At the Core
Larry Judge, PhD, CSCS, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education at Ball State University and the USA Track & Field National Chairman for Coaches Education in the throws. He lectures at various camps and clinics throughout the country. He has coached more than 100 NCAA Division I All-Americans, including eight Olympians. He can be contacted through his Web site: www.CoachLarryJudge.com.
Training & Conditioning, 16.6, September 2006, http://www.momentummedia.comStrength training has come a long way from the time when coaches used a small group of standard exercises and lifts to help develop stronger athletes. Now, strength programs are specifically designed for each sport and often for different positions within a sport.
While specialized training provides great benefits to many athletes, any enhancement of power can be severely restricted if general strength parameters, mobility, and posture are not also addressed. I have found that highly specialized, event specific training can be the source of tremendous frustration and recurring injury patterns if these foundational items aren’t also developed in a variety of conditions, thresholds, and environments.
To avoid this trap, the development of a strong core should be a primary training goal for all sports. Poor mobility, strength imbalances, overuse injuries, and a lack of general coordination can often be traced back to deficits in the mid-torso.
The objective of a core-training program is to enhance the function of the critical torso muscles in a way that spares the spine from damage. In this article, I explain my multi-faceted approach to core training, which includes medicine ball work, body-weight circuits, slow controlled movements, weighted abdominal exercises, dumbbell circuits, Olympic lifts, and ballistic release work.
The main target of a core workout should be the abdominal muscles, with the back and hips also receiving attention. Strengthening abdominal muscles requires forcing them to do more work than they are used to through overloading and working them from a variety of angles so that all the muscle fibers are used. When working the abdominals, start with the lower abdominals and work your way up through the external obliques and upper abdominals. Since most upper abdominal and oblique exercises work both the upper and lower abdominals, you must work the lower abdominals first if you want to isolate them.
My favorite abdominal exercises include three-position crunches, V-ups, V-ups with a twist, seated twists with a dumbbell, plate walks, dumbbell leg raises, back hyper-extensions, Russian twists, and delivery lifts with dumbbells. For optimal strength increases, repetitions on these exercises must be kept at or below 20 and should be performed with resistance. Start athletes with a weight they can do for 10 reps and keep it the same until they can perform 20 reps. Once they can perform 20 reps, increase the weight again to the point where they can perform only 10 reps.
Stay away from abdominal exercises where the psoas come into play, such as straight-leg situps, incline board sit-ups, and roman chair sit-ups. The Psoas Magnus and the Psoas Parvus run from the front of the legs up through the pelvis, connecting to the lowest six spinal vertebrae. They pull the trunk toward the legs, as do the abs. When the abdominals tire, you will see the back start to arch, and the psoas will take over as the primary mover, putting unnecessary strain on the vertebrae and lower back.
While I like to use a lot of isolation work to strengthen the abdominals, I avoid it when working on the lower back and hips because of the potential for overtraining these areas. The only exception are back hyper-extensions with weight or elastic bands.
The hips receive a lot of attention in a dynamic flexibility series, which includes leg swings, trail-leg windmills, lunge exchanges, side bends, donkey kicks, and leg whips. I also use several hurdle drills, such as walkovers with a constant lead leg, walkovers with alternating lead leg, and multidirectional walkovers, where athletes walk over two hurdles forward and then one backward.
Otherwise, the hips and back are developed largely through Olympic lifts, especially squats, and general strength building exercises, which also help develop the abdominals. General strength circuits strengthen the core while also fostering coordination and body awareness. (See “General Strength Circuits” below.) Physioballs can be added to many of the general strength exercises to put additional demands on the core musculature as the athlete adapts.
Medicine ball exercises can be utilized for a wide range of functional movements that strengthen the core. (See “Medicine Ball Exercises” below.) We usually start with some very general non-ballistic medicine ball exercises and progress as the athlete advances in the training cycle.
Dumbbell circuits are a great way to build core strength while also conditioning your athletes during the different phases of training. They offer great mobility and flexibility since they can be done almost anywhere, even when the athlete is traveling for games and events. Dumbbells are also less intimidating than other free weights and great for training through injuries.
Each dumbbell circuit is designed with a specific purpose and use multi-joint total body movements that combine external resistance with bodyweight. Keep in mind that this type of training should be periodized and correlated with the other types of training.
I have designed four circuits that are cycled through the training program. (See “Dumbbell Circuits” below.) Typically, I’ll have the athletes perform two of the four circuits every other day and switch the circuits every three to four weeks as they adapt. These circuits include Olympic lifts and their derivatives, which are the best movements for developing speed and power. They also offer an opportunity for unilateral training, which is important in many sports activities.
The first circuit, named Coffee, is designed to be a morning conditioning circuit or part of a warm-up prior to other activities. The Nirvana circuit is designed to stimulate the nervous system while working the core. Included in this circuit are some ballistic Olympic movements that build speed. The Abzilla workout is a specialized circuit for abdominal emphasis. Arnold is a body building circuit. The weights of the dumbbells and number of repetitions should be adjusted for each circuit based on where the athlete is in his or her season.
