a box at work or throwing a baseball, a fit core is required to apply force from the feet to the hands in what is often called a “kinetic chain.”

Standard gym exercises such as squats, deadlifts (with one or two legs), rows and presses all use the core. But if you are training for a particular sport, then the principle of specificity should be employed.

If the sport requires less absolute force or strength and more balance and quickness, then lighter, stability exercises (like those that utilize stability balls and balance devices) can be used.

If the sport requires more strength through smaller range-of-motion (like wrestling), then training should incorporate high strength isometric exercises.

The body also responds better if you can train in the specific body position and time of the competitive season that your sport demands. Doing the bulk of your core exercises in a prone or supine position is all right in the off-season or pre-season while you are building a base, but in-season these exercises should be changed to standing positions for running and skating sports.

However, there are problems that can arise if you combine high strength exercises with unstable, stability exercises. This does happen sometimes in the gym. For example lifting heavy weight while standing on a balance device can not only increase the risk of injury, but also will reduce the amount of force you can generate and therefore decrease the strength component of the exercise. It would be best to work on these components separately.

Don’t be afraid to seek help if you need to break down and analyze your sport and how training the core would benefit you.


– Kerry Senchyna is the owner of West Coast Kinesiology.