by Mark Rippetoe
“Let me ask all you “core stability” people a question (okay, a few questions): why don’t you just squat?”
It is a matter of pride to me that I can go through an entire weekend seminar without once using the “C”-word. Out of a concern for my participants and my reputation I fastidiously avoid using the term “core” when referring to the trunk musculature or the stability thereof. I am so utterly goddamn tired of hearing about the “core” from members of the lay public, infomercialers, doctors, PTs, ATCs, personal trainers, and strength coaches that as a form of protest I refuse to use the term at all. That is why it will appear in this article only in scare quotes. “Core.” “Core,” dammit.
The “core” is the collection of muscles that stabilize the spine. It is composed of all of the abs, the three layers of the side abdominal wall, the posterior spinal muscles, the pelvic floor muscles, the hip flexors, and actually the diaphragm and the intercostals, although that may be working a little too far north. These muscles work together to control spinal position, which normally means keeping the spine rigid during work that involves force generated by the hips and legs and transferred through the trunk to a resistance at the hands, or in the specific training situation created by the squat, on the back or shoulders. The “core” muscles maintain the intervertebral relationships that allow the spine to both transfer force and remain uninjured in the process. They are extremely important in all sports, especially the barbell sports, and that is why I have an interest in this topic.
The problem with the concept of training specifically for “core” stabilization is that it doesn’t make any sense. Leaving aside the arguments for using it to prevent back pain in sedentary populations (everybody that doesn’t have a “stable core” has back pain?), it proceeds from several ridiculous assumptions, and it is completely inapplicable to an athlete who is training properly on a basic barbell program. While it is absolutely true that all movements in sports that involve a ground reaction – a movement involving the feet generating power against the ground while the body, usually through the hands, applies it to a resistance – utilize the pelvic and trunk musculature to stabilize the spine during the movement, there is nothing magical about this part of the muscular anatomy that causes it to function as anything but a normal link in the kinetic chain. The “motor” is the hips and legs and the “transmission” is the spine. Without a big motor, the transmission has nothing hard to do. The spine is important, and therefore its stability is important; when the whole system is loaded, the motor and the transmission adapt together at the same time. The entire kinetic chain is developed by barbell training because squats, deadlifts, presses, and the Olympic lifts utilize the entire kinetic chain – and therefore strengthen the entire kinetic chain in the same way you’re going to use it.
But a trainer that doesn’t use barbells wouldn’t know this, would they? They have been taught to prescribe isolation movements on Nautilus-type selectorized machines that require no balance, and therefore no coordinated use of the axial and appendicular skeleton. A trainer that brings such a limited perspective into the weight room might well be of the opinion that the only way to train the “core” is to perform silly isolateral movements while balanced on a Swiss ball. If the only type of exercise you are trained to perform leaves out the coordinated use of the hips, the spine, and all the stuff above and below it working at the same time, I guess you might believe that Multi-Directional Lunges and Seated Marching on the Physioball are the best ways to wake up your sleeping “core”. These types of extremely submaximally-loaded odd movements are roughly equivalent to the stresses encountered when taking the groceries out of the back seat, or walking through a crowded bar without spilling your beer. They are quite literally equivalent to the same physical stresses encountered while cleaning the house thoroughly, and they cannot provide the stress necessary to cause an already-trained athlete to adapt further.
I shall illustrate my points by referring to a rather typical article regarding “core” stabilization training. This one appears at www.coachr.org/core_stabilisation_training_for.htm and was written by Dr. Michael Fredrickson and Tammara Moore, PT, both of whose credentials reflect a specialization in training runners, and whom I predict do not either train with barbells themselves or prescribe them for their athletes. First rattle out of the box, they make this bizarre statement: “For middle and long-distance runners whose events involve balanced and powerful movements of the body propelling itself forward and catching itself in complex motor patterns a strong foundation of muscular balance is essential. In many runners, however, even those at an Olympic level, the core musculature is not fully developed.” This pretty much renders anything that follows suspect. How is it possible that athletes – at the Olympic level – are performing movements that involve balance, power, complexity, and strength, but that these athletes are not adapted to these demands? How can such movements be performed without causing stresses that produce adaptation? How can Olympic-level athletes achieve this degree of proficiency without having adapted to the stress imposed by their training? How can they perform at the Olympic level with such a glaring deficiency in their physical development? Either this assessment of these athletes’ adaptive level is not true, or running is not all that balanced, powerful, complex, or strengthdemanding. Perhaps both, eh?
So the method these people have constructed attempts to develop the “core” in the absence of enough resistance to actually make it strong. Strength still means “the production of force against an external resistance,” even if you’re talking about muscles whose function is isometric and the thing they are working against is leverage along the spine. Yet they have decided to use “moves” (sorry, but lots of things in modern exercise “science” deserve scare quotes) that feature a variation on traditional abdominal training (planks, weird situps) or exercises performed on an unstable surface using only bodyweight resistance or any light dumbbell that features a chrome or colorful rubber finish.
Now, adaptation to stress is either specific, or it’s not, right? Which actually happens: the shovel handle makes calluses on the palm of your hand, or it makes calluses on the back of your hand? Do runners, tennis players, volleyball players, judo players, or any other athletes that you can think of without getting too exotic actually compete on an unstable surface under extremely submaximal force production conditions? No? Then why expect this type of training to be useful to any but the most absolutely untrained of novices?
“Specific exercises for the runner should progress from mobility to stability, to reflexive motor patterning, to acquiring the skills of fundamental movement patterns, and finally, to progressive strengthening.” I wonder if this is their approach for every runner, or just those recovering from brain surgery. It is hard to believe that runners are such initially poor athletes that such remedial actions are necessary. First you have to get them moving, then you get them to move without falling down, and then you get them to move enough that they don’t have to plan each movement every time, and after that you get them really, really good at basic stuff like putting one foot in front of the other foot efficiently, and finally you show them how to use the leg extension machine.
In their defense, they do say: “These sequences may not be applicable to all athletes; therefore, the key is to
analyse the individual in each exercise category and then to tailor an exercise regimen that will best suit that
runner’s needs.” But as is usually the case, all athletes are runners. So very tiresome.
May 19 Training Camp (Deadlift & Clean) : Atlanta, GA
May 17-19 Starting Strength Seminar : Newport, NC
May 25 Training Camp (The Squat) : Chicago, IL
June 7-9 Starting Strength Seminar : Wichita Falls, TX
July 12-14 Starting Strength Seminar : Denver, CO
August 9-11 Starting Strength Seminar : Springfield, MO
September 6-8 Starting Strength Seminar : Brooklyn, NY