My core-training program is broken down into phases. Through the training year, we sequence exercises from high volume to low volume and from less sport-specific to more. Following a basic preparation phase, we alternate accumulation, which emphasizes strength gains, and intensification, which emphasizes power and speed.
The first phase of our core training program is designed to build strength endurance through static sustained contractions and serves as the foundation for later postural strength and speed training. We start with pedestal work as part of the warmup. (See “Pedestal Work” below.) These exercises are very similar to Pilates.
The mid-torso musculature consists of postural muscles with a high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Part of their function is to maximize trunk stability by holding contractions for extended periods, so we first focus on training these muscles to do just that. We emphasize the importance of keeping the body in perfect alignment while holding each position.
After an athlete has developed the ability to maintain efficient postures while performing very simple motor tasks, we find they are able to develop more advanced skills at a quicker rate. At the same time, the risk of long-term repetitive injury patterns—many of which result from improper posture—is reduced.
Once the athlete can perform acceptable slow isotonic mid-torso exercises, additional exercises that demand balance can be introduced. For the beginner, I start the transition with body-weight exercises and movements. A wide repertoire of activities can be used to enhance functional postural integrity and as a result latent power resources. One of may favorites is the pelvic tilt. In this exercise, the athlete lies on his or her back and contracts the abdominals until the low back presses into the floor. The contraction should be held for three to six seconds, followed by three to six seconds of rest and repeated for a total duration of a minute.
Weight for these exercises should be increased in a controlled progression. Athletes begin by using a weight they can handle for 10 reps, then increase until they are able to use that same weight for 20 reps. The weight is then increased to where they can only complete 10 reps. Overload is a big part of the training program and is present in each phase. The body is adaptable, but will only adapt to a stimulus that it is unaccustomed to. The demands of training must increase over time if increased fitness levels are to be gained.
The second stage is the precompetitive stage, when the focus turns to building strength. Various training schemes using sprint drills, throws, and jumps are implemented with volumes, intensities, and rest-to-work ratios are influenced by training age, time of the season, medical, and skill parameters. The sprint drills emphasize horizontal movements through space where limbs are worked through various ranges of movement under varying thresholds of velocities and force. Multiple throw and multiple jump exercises involve various rotations, flexion/extension factors, and both intra- and inter-muscular coordination. (See “Precompetitive Stage” below.)
Explosive speed strength training is the final ingredient in the core-development program and coincides with the beginning of the competitive stage. In addition to the sprint drills, throws, and jumps, I’ll add sport specific release movements that they force core stabilization of high velocity activities. For example, track and field throwers will perform different types of releases with one and two arms. I also use specific medicine ball exercises that mirror the release parameters in each of the throws. Heavy weights (20 or 25 pounds) are used for power and lighter weights for speed. In addition to the speed strength gains, these types of exercises also develop postural integrity.
As its name implies, the core is at the center of most sports movements. Whether it’s transferring energy from one area of the body to another or maintaining stability and balance while using the extremities, the core is under nearly constant stress. A multi-faceted approach combining medicine-ball work, body-weight circuits, controlled movements, abdominal exercises, dumbbell circuits, and Olympic lifts can provide physiological and biomechanical advantages that enhance performance in most every sport.
Table: General Strength Circuits
Below are two sample general strength circuits used to strengthen the core. The first is designed for use in open areas while the second uses weightroom exercises.
Clap push-ups x10
Leg tosses x20
Leg scissors x20 in & x20 out
Push-up toe walks x10
Side crunches x10 each side
Decline push-ups x10
Wrestler’s bridges x5
Single leg squats x10 each leg
Hanging leg raises x30
Roman chair sit-up x20
Russian twists x20
Lunge walks 10 steps
Table: Medicine Ball Exercises
Workout A is a short in-season set of medicine ball exercises. Workout B is a more extensive set used during the preparation phase. Athletes should complete 10 reps of each exercise, starting with a three-kilogram ball and increasing the weight once they can complete each rep under complete control.
Catch and throws
Back-to-back partner passes
Mb good mornings
Catch and throws
Table: Dumbbell Circuits
Each of the following four dumbbell circuits are designed for a specific purpose and are rotated through the training program. Weights and reps will vary based on the athlete’s training schedule.
Twists behind the back
Nirvana (Nervous system)
Twists behind the back
Arnold (Body building)
Standing calf extensions
Table: Pedestal Work
My core-training program begins with pedestal exercises that maximize trunk stability. Beginning athletes should start by holding each position in perfect alignment for 10 seconds. Once that is accomplished, athletes should progress to doing 10 reps of 10 seconds for each position.
Prone elbow stand, single-leg raise
Supine elbow stand, single-leg raise
Prone hand stand, single-leg raise
Supine hand stand, single-leg raise
Lateral elbow stand, single-leg raise
Lateral hand stand, single-leg raise
Prone flexed knee, elbow stand, hip lifts
Supine flexed knee, hip lift
Crunch, low reach
Crunch, low reach with twist