6 Major Differences Between “Core” Training and “Traditional” Training
Guest Author: Cameron Stache. Cameron is a veteran fit coach for The Rush Fitness Complex in North Carolina. He has experience in multiple types of training, fitness sales, and even trained managers for the company. He is a certified Nutrition Coach through Dotfit and has trained people ranging from teenagers to seniors with goals as varying as weight loss, muscle growth, performance gains, or even preparation for military enlistment.
About two weeks ago I was walking to my vehicle in the parking lot of work and ran into a member of our gym. He started talking to me about how he saw trainers using BOSUs (“The half-moon blow up thingy” as he called it) and other different things like medicine balls and such that weren’t “effective” at training. And that everything needed to be done in a “power stance” or it wasn’t doing any good. I’ll be the first to admit, there are MANY times where this equipment is used by some co-workers, and honestly, myself in the past now that I think about it, in ways that really are more inefficient than not using it. However, the real point is that he has a common thought process of most old-school (and many new-school) lifters. In fact, many readers of LeanLifters articles would be in this “old school, over 40” bracket. Bottom line: the training they were doing wasn’t the same that he was doing. He saw “different” (which makes sense, because many people have different goals and focuses of training) and interpreted that as “wrong.” This is extremely common in this field, even among professionals, because it’s so rapidly evolving. Even the entire principle of how a muscle works is still only theory. What he was witnessing was Core Training.
Core Training (a.k.a. “Balance Training” for its style of exercises) has been the craze for the past few years when it comes to workouts. World Fitness Network gears its articles more towards an aesthetic appeal than to performance, but there are plenty of subscribers who want to focus on having a fitness plan that is more balanced. Even Darrin (for some of you LeanLifters newbies, that’s that one dude who typically writes your articles and e-mail you oh so enjoy) would fall into this category. The problem is, many people know they lack in this area, but don’t know how to properly do it. By the end of this article you won’t be able to write an entire program for yourself, but you should be able to at least identify it when you see it, how it works, what parts of the core it’s working, and some basics on progressing/regressing the exercise.
First things first though, there is a misconception to most people that “core” only means “abs” or sometimes “abs and back.” What they should be talking about, unless it’s just someone regurgitating information they heard, is your entire torso. Personally, I break it down into 3 sections: Hips, Torso, and Shoulders. Your hips would be considered hip flexors, glute muscles, abductors, adductors, etc. Your torso would most significantly be your abs, lowers back, and all those smaller muscles below your six-pack, and anything having to relate directly with your spinal column. Those smaller muscles are the muscles that you feel the next morning after you do a new workout and didn’t know they existed. And finally, the shoulders encompass your chest, upper back, deltoids and traps. And before we get some comments, yes I’m aware that your chest and back are on your torso. I put them in the shoulder category for 2 reasons: First, it’s impossible to work your chest or back in a functional way without jointly putting force either on or through your shoulders (the same rings true for your knees in relation to your hips). Second, your chest and back have more to do with the position of your shoulder blade, whether it be tilting, rotating, or sliding, than they do with your torso positioning. As I mentioned during the torso section, the key to being a part of the torso is spinal positioning. When you hear the word “core” you will now understand what the person should be talking about. If they say otherwise you know they will be blowing hot air out of their ears.
Now, on with our fun little list here:
1. Core training emphasizes working from the inside-out. In some of my earlier days I had the chance to spend some time with a member of one of our clubs. She was in pretty solid shape and had an ISSA certification. Long story short, I ended up giving her a little consultation/workout. By the end of our time she had learned some interesting things about her body that she wasn’t aware of. The most important of which was posture. Let me first take this time to say that NOBODY has perfect posture. However, generally speaking, the older you are the more compensations your body makes and the longer they take to fix, for various reasons. (Tip: This might be a good point to reference a 2-part article I wrote a while back on foam-rolling.) This is one of the first things core training emphasizes if the program is done properly. In order to exert maximal force (that’s what’s needed to build strength) you need to focus on posture and those deep core stabilizing muscles (those spinal muscles) to provide a solid surface to exert force through. Which brings me to our next point.
2. Core training emphasizes stability. This goes along with the first point. In fact, you’ll find a lot of these points go hand-in-hand, which is a good thing. Your core is involved in pretty much anything you do.
At this point, at the risk of getting too scientific, we should consult our friend Isaac Newton in a few laws of motion. First, his first law, the “Law of Inertia” states that “An object at rest will stay at rest, forever, as long as nothing pushes or pulls on it. An object in motion will stay in motion, traveling in a straight line, forever, until something pushes or pulls on it.” His second law gives us the formula of “Force=Mass x Acceleration.” What this means is that the heavier something is, the more force it takes to stop or start the inertia started via law #1. The third law states that “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
Most people do know that this is the entire principle of how weight lifting works. If you’re squatting you are pushing weight down on the floor thus moving the weight (which is lighter than the floor) upwards. It’s also why lifting free weights doesn’t work in outer space. What most people don’t understand is what forces are being put on the body to make it work.
Imagine you are laying down on a bench doing a Bench Press. In order to push the bar up into the air you exert force simultaneously downwards through your spine and back into the bench and upwards into the bar (law #3). The heavier the weight, the harder you push, and the more force that is applied in both directions (law #2). Eventually, the weight on the bar exerts less downward force than you exert upwards and moves upwards (law #1). At least in theory.
What isn’t covered is that your body is an extension of the bench in this scenario. The entire purpose of having the bench is to provide a solid place of support, either because you are lighter than what you are trying to push (essentially a horizontal push-up) or because you want to lift more weight than you would than if you were standing (more on that later in point #4.) The force applied in either direction starts at the chest muscle and pushes all of your body into the bench and arms upwards to move the energy created by them in the direction they are supposed to be going. The problem is that as the force moves along your body oftentimes a joint, ligament, tendon, bone, muscle, or otherwise along the way will give out before either the weight on the bar or the bench. That’s not good by the way: joints aren’t mean to be separated. In fact, acromioclavicular joint (more commonly known as “AC Joint”) separation is a HIGHLY common injury from weightlifting. In fact, back in high school, when I was younger, I injured both of mine. Don’t repeat my mistakes, it’s not fun. It took about 4 years of work to get it back to almost full strength, and it still occasionally gives me problems.
3. Core training emphasizes injury prevention. Your body moves in 3 planes of motion: sagittal (walking forwards and backwards), frontal (side stepping bending side to side), and transverse (rotating at the spine, like a trunk twist). And your muscles have 3 kinds of contractions: Concentric (force applied while the muscle is shortening), isometric (force applied while no movement is occurring), and eccentric (force applied while the muscle is lengthening). One of the biggest flaws with weight training is that it’s not functional to everyday life. How often does the average person bend straight down to pick up the shampoo bottle they knocked off the ledge again, or squat straight down to get into the cupboard under the sink to get cleaning supplies? We, as a fitness industry, train people to not injure themselves in the weight room, but that doesn’t help us much in real life. Almost every exercise is done in a sagittal plane of motion with a concentric contraction; over 90% of injuries occur in a transverse plane of motion during an eccentric contraction. Doesn’t sound very efficient to me. How about the body builder who can squat three times his body weight but hurts his back getting out of his car too quickly?
This is exactly the main purpose of core training. Preparing the body for forces placed upon it. The above scenario fits just as well into fitness as well. Another article on LeanLifters states that ideal rep count is somewhere between form failure and muscle failure. If you are tired on the last 2 reps of your deadlift and twist slightly to one side you risk injury. It’s the same principle. Core training, in its simplest form, is about mobility, which by definition has to include movements in every plane of motion.
4. Core training emphasizes strength over size. This really is just an extension of point number 3, so I’ll make it short. Just like strength and size are different, though related, so is strength in the weight room vs. strength in the “outside realm of humans.” Just because you can Bench Press 250lb. doesn’t mean that you can lift the spare tire out of your trunk any easier than the smaller guy who can only Bench Press 175lb. I could elaborate more, but combined with the planes of motion I was talking about earlier, I think it’d kind of be beating the point in a bit too much. If you need clarification on this, or anything in the article for that matter, I check the forums ultra-regularly.
That said, there is ample evidence that the people with the strongest squats and strongest deadlifts also have incredibly strong cores. Even though most powerlifters aren’t doing as much multi-planar core training as I recommend, they are masters at trunk stabilization. Louie Simmons (creator of the most successful powerlifting philosophy ever, Westside) will often regress his lifters if their core starts failing when the bar gets heavy and he’ll incorporate some elements of the core training I mention.
5. Core training emphasizes progression differently. This might be the most important point of this entire list. Core training in itself doesn’t need weight. The purpose is to simulate the outside world, where there often isn’t very much weight. This aspect is where it coins the term “balance training.” A while back I had a nomenclature issue on the forum and ended up writing a giant long explanation of the stability vs. strength relationship on a straight leg deadlift topic. I saw “S. Leg Deadlift” and interpreted “single leg.” The topic was actually featured as an article for LeanLifters and a forum example. Anyways, it’d be a GREAT place to start looking for examples of this.
Core training progresses, typically, by increasing the instability of an exercise instead of increasing the weight. A common example used is a Bench Press vs. a dumb bell chest press. You can press more weight with the bar because it’s more stable. A more extreme example of this is suspension training. Do some dips on a dip bar, then get on some rings and try it. You’ll notice a world of difference. While you will gain some strength it won’t be optimal like loading weight on you then doing them, or even better, moving on to a triceps pushdown machine. To your core and the stability of your joints it is HUGE!
6. Core training tends to be more “fun.” This isn’t to say that lifting weight isn’t fun. It is, however, much more marketable. Insanity, P90X, CrossFit, Bowflex, Total Gym… These all are, or contain principles of core training. And they are most definitely all built directly upon those same principles. Each and every one of them is more marketable than just “hitting the weights” because it looks more fun, and it’s different. We’re less likely to skip parts of a workout if we enjoy it more, even when we are tired. In fact, one of my favorite LeanLifters articles states that the average person thinks that being able to run a marathon means that you are “fit.” Sometimes doing some of these unique exercises can throw some spice into your workout and reinvigorate you, especially if you have been doing the same exercises, just variations of them, for years or maybe decades on end.
If you aren’t adding in core training to your routines, then you are missing out on a set of principles that will lead to better overall functional strength, better joint health, and more fun. Chime in below or on the forums with ways you incorporate it.