// The core connection

by Peter Twist

In the not so distant past, efforts at training athletes relied on expensive and bulky equipment which was designed to either isolate muscles or replicate mechanics in an attempt to ‘develop’ the bodies of players into their specific sport. Today we know that only the athletes themselves are the machines. It is through a method of teaching the athlete to exploit their machine’s natural affinity for movement and reactivity that we can train both the physiology and mechanics needed to optimise skilfulness. Today we also use portable sport-fitness tools that combine for thousands of movement-oriented drills, getting our machine moving!

THE PARADOX

The bottom line however is that there is a sport conditioning paradox. Epidemiological studies reveal that high velocity direction change commonly leads to injury on the field, court and gym floor. Likewise, braking and stopping are also common causes of injury, especially in collision sports like rugby, football and tennis. Ironically, explosive braking and high speed direction change are also key determinants of sport success. These attributes must be trained. Deceleration, velocity and direction change also add risk to training programs, but are a requisite component if we are to help players perform better and prevent injury. The trick is to do it with a systematic process, proven drills, effective guidelines, and with confidence that players are training in an aggressive yet safe and effective manner. Nowhere is this more true than when applying forces across the abdominals and the lumbar spine.

THE CORE CONNECTION TO ALL SPORTS

The sport skills of kicking a football, swinging a tennis racket, shooting a hockey ball, getting air and spin on snowboards, spiking a volleyball, driving a golf ball and hitting a baseball are all dependent on a highly developed torso capable of explosive rotation. The paradox continues in that most exercise professionals, with their good intention of ensuring core exercises are safe, prescribe very limited exercises that ultimately under-prepare their clients for sport demands, thereby actually setting them up to be injured.

In the fitness world, ‘core’ strength has become a very common buzzword. In sport, you are definitely only as strong as your weakest link, and for most athletes this is the core or speed centre, which includes abdominals, low back and hip musculature. For a solid base of support which is capable of transferring power through the kinetic chain, you need to build strength from the centre of the body out to the periphery, as opposed to preferentially working on the muscles you can see in a mirror. However, enhanced skill execution and sport power cannot be optimised with traditional floor-based sit up exercises.

 
In the past, core development has been attempted through the utilisation of floor-based exercises such as crunches, sit ups, leg raises, rope crunches, and back hyperextensions which predominantly isolate abdominal muscles. However, the speed centre must be developed with the intent of improved performance. Nothing on the court, field or ice is done in isolation. Isolation exercises will hurt your sport performance and lead to injury. Strength exercises must incorporate the entire body and accelerate through various joints, activate all muscle groups and move through varied planes.

TRANSFER FROM THE GYM TO GAME ACTION

Throwing (rugby, cricket, soft ball) striking (tennis, golf, hockey), and kicking (soccer) sports can all benefit from stronger and more effective torso rotation. Examining the mechanics needed to optimise sport skills, rotary power is the key link from the weight room to the playing field. Preferred exercises use a closed-chain position (standing up on your feet), weight shifts both laterally and horizontally (to pre-load the rear leg) and transfer of weight to lead leg at a high velocity. When working movement around the spine, through a transverse plane, initial exercise prescription uses slow controlled movements, for time under tension to optimise strength and hypertrophy gains. Moreover, slow controlled movements on both the positive (concentric) and negative (eccentric) phases of the lift decrease the risk of injury.

Think of swinging a tennis racket or throwing a ball from your hand. The commonality is loading the legs to sum power from the legs, through the hips to the core and onwards to the shoulder complex. ‘Triggering’ the hips will transfer explosive power through the core. It is good to use weighted medicine balls, covered strength tubing, and partner resistance exercises that allow powerful explosive strength training without having to decelerate at the end of the range of motion, as is necessary with free weights. These accommodate full ranges of motion, whole body skill movements and explosive, high velocity training. Core rotation begins with a strength emphasis and controlled speeds, and finishes (later in the program cycle) with quick counter-movements focused on power initiation. At this stage, athletes are performing core plyometrics.

To drive up your skill velocity, build for power through athletic rotation. After that, all you need to do is practice celebrating points and victories! To begin, safely follow the progressions below to take your client through a logical system that first builds postural strength and, as a last step, fine tunes high velocity rotation.

PROGRESSIONS
 
1. To achieve desired results, as well as prevent lower back injury, athletes are cued to ‘set their core’. The easiest way to explain this is to experience the ‘clenching’ or ‘bracing’ of the core when someone unexpectedly fakes a punch to your stomach. This corset effect is a set core that prepares the region to contract and exert force as well as to absorb it.

2. Initially prescribe static hold supine and prone positioned exercises. Lengthen the duration of holds and add loading and/or instability to those positions to gain full core strength.

3. Shift static core stability hold exercises to closed kinetic chain positions.

4. Add slow tempo full ROM rotation through the transverse plane with emphasis on loading the eccentric deceleration phase. Use a 2:4 rep count (2 seconds concentric, 4 seconds eccentric).

5. Increase the intent of power initiation at specific ranges of motion.

6. Increase the loading, movement velocity and rep counts for a given exercise.

7. Decrease eccentric-concentric coupling time at the point of direction change to generate power.


EXERCISES

BOSU®, STABILITY BALL STANDING CORE STABILITY



Purpose: trains core stabilisation in a standing position with a balance challenge.

Set up: client stands on both feet on the BOSU® Balance Trainer, holding a Stability Ball with arms extended, in a low athletic position with the core braced.

Execution: trainer presses on the Stability Ball from random locations (up, down, side) while the client attempts to keep the ball from moving. Trainer cues the client ‘don’t let the ball move’ as this helps develop the core to stabilise and absorb force. Repeat two sets with 10 pushes per set.


FITBALL ROTARY PASSES

  

Purpose: trains rotary core force production (throwing) and deceleration (catching) in a standing position.

Set-up
: client begins in a low athletic position with chest up, core braced and legs loaded in triple flexion of the hips, knees and ankles.

Execution
: during the catch phase the ball is caught out in front of the body while the client’s mass shifts over their rear leg, setting them up in a strong power position. Focus on using the core to absorb the force of the throw. In the throw phase, triple extension of the lower body and upper body occurs in sequence to create power through the entire kinetic chain. It is important to release the heel, freeing up the hips to trigger rotation.


SLASTIX™ PUSH-PULL ROTATION


 
Purpose: trains rotary core force production in conjunction with whole body strength.

Set-up: client begins in a split stance position with 1 Slastix™ performance tubing in each hand (resistance from the left and the right side of the athlete) with chest up, core braced and legs loaded in triple flexion of the hips, knees and ankles.  Coordination of this exercise is initially very challenging because the sequencing overloads the nervous system. (Trainer should pre-teach the push movement and the pull movements separately).

Execution: the pulling arm executes a row as the pushing arm executes a chest press action along with linked rotation of the core and a pivot of the feet. The body rotates as a whole and pivots in the direction of the pulling arm. Increase the speed of the entire movement when coordination is refined.

 

Peter Twist, MSc
Peter coached in Canada’s National Hockey League (NHL) for 11 years and is currently a consultant for several NHL players and agents. An exercise physiologist, he has published over 400 papers, authored ten books and 18 DVD ’s on athlete development and delivered lectures to thousands of fitness professionals. He is the president and CEO of Twist Conditioning Inc.

NETWORK • AUTUMN 2008 • PP13-16