Monday 31 July 2023

Does Core Training Really Improve Athletic Performance?

Everyone knows that to be a better athlete, you need to strengthen your core – right? Are you sure? This assumption has now been passed down from one generation of athletes to the next. Let’s look at the latest research and real-world experience to see if core training will really make a difference in your performance. 

Terminology clarification: I really don’t like the word “core” for talking about the midsection. Apples have cores, and humans have muscles. However, I’m using “core” for this article because that is what most coaches and athletes use. Core exercises refer to small accessory exercises designed to target your midsection muscles, not big basic movements like squats.

Research summary
This study was a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. In this case, randomized controlled trials are studies that looked at giving one group of subjects direct core training and comparing it to another group who did not do core training. A meta-analysis is a study that combines and analyzes the results of similar studies. As far as scientific evidence goes, a meta-analysis is at the top. It gives you a good understanding of where the research on a particular topic is pointing. This is very valuable for coaches and lifters as it saves us time from betting bogged down with all the little details and lets us see the bigger picture. The possible downsides of a meta-analysis are that it is only as good as the studies included and accurate if the numbers are crunched correctly. 

The meta-analysis by Dong et al., 2023 used studies done on athletes, used only core training in the experiment, had a control group that did general training or no intervention, and tested at least one aspect of athletic performance. They ended up with 8 studies with a combined total of 169 athletes. To the author’s knowledge, it was the first literature review and meta-analysis to examine how core training affects sport-specific athletic performance in athletes. 

Results of Core Training on Athletic Performance 

Power: small effect

Sport-specific speed: small effect

Sport-specific agility: medium effect

Core endurance: large effect (my note: this is debatably not a great indicator of overall athletic performance) 

Balance: large effect (my note: balance was assessed with the HUMAC Balance System – a lab test. This is great for research but it is hard to determine how much this transfers into sport-specific balance)

Practical application points
Some athletes love core training because it is cool and easy. They love playing their sport and tolerate training as a necessary evil. As a result, they naturally gravitate towards anything that is “new”, exciting, and easy over what is hard, and effective. They would much rather lie on the ground and feel their abs burn than endure the total body strain of a hard set of front squats.

Some coaches also love core training because it is cool and easy. It is far easier to convince an athlete to do core exercises than it is to do heavy leg exercises. It is far easier to come up with cute little “new” core exercises than it is to help athletes get bigger, faster, and stronger. It is far easier and faster to get noticed on social media for your “creative genius” in coming up with never-before-seen core exercises than it is to put in the time and effort to help your athletes get better.

Years ago I had the privilege of hearing the legendary Coach Al Vermeil speak at a Strength & Conditioning conference. He wisely and accurately summed up how to improve athletic performance – put more power into the ground. If you can put a lot of force into the ground and do so very quickly, you can run fast, jump high, cut, start, and stop faster than your opponents. 

To be able to put more power into the ground (and thus improve your performance), make sure your training program focuses on the basic movements: squat, hinge, push, and pull (ideally pushing and pulling would include vertical and horizontal movements to balance the shoulder girdle). Remember that as an athlete, there are no exercises you “have” to do. Pick the exercises that suit your body, you can do pain-free and progressively add weight. Develop a great strength-to-bodyweight ratio. Learn to move well. In addition, do some explosive work. This could be simple sprinting, jumping, and change of direction drills, explosive exercises (e.g., medicine ball throws, light trap bar jumps, etc.), and/or Olympic weightlifting variations - note: don’t do Olympic weightlifting exercises if you do not have proper coaching). As you improve your relative strength, movement quality, and power, you will improve your performance. 

You work your core with your big movements. Back squats and deadlift variations can strengthen your lower back. You can work your abs with front-loaded squats (e.g., front squat, Zercher squat), weighted push-ups, heavy overhead pressing, and loaded carries. You can work your obliques with 1-arm pressing, 1-arm pulling, and 1-arm carries.

Do your own research, but make sure you know how to measure performance. As Coach Dan John likes to say, success in team sports is “fuzzy”. There are many factors (e.g., talent, recruiting, skill, mental processing speed, tactics, and the mistakes of your opponents) that determine whether you win or lose in sports. You cannot assume that the team that won the championship is the one with the best strength and conditioning program. In any given sport (e.g., college football) the best and worst teams often have similar training programs. The first thing you must look at is injury rates. Then, look at relevant performance tests. These tests will differ slightly depending on the sport, but examples include vertical jump, 20-meter sprints, a change of direction drill, and if appropriate, some type of conditioning test (e.g., YIRT). If adding a few core exercises helps you reduce injury or improve performance – great! If you find the addition of a core exercise helps you lift more weight on a big movement, again this would be a good reason to do that core exercise.

One of the biggest problems in today’s strength & conditioning and fitness industries is binary thinking. Too many people think there are only two choices. You do not have to choose between doing only core training or doing no core exercises. Once the big, boring, effective exercises are done, you can add a small handful of accessory exercises. This is where you could throw in a few ab exercises. No one needs to waste an entire training session doing only core exercises.

It is important to note that core training can have other benefits besides just improving your performance. A stronger midsection might help you lift more weight on exercises that have a significant impact on your performance. It may help you be more resilient against injury. In addition, building midsection stability can help improve mobility in your hips, shoulders limbs (Kibler et al., 2006). As a result, it is important not to discount the other benefits core training can have for you.

When adding some direct core work into your training program, understand that your abdominal muscles often act to keep your trunk stiff. This allows you to transfer power from your hips, legs, shoulders, and arms into effective movement.  

Throughout my career, I have noticed the same trend – strong people tend to have strong cores and weak people have weak cores. Getting stronger on the bore big basic movements makes you strong – everywhere. 

If you have a weak core, adding 10 core exercises to your routine will not give you a strong core – it will just make you tired (and possibly give you a sore lower back). As with any other muscle group, you need to pick a small handful of effective exercises and get better (i.e., progress) at those exercises! Many core exercises have a low ceiling of progression. You can add 100 pounds to your squat or deadlift, but you cannot add 100 pounds to an ab exercise. However, you must still try to progress weight, reps, and hold times, or move to a harder mechanical position. 

Make your training as efficient as possible. For most athletes in most sports, skill is the most important determinant of success. The more efficient you are with training, the more time you have for skill development, tactics, and recovery. Be wising and sparing with your exercise selection.

Dong, K., Yu, T., & Chun, B. (2023). Effects of Core Training on Sport-Specific Performance of Athletes: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 13(2), 148.

Kibler, W. B., Press, J., & Sciascia, A. (2006). The role of core stability in athletic function. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 36(3), 189–198.

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