The core. What is it? What’s it good for? Why do we as Coaches harp on the core as much as we do?
The core is extremely important in every movement we do, whether it’s in the gym or in life. Functional movement begins with the core and is then executed through the extremities. Without a stable core, our kinetic chain falls apart, leaving us with missed lifts, un-gained skills and potential injuries.
The important core muscles we want to focus on are the transverse abdominis and the multifidus. You have a stable core when these muscles can effectively work and contract together. If these muscles cannot or do not work together, you will not be able to maintain a stable base in which to transfer and disperse energy and force. Along with maintaining a stable base, your core plays an important role in stabilizing your pelvis. The core and pelvis connect the upper and lower extremities; if the core is made up of inefficient muscles that are unable to control the pelvis, both parts of the chain are compromised.
As briefly mentioned in my first mobility segment, “lower crossed syndrome” is important in understanding pelvic positioning and understanding which muscles are shortened and weak or lengthened and weak.
To recap, lower crossed syndrome represents an anterior pelvic tilt where the hip flexors are tight and shortened, tightening our low back extensor, while our abdominals, glutes, and hamstring are also likely disengaged, lengthened and weak.
Most people have an anterior pelvic tilt opposed to a posterior pelvic tilt. When looking at an athlete, look at the side profile of the athlete and without even having to place hands on their low back, you will likely already be able to determine if they have an anterior pelvic tilt. If you are naturally in anterior pelvic tilt, your hip flexors are tight and will continue to pull your pelvis forward. If your glutes are weak, they will not be able to combat the hip flexors to maintain a neutral pelvis. Ideally, you want to be able to isolate your core and move it yourself from an anterior position to a neutral position.
With any functional movement, the ability to isolate your core and activate your core muscles independently from other muscles is paramount. If an athlete is unable to isolate their core, they are going to be unable to maintain proper positioning and will be unable to keep their core and glutes tight throughout the movement. You can probably think of all the athletes you tell over and over to keep their core tight or to “tuck their pelvis under.” You may be thinking, “This athlete doesn’t listen to anything I say” when in reality they may not have the neural pathways or understanding to be able to actively isolate their pelvis to maintain a neutral position.
When maintaining a proper pelvic tilt, you want to be sure you are not creating too much of a tilt, leading to now a posterior pelvic tilt. Yes, you do want to posteriorly tilt your pelvis, but you are finding a neutral pelvic position, not an overly posteriorly rotated position.
While finding a neutral pelvic position, you also want to be sure the athlete is not compensating from their upper back or t-spine, thus creating poor spinal positioning. Some athletes will be able to make the adjustments on the spot while others will need more coaching, guidance and repetition. Some athletes you may be able to take over to a wall and have them posteriorly pelvic tilt against the wall, while for some that is too drastic of a step.
The above shows an over exaggerated arch in the low back. Below, the picture shows the desired position.
If an athlete is struggling to understand how to isolate their pelvis, begin with them lying supine with their knees bent. Stick your hand underneath their low back; there is likely a natural arch there.
A cue I like to use is “squish my hand.” Their initial movement is going to be to recruit every single muscle they have in their body. Their abdominals, glutes, hip flexors, neck and thoracic muscular will likely all contract to accomplish the task you asked. Once that happens, you can explain how many accessory and unneeded muscles are contracting that don’t need to be working at all. Keeping every other muscle in the body relaxed is key.
You can either keep your hand placement or provide them with a towel – I like to use a blood pressure cuff – to place under their back so they continually get feedback while practicing to isolate their pelvis. Have them practice “decreasing the space” between their back and the ground.
Once they have accomplished that movement, add in tightening their core. Many athletes’ initial response will be to suck in their stomach. This is not the action you want. Have the athlete think about blowing into a balloon. When you blow into a balloon, your abdominals naturally tighten. This is the desired tightening that happens in athletic movements, whether lifting a barbell or in field sports. This is also referred to as abdominal bracing. By being able to isolate your pelvis and contract your core independently of each other, are you actively using those deep core muscles we talked about earlier? Not only does this maintain a stable core/base, it protects your spine from jarring movements.
Once the athlete is able to maintain pelvic positioning with a tight core, make sure they are able to breathe naturally while maintaining that positioning.
From there, you can begin to add in some movements. We will eventually delve deeper into core stabilization, but for now, we will just scratch the surface. Let’s take the strict press for example. In a supine position, we can have the athlete brace their abdomen and then mimic a strict press using a dowel rod. This will give the athlete immediate feedback on whether or not they are maintaining proper pelvic positioning.
Once they have mastered abdominal bracing in a supine position, they can move to performing it against a wall. This will require the athlete to also focus on upper t-spine/back positioning as well. When starting against the wall, have the athlete bend their knees and start their feet farther from the wall until they master the skill and can move their feet closer to the wall. From there you can have the athlete try the movement unsupported and see if they can maintain proper pelvic positioning.
Maintaining proper pelvic positioning during lifts is extremely important in decreasing injury as well as increasing your ability to hold more weight. In order to make sure you have a tight core, you must first be able to isolate your pelvis from the rest of your body and be able to engage your core independently from your other musculature. If you have an athlete that is struggling to isolate their pelvis, the above exercises will help create those neural pathways. With anything else, this takes time and practice.
Keep in mind, this is just the beginning of delving into the importance of core/glute activation and stabilization exercises.