S&C: Wasted Crunches
Whether you’ve just raced on the Big Island” or you are heading into the main part of your race season, considering your ‘core’ is a must for all triathletes.
“Core” or “core strength” has become a term that is thrown around a lot in the fitness community, especially now with dozens of new machines and exercises appearing on the market that guarantee you that rock hard six-pack. We must understand that having a strong core is much more than this ‘superficial physique’. Core work needs to be respected and performed to support your performance and prevent injury. What I often say to my athletes is to envisage their core as ‘a belt’ and not just as a ‘shiny belt buckle’ aka ‘a six-pack’. Our aim is to train and strengthen our core belt as a whole and I consider the most effective way for triathletes to do this is training it through functional and whole body exercises.
What is your core?
The core refers to a number of muscles, which stabilize, move and protect the spine. Any muscle that helps the spine to maintain a neutral position can be considered a core muscle. The musculature and function of the core is a complex topic of conversation, which could be discussed in length, however to keep things simple with regards to training, the muscle groups that are deep and close to the spine e.g. the deep cervical flexors, multifidi and transverse abdominus, are termed the ‘inner core’. These complex sounding muscles are generally the first to engage during movement or when breathing to protect the spine. The ‘Outer’ core muscles are made up of our more well-known muscle groups such as the erector spinae, quadratus lumborum (QL) and abdominus (transverse & rectus) as well as the glute complex, Lats and hip flexors. These also support and protect the spine but they also have a bigger role to play in our exercise and movement patterns. The key thing to remember is the more efficient we become are at engaging these muscle groups the stronger and more stable we will become.
What is core strength?
The core stabilizes and protects the spine by creating stiffness that limits excessive movement in any direction, ultimately protecting the spinal cord from injury. The most common movement patterns we see in triathlon are flexion, extension and rotation, movements that require the spine to hold a rigid position so the hip and shoulder joints can move with force. The strength and efficiency of your core muscles are what prevents this excessive movement from occurring within the hip complex and limits the occurrence of weaknesses such as hip drop in your running gait and a poor bike position.
However, training your core isn’t just about being stiff and stable: core training is also about being elastic and malleable. Strong athletes all have the ability to be able to get into positions and then lock down into them to prevent injury. Developing this strength will enable you to become resilient enough to move through the continuum whilst being able control your movements.
What makes an effective core program?
An effective program will include a combination of exercises that will require your core to resist or oppose a force that is acting on your body. Being able to produce a force from lower body to upper body is dependent on the strength of your core. You may have a strong lower body, but without a stable and strong centre, that force cannot be expressed in your upper body if your core gives out.
Standing exercises demand the most from your core musculature and are essential in your programming. The role of single-side or unilateral movement exercises is simple – they are designed to pull you out of the neutral spine position and which in turn forces you to prevent it. If you’re seated or lying down, your body will use the surface underneath you to create stability and the exercise will be less effective.
However, we aren’t saying that core exercises performed on the floor aren’t worthwhile, it’s just that exercises performed with less stability require much more work and concentration to stop you from falling over! Imagine when we are performing the single leg deadlift, the weight we are holding will want to pull us down, opposing this force will be the muscles in our core, as well as in our legs and back, which are all working together to ensure we maintain a neutral spine and remain stable.
Single leg (unilateral) exercises are a great way to create instability and highlight imbalances in coordination, strength and stability. From experience most people naturally have a weaker side and so when working bilaterally, not only would these weaknesses not become apparent but the stronger side will generally always take precedence (do all the work). The inclusion of single-leg work will add variance to your programming and is great way to target supplementary and activate normally ‘dormant’ muscle groups. Over time this will lead to increases in your overall strength and support to your midline stability, ultimately resulting in injury prevention.
My message would be to stop complicating core stabilisation with repetitive crunches. Start focusing on muscle activation and perfecting technique through the use of functional exercises that will effectively build the foundation of strength needed for performance.