Jan 29, 2015
Centered Strength

Though experts continue to disagree about some aspects of core training, our author says it’s the points they see eye-to-eye on that are most important.

By Michael Boyle

Michael Boyle, MEd, ATC, is a strength and conditioning coach and consultant based in Boston and co-founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. He has been training athletes, from amateurs to Olympians and professionals, for over 25 years and is the author of Functional Training for Sports. He can be reached at: [email protected].

There may be no topic discussed more in the field of strength and conditioning than core training. How important is core training? What constitutes the core? What is the best way to train the core? Who is right about core training?

The answer to the first question has become very clear: Core training is extremely important. A strong core is the key to transferring strength developed in the weightroom to all sport movements. In addition, a strong core also helps guard against low back pain, a common complaint in athletic training rooms.

We’ve also been able to definitively answer the second question. Though we used to refer to the core as the “abs,” we now realize it constitutes not only the rectus abdominis, but also the external and internal obliques, transverse abdominis, hip flexors and adductors, gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus, erector spinae, and multifidus.

It’s the third and fourth questions that have plagued our profession. The purpose of this article is to attempt to clear up some misconceptions and disagreements about core training. This can be done by highlighting what has been proven about core anatomy and function and by looking for similarities instead of differences in competing philosophies.


Over the past decade, many strength coaches who work with healthy athletes may have had their approaches to core training over-influenced by physical therapists who work with athletes who have back pain. Early on, we were having our healthy athletes spend a great deal of time on the floor, just as the injured athletes were, working to engage and control individual core muscles that were probably already working just fine. We learned a lot about anatomy, but we were wasting time on unnecessary exercises.

As we learned more about functional training, a lot of strength and conditioning coaches faced a conundrum. Physical therapists were fascinated by small muscles. However, some in the strength training crowd were saying that those same small muscles were of no concern. They thought functional training was the way to go instead, because the entire core could be trained all at once.

We were at the intersection of two concepts and two fields: core training in a physical therapy setting to rehab back injuries, and functional training in a strength and conditioning setting. Physical therapy and strength training are so linked as to be inseparable (we all know it is difficult to decipher at what point rehab morphs into performance training), so which field knows the best way to train the core?

As is usually the case, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of the two approaches. Core strengthening can be done by training the small muscles, but this approach is most effective for injured athletes or athletes with chronic back pain who are prehabbing to avoid injury. As strength coaches, when we are training healthy athletes, the best approach to core training is through functional movement exercises.

This can be illustrated by comparing single-leg and two-legged movements. Two-legged movements are generally static and not sport specific (with the exception of rowing, where both feet remain flat throughout competition), while single-leg movements are usually sport specific and functional–and therefore more valuable to an athlete.

From an anatomical perspective, everything changes when an athlete stands on one leg. The absence of a second foot on the ground triggers the core stabilizers to kick in.

Some strength coaches believed that if an athlete performed squats and deadlifts with heavy weights, core training was not necessary because the stress placed on the core musculature by the heavy loads in a bilateral stance was sufficient to properly train the core. However, as we have learned more about functional anatomy, it has become clear that performing exercises on two legs does not engage the core musculature in the same way that working on one leg does. In other words, exercises like squats and deadlifts, no matter how heavy, are not the proper stimulus to engage core muscles that are so critical for single-leg functional activities like jumping and sprinting.

This is the sort of information that people like Paul Chek, Gary Gray, and Vern Gambetta challenged us with. It questioned much of what we thought to be true, and at least for me, has forever changed the way I approach core training with my athletes.


Another issue that has come up in core training is how to stabilize the core muscles in order to train them most effectively. Researchers like Paul Hodges, PhD, MD, Director of the Centre of Clinical Research Excellence in Spinal Pain at the University of Queensland, have directed us toward a “drawing in” technique where a patient pulls their belly in toward their spine. Hodges also supports training the small muscle through exercises in supine, even using tools like blood pressure cuffs. I must admit that I was one of many who experimented with these exercises years ago and even extolled their virtues in my writing.

On the other hand, Stuart McGill, PhD, Professor and Director of the Spine Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, was one of the first to challenge Hodges’s technique. McGill’s approach is what he refers to as “bracing” instead of “drawing in.” I personally think that the difference between bracing and drawing in is a bit of a tempest in a teapot scenario. McGill’s bracing concept emphasizes co-contraction of all the abdominal muscles while the drawing in concept focuses on the transverse abdominal and internal obliques. The key is in the similarity. Both McGill and Hodges want a stable core, but they disagree on the best way to do the stabilizing.

Again, the conundrum for strength and conditioning coaches was that we had another intersection of the fields: Hodges is a physical therapy researcher interested primarily in back pain. McGill is a researcher as well, but an engineer, not a physical therapist. Where Hodges focuses on patients afflicted with back pain, McGill has recently focused on athletes like Strongman competitors.


You may be asking yourself, “Why can’t these very smart researchers agree on core training?” But instead of focusing only on the differences between theories and approaches, perhaps more value can be found examining the common denominators. Hodges and McGill’s research agrees on a very important point: The muscles of the core are stabilizers, not movers.

Although these experts might debate the exact method of stabilization, both advocate the importance of decreasing motion from the lumbar spine and increasing motion from the hips and thoracic spine. While in years past, many strength coaches and personal trainers seemed to be trying to develop a core that was both stable and mobile, today’s core training may be more about the prevention of motion rather than the creation of motion–hence the term “stable core.”

Most back pain experts are in agreement on this. Attempts to increase rotational range of motion of the lumbar spine only serve to create motion in inherently stable segments. Rather, the places that should be gaining motion are in the hips and thoracic spine–two areas designed to generate movement.

Another point of agreement is that an inability to move the hips both actively and passively can lead to back pain. From a hip standpoint, there are two fundamental mistakes that trigger back pain. The first is the substitution of lumbar extension for hip extension. Weak or inhibited glutes (what McGill calls gluteal amnesia) and tight hips cause athletes to extend at the lumbar spine instead of the hip. This is the root cause of many extension-related disorders.

The solution to this problem is simple in theory but difficult in practice. We need to teach athletes how to differentiate hip motion from lumbar motion, and then give them the active ability to do so. This is where some of the floor-based, rehabilitation-type movements like quadruped exercises and bridge variations may be useful in the short term.

The second mistake is the reverse of the first: substituting lumbar flexion for hip flexion. In this case, weak or inhibited hip flexors cause athletes to flex the spine instead of the hip. Again, the solution is simple. We need to teach athletes how to differentiate between hip flexion and lumbar flexion, and teach them the correct movement patterns to do so. This can be as simple as performing planks with hip flexion on a slideboard.

What we have is a multi-factorial problem that we have been addressing all wrong. Think of the spine as an unwilling victim being stressed or injured by the presence of tight hips and weak anterior abdominals. The key to solving a low back issue is to attack the hips and anterior core while “sparing the spine,” something McGill has advocated on many occasions.


As mentioned above, the best way to approach core training is through prevention of movement, not the creation of it. In the same way that McGill talks about sparing the spine, the core muscles should be viewed more as brakes than accelerators and as stabilizers rather than movers. Therefore, the best core training is about the three antis: anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation.

Anti-extension: The goal in the following progression is to teach the anterior abdominals to stabilize against increasing extension forces. Initially, there will be a simple period of motor learning before increasing stresses.

– Front plank – Stability ball rollout – Ab wheel rollout – Bodysaw

In our programs, each exercise (excluding planks which are held for time) is progressed weekly. In my first book, Functional Training for Sports, we called this a bodyweight progression. The load remains constant and reps increase. The rollouts would progress from 3×10 to 3×12 to 3×14.

Anti-lateral flexion: We must view training of the lateral muscles not as “side benders,” but as lateral stabilization. For lateral stability, we use a progression of side planks.

– Side plank – Feet elevated side plank – Side plank row – Suitcase carry (moving side plank)

Planks are a bit more varied from a progression standpoint. Side planks would work in a progression from a 10-second hold to 20 to 30. The side plank row combines an isometric hold (side plank) with a resistance component. You can increase either load or reps in the row portion. Suitcase carries are generally done with five- to 10-pound increases in load every week with distance remaining constant.

Anti-rotation: I think that for at least 10 years, we have been barking up the wrong tree when it comes to rotational training. The initial mistake was confusing hip internal and external rotation with spinal rotation. Many early attempts at rotational exercise stabilized the hips and rotated or flexed the trunk. We must remember to train the core by moving the hips or extremities without any compensatory movement of the spine.

This does not mean that we don’t want the spine to move. It means that we want the spine to move correctly within its established limits. It is important to note that according to many experts, the overall range of lumbar rotation is approximately 13 degrees. The rotation between each segment from T10 to L5 is reported to be just two degrees. And the greatest rotational range is between L5 and S1, at five degrees. As a result, our anti-rotation progression consists of patterns designed to teach stability and/or movement through the thoracic spine.

– In-line chop – In-line lift – Tall kneeling push-pull – Tall kneeling anti-rotation press

In diagonal patterns (chop, lift, push-pull), we keep the reps at 10 and pro-gress in two ways: Each week we change loads, increasing by 2.5 to 5 pounds. And in each training phase, we use a progression of postures or positions. Phase one is in line, phase two is in a lunge position, phase three is standing, and phase four consists of single-leg variations.


Ten years ago, I was asked a question about the function of the transverse abdominus at a seminar and quickly realized I didn’t know what this muscle was supposed to do, or even exactly where it is located. A look at my 1970s copy of Gray’s Anatomy was of no help. The muscle was referred to as the transversalis and merited very few words.

The question at the seminar and subsequent embarrassment sparked a huge period of learning for me, and I know I’m not the only strength coach who has sought to enhance their knowledge about core training over the years. We have come a long way in terms of understanding core training, but surely there are more miles to travel.

When developing a core training program, look to the wisdom of the experts. They have a lot to teach us, and the key is in how we apply what we learn from these great teachers. Embrace change, embrace the knowledge of experts, and reap the benefits in both performance and health.


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