For years we did sit-ups in an attempt to develop a 6-pack. We now know that a 6-pack has no meaningful place in sports. A 6-pack should be the by-product of an effective total conditioning program, not a primary goal of the training program. Most pro and college athletes don’t do sit-ups anymore. Instead, they do exercises that help stabilize and strengthen the core. Why – because a strong core helps protect the spine and provides a stable base from which the arms and legs can move. Without a strong core, movements of the arms and legs are less efficient. The end result is that some of the force developed for powerful arm and leg movements is wasted and/or misdirected resulting in a reduction in strength, speed and power in the arms and legs.
The core is the area between the shoulder and hip joints. The shoulder and hip joints are ball-and-socket joints designed to produce motion. The core is a stable beam between the shoulders and hips designed to stabilize the spine and prevent motion in the trunk, i.e., the area between the shoulders and hips. A strong core provides a stable base from which the legs and arms can move efficiently to produce the power needed to run fast, jump high, kick far, swing fast and throw hard.
The body is a 3-Link Chain. In throwing and hitting, for example, force is initiated in the hips and legs and then transferred through the core to the shoulders and arms where it is transferred to the bat and ball by the hands. We know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the human body, the weakest link is often the core. Regardless of how strong your hips and legs are, if you core is weak, you will not be able to transfer 100% of the force generated by the hips and legs to the upper body where it can be applied to the bat and ball. To make up for this loss of force or energy leak, the shoulders and arms will have to work harder which can lead to overuse injury.
How can you use this information? Develop core strength and stability before you attempt to strengthen the arms and legs. Training the body is similar to constructing a building. The core is the foundation and the legs and arms are the bricks. Without a strong foundation, the building will crumble. Without a strong core, the arms and legs will not move efficiently no matter how strong you make them. Without a strong core, the stress on the spine, shoulders, arms and legs will increase which will increase the risk of injury.
How do you train the core? Start with two basic exercises. The first, a plank, is designed to stabilize the spine and prevent spinal flexion. The second, an isometric hold, is designed to prevent spinal rotation in the low back or lumbar region.
Why do we need to prevent spinal flexion? Gravity exerts a downward pull on the spine approximately 16-18 hours per day forcing the shoulders to round, head to move forward and spine to flex, which, in turn, reduces the ability of the core to provide a stable base from which the limbs can move. Increasing core strength and preventing spinal flexion allows the core to become a stable base from which the arms and legs can move to run fast, throw hard, etc.
Why do we need to prevent spinal rotation? The lumbar spine is designed for stability, not rotation. The thoracic spine is designed for mobility and therefore rotation should come from there. Allowing or forcing the lumbar spine to rotate is a primary cause of low back pain and limits thoracic rotation.
How do we prevent spinal flexion? Do prone planks. Start with the toes curled under and weight supported by the toes and elbows. There should be a straight line from the head to the toes. Do not allow the hips to rise or drop. Start by holding for 10 seconds. Repeat three times. Gradually increase the time until you can do three sets of 30-seconds each.
How do we prevent spinal rotation? Work with a partner to resist spinal rotation. When working with a partner, you should assume an athletic stance with both arms straight out from the chest at shoulder height holding a MD ball or basketball between the hands. Have the partner apply force to the ball to try and force your trunk to rotate in one direction as you set your core and resist rotation. Hold for 10 seconds. Rest and repeat 3 times.
For variety, you can do the anti-rotation exercises when kneeling on both knees or on one knee. You can also have a partner apply resistance as you attempt to chop the ball from one shoulder to the opposite knee.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.
Jose Vazquez, PT, RSCC is the Head S&C Coach for the Texas Rangers.
Napoleon Pichardo, RSCC is the Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for the Texas Rangers.