By Darryl Nelson
Strength and Conditioning Coach, USA Hockey NTDP
Before we can talk about good core training we must first have an understanding of what makes up the body’s core. Many people mistakenly think that our cores are simply “abs”. This is only partly true in that the abdominal muscles are included in our body’s core. However, the core includes much more than this. The core also includes some of the musculature in our hips, torso, and into the shoulders on the front, sides, and backs of our bodies. In other words, the core is everything around our spine.
Now we must also understand what the function of the core musculature is in order to train it properly. If we only think of the core as “abs” than we will fail to see what the true function of the core really is. If we train “abs” our training will involve lots of flexion and twisting. Examples of this training include exercises like sit ups and crunches, and Russian twists. However, this type of training misrepresents what the core musculature is really supposed to do.
Again, if we think of the core as all the musculature supporting our spines our understanding of its function is greatly improved. The core’s true function is not to flex and rotate the spine. In reality anti-flexion and anti-rotation are the essential components of proper core function. Therefore, sit ups and Russian twists are very poor core training exercises. These exercises are non-functional and they are also contra-indicated. Sit ups and twists have been proven to cause lower back pain because they lead to disc degeneration. In fact, in Dr. Stuart McGill’s book Low Back Disorders he states “We found that repeated flexion motion…was the easiest way to ensure herniation.” In other words, the world’s top spine researcher uses a sit up machine to study how discs in the lower back rupture. Therefore, examples of good core training exercises include planks, side raises, and bird dogs.
People will read this and think “what about shooting pucks” or what about my golf swing?” However, when we perform these sports skills the lower back does not twist and flex. We generate the rotational power in these skills by rotating the hips, not twisting the lumbar spine. The deviation between the lumbar vertebrae and the pelvis is very small. In fact, the vertebrae in the lower back are very massive and designed for great stability with very little mobility. This is why spine flexing and twisting exercises cause lower back pain.
Therefore, good core training must incorporate two very important things. First, it must incorporate good anti-flexion and anti-rotation strengthening exercises. This is important because if the spine is not stable the extremities have no foundation to perform our hockey skills from. Also, if the spine is not stable it is prone to injury. Secondly, good core training must incorporate the shoulder musculature because the fascia that contains the abdominal wall and low back muscles also connects to the shoulder muscles such as pectorals and latissimus. Rather than trying to isolate our core muscles from the rest of our bodies we should incorporate the core into movements involving the extremities.