Defining your core

It sat in the shadows watching… waiting… soon, very soon…

The core, much like Amazon, is the cause and solution to all of your problems. Want to lift a few more pounds at the gym? Work your core. Want to lose a few more pounds at the gym? Work your core. Want to last longer in bed (where you do sit-ups and other ab work)? Work your core.

If you want to strengthen your core, first you have to add definition. There’s a lot of debate on what the core is, or where it is, or even when it is. I use a functional definition – it’s the muscles that facilitate force transfer through the spine. Depending on the direction of the force, this could be completely different muscles from movement to movement.

To illustrates the core’s purpose, imagine using a hammer that was much flimsier in the middle. Trying to hit a nail down wouldn’t work well because all the power you applied to the handle would be lost. In this instance, the core needs to transfer a powerful force for a split second – much like the body would when throwing a punch or hitting a ball. In other instances, the core needs to transfer force for several seconds such as when lifting and carrying a heavy object. And finally, sometimes the core needs to transfer force many times over a prolonged period such as when running or swimming.

In most of these scenarios, power is being generated by the legs which must then be transferred through the core where it is then directed by the arms to some outside object. Take hitting a golf ball. A large amount of power is generated by the hips which must go through the spine to make it to the arms. If the core doesn’t stabilize the spine optimally, then some amount of that power will be lost and won’t make it to the arms. The better the core stabilizes the spine, the more power is transferred to the arms. From there, the arms do 2 things. First, they direct the force. In this example, they aim the club to hit the ball. Second, in a rotational movement (like swinging), they act like the end of a whip to increase speed and power. You can visualize this like the hand of an analog clock. For those of you youngsters who don’t know what an analog clock is, imagine I’m talking about a door on its hinges (as the center) instead. If you move the part of the hand closest to the center an inch, the end of the hand which points to the numbers will move much, much further. Likewise, when you rotate the hips, the arms will relatively travel further (greater distance) in the same amount of time, resulting in higher speed (because velocity = distance/time) and more power. In a non-rotational movement, like lifting a box up, the arms will just direct the force – meaning your legs generate power, your core transfers that to arms, the arms hold onto the box (no whip action generated).

Alright, so over the next week, I’ll be talking about each of the 3 different classes of core function and how to improve your performance in each. Below is a list of the 3 categories. Keep in mind that there’s really no difference between the 3 categories – they’re all stabilizing the spine to facilitate force transfer and just vary in terms of intensity and duration.

  • Pulsing: activating the core strongly for a very fast, but brief, contraction. Used for any activity that you’re hitting something, from fighting to tennis to soccer. Also used for jumping (think of it as kicking the ground in the face).
  • Bracing: activating the core enough to stabilize the position of the spine to keep it in a safe position, generally for seconds to minutes in duration. Due to the longer duration, being able to breathe while bracing is crucial. Used for lifting, carrying, or even fighting (as muscular armor to protect the internal organs).
  • Checking: okay, so I totally just made up that term to describe this function. When you run, with every step you take, your body must fight collapsing. If your body collapses slightly with each step, you ‘leak’ energy that could have been put towards propelling yourself forward. Think of this like running with really squishy shoes on – when they compress, they absorb that force. If you had firm shoes, then they wouldn’t absorb the force and it could be used to move your body forward. Part of your core’s function is to check (meaning to prevent) “energy leaks”. This is the most common usage of the core and mostly happens without our conscious awareness. It’s used in all movements of the body, but generally in sports, this component will be assessed with movement analysis to find ‘weak links’ in your form.

The United Strengths