NY Times Article on “Core” Misses Key Points | The Value of Core Work

Posted on August 18, 2011


This week the NY Times posted an article that was successful in further confusing people about what to do to be strong & fit. I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again – the vast majority of what’s published is one-sided, lacking science, or driven by a marketing scheme. This NY Times article takes a look at the “core” & if it’s really as important as workouts over the last 10 years have made it.

When I was first a trainer, 9 years ago, you were lucky if you found a foam roller & a few stability balls in a gym. Now, everyone now knows about the core, and tries to work it out using all kinds of contraptions. But just like any other thing, there will always be someone telling you that (x) is not the best thing to do because of reasons (A) & (B). And if you’re not careful, your beliefs about what you should do to be strong, healthy & fit will change every time the wind blows. You’ve GOT to be educated.

You can link to the full NY Times article here, in summary, it said:

– Core work is over-valued
– A strong core does not correlate to better performance in a given sport
– Crunches can hurt your spine
– You don’t need to train your core, if you train for your sport, the core strength will develop

Here are the problems with those statements:

– Core work is grossly UNDER valued in regard to spinal health, mobility, postural strength & performance. The author notes that crunches can injure spinal discs. This is true when you look at people who do traditional sit-ups or crunches, often reaching repetition numbers in the hundreds & being proud they did. You compress spinal discs when you flex the spine forward in a crunching motion – over time, this will compress the discs between the spinal vertebrae, eventually causing damage to them.

However, having a strong core supports your spinal column in a way that is critical to long-term spinal health. Whether you play sports or not, your body takes a significant amount of jarring. If you have weak core muscles (or ANY weak muscles for that matter) your body’s “suspension system” is not going to take the brunt of that load. Those muscles are there to soften the blow of jarring activity before that jarring hits your spine like a ton of bricks. A weak core means from the front, back & sides, your spine is essentially naked, taking most of the load of any jarring your body takes. 

– The article mentioned a study where athletes did core-strengthening exercises for a period of time, then measured their performance in rowing. The athletes didn’t improve their performance, but when a group of beginner runners were given core-strengthening work to do, they improved their 5K race times after 6 weeks of core work.

Two things:

1) Just doing core  work does not guarantee you’ll improve in your sport. Once the core strength is developed, you must integrate that into full-body kinetic chain strength work tailored to the individual’s performance needs. Think of a football player – just doing planks gets them spinal stability, a slightly more trim waist (if their diet is on-point), & a good “starting block” from which to initiate all other movements. But they must be able to integrate the firing of the core muscles, especially the transverse abdominis (TVA), while simultaneously firing their hips, glutes, legs, chest, shoulders & arms when they are blocking an opponent. Failure to train that kinetic chain linking is a failure in their training program.

2) The beginner runners improved their times after doing core work even though the experienced rowers did not. So what’s going on there? This is the analogy I use in presentations on core strength – two runners are going to run 1 lap around a track. One athlete will get a starters’ block to launch from, like you see track athletes set up in before they sprint. The other athlete will simply set up in a stance & wait for the gun, no starters’ block, just a little bend of the legs, a little lean forward & lurch forward when the gun goes off.

Who’s going to get the better jump?  The runner in the starters’ block, of course. They get to push off those blocks shooting all their energy forward – this is ‘stored kinetic energy’. They’re like a coil that bursts out of its box. The runner without the blocks has nothing to push off from, making it harder to drive every ounce of energy forward. Your core is your starters’ block for all movement. A strong core = a solid starters block to initiate all movement from. 

– The article quotes a professor of exercise science who says that core strength will develop via training for your sport, so you do not need to do specific ‘core work.’ What that professor doesn’t take into account is that a vast majority of people come into training for sport & life with core muscles (as well as other muscles in the body) that have a form of muscle-amnesia, where they don’t fire as well as they should – or possibly don’t even fire at all.

I’ve assessed hundreds of individuals, athlete & non-, the majority of whom did not fire their core muscles correctly at their 1st assessment with me. So what then? Just train & let those muscles fire incorrectly or not at all & assume that sport-specific training will get them to fire? No, we need to address those muscles specifically through focused core training to get those muscles firing properly then we can move to sport-specific training where those muscles will continue to fire in concert with the other muscles in the body.

The article also fails to mention how important how core strength is for having good postural strength both in daily life & in sport. When your posture is weak, more load is put on joints & muscles that are not meant to carry that great of a load. Muscles tense up to try to support you (think overly tight upper traps/neck tension), you waste energy going through movement patterns that are not optimal (see this when a person twists or leans left to right when they are jogging), & your joints suffer accelerated wear & tear (read: hips & knees develop inflammation & wear down after years of over-loading them).

So what do you do with this info?

Strengthen your core muscles with controlled ‘core-focused’ movements. The core is made up of 29 muscles, the least valuable of which is the rectus abdominis, the “6-pack muscle” that is worked primarily during crunches/sit-ups.  See my company’s videos on how to do this! Click here for our exercise videos.

The 29 core muscles include: the TVA (wraps around the trunk from the spine to the belly button), the obliques (support the sides of the trunk by helping it rotate & stabilize against rotation), the pelvic floor (often forgotten, but key to keeping the trunk from sinking, think Kegal exercise while you do a plank to work this), the erector spinae & multifidi (spinal muscles that support the spinal vertebrae, they run vertically between the vertebrae).

Be mindful of your core during your regular day. Drawing your TVA in (pull belly button to spine while still maintaining relaxed breathing) when sitting at your desk will help you teach your muscles to maintain that posture without having to think about it.

Make your diet a priority if you want to actually see the changes in your core. You’ve got to burn fat in order to see the muscles underneath & no amount of cardio can burn off a crappy diet.

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