Rethinking Core Training: Is it a fad?

Core training is all the buzz in almost every field of fitness. Search the internet and there have been massive amounts of literature written on the subject. As is a theme in my training, any time a ‘new’ thing becomes a fad, it is at first overemphasized until it naturally falls into its place of worth. That seems to be the case with core training. Is it useful for a distance runner or any athlete? Absolutely. Is it something that demands hours of time spent specifically training it? Probably not.

The problem arises in how best to train the core. Is it best to do hours of countless situps or wobble around on a bosu ball? Let’s look at some of the current research to see if we can discern what needs to be trained and how to train it.

A recent article was published comparing the degree of muscle activation of the “core” muscles (Behm, Cappa, & Power, 2009). They measured muscle activation for the external obliques, lower abdominals, and the eractor spinae. The interesting finding was that the level of activation of the eractor spinae was higher during running than during a back extension exercise designed to train that muscle. What this means is that running trains the core, specifically the trunk. One has to question if doing a ton of back extension work is a good exercise to train the trunk portion of the core, if you are getting more muscle activation just by running.

Similarly, if we look at muscle activation of the entire set of core muscles, what exercises provide the most muscle activation? Is it old school ab work like crunches, crazy yoga style poses, or new school stuff like doing ab work on Bosu balls. Again looking at muscle activation of several different core muscles during different exercises we can get an idea of what might be effective. In looking at two core muscles on the backside, the longissimus and the multifidus, their activation levels were much higher during a squat and deadlift at heavier weights than in several core exercises (bird dog, pelvic thrusts, planks, dead lift, pushups, bosu ball work). In looking at the external obliques, the level of activation was higher in the lifts than the majority of the core exercises and equal to the other two. The takeaway message is that for most of the core muscles, the level of activation is higher doing traditional lifting than specific core work.

Lastly, let’s look at training on unstable surfaces, which seems to be a new trend in athletics. Training on unstable surfaces like balance discs, BoSu balls, etc. creates a lot of problems. First off, training on an unstable surface increases the activation of the antagonist muscle. This isn’t a good thing. What this means is that the muscle working directly opposite of the muscle that is doing the work is activated. This obviously isn’t a desired outcome as it is in effect working against what you are trying to do. Essentially, this co-contraction is like driving with the parking break on. Training on an unstable surface doesn’t have a lot of research to back it up in terms of performance benefits.

The take away message isn’t that you shouldn’t do core training, it’s just that you should think about what you are doing as core training. As a distance runner, why would you try and replicate the same thing that gets done while running. Instead, focus on the benefits that you can’t get from running. . In this regard, it’s similar to weight lifting. Why spend time doing the same kind of training in the weight room as you do out running or on the track? That means forget the really high rep low weight exercises that do pretty much the same thing as going out and running. Instead focus on the things that you can’t get out running, in this example power/neural changes/economy changes. The same thing applies to core training.

Tieing this back to the original study which prompted this post, do we really need to spend an hour on doing a bunch of core work when running is core training? Will doing 15 back extension exercises do much when we just spent an hour doing an exercise which activates the back muscles to a greater degree? Instead, maybe we should do exercises which better strengthen those muscles if that’s the goal. Lastly, one has to look at how important the core is to your sport. Does a strong core really do all that people claim it too? Does our form really fall apart because our core does? That’s a common belief, but I’m betting that it isn’t true. Generally the core doesn’t fatigue first when racing. Form falling apart is a result of fatigue elsewhere and the runner trying to compensate or fight this fatigue by changing something. For instance, if stride length starts to decrease, you often see overswinging of the arm stroke. Are the arms fatigued? Not really, the runner’s just compensating. This can also be seen with the forward or backward lean during heavy fatigue. Is the runners back fatiguing so much that he can’t keep upright? Probably not, he’s just trying to compensate for reduced stride length/frequency.

A lot of the research in the above post was taken from a presentation from fellow grad student Matt Andre, so thank you Matt.

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    1. Alex on January 1, 2010 at 5:13 am

      I've read about this in other places recently as well, but with the overload of information on lifting I don't know where to being looking. Can you perhaps give some examples of beneficial lifts that a runner should look at doing?

    2. stevemagness on January 1, 2010 at 8:16 pm

      Alex-Good question. Strength training for distance runners/endurance athletes is an understudied area. There's plenty of evidence showing that it works, just not a whole lot on the optimal way to do it.

      If we look at what we're trying to get out of it as distance runners, it gives us some clues. Primarily, we're looking for power gains, enhanced muscular.tendon stiffness, and some neural adaptations like increased muscle fiber pool.

      Without getting too in depth, you want the focus to be on the legs with minimal upper body work. Most distance runners stay away from the legs because they think running gives them strength. This isn't really true because almost all of the training we do is endurance based and not really speed/power based.

      So, in terms of what lifts to focus on, large muscle group lifts that focus on the legs are the ones to used. The olympic lifts, squats, cleans, etc. are all great ones to use.

      How much also depends ona lot of factors, but a general recomendation is that you do some general lifting for a bit to get used to lifting. Then have a period focused on heavy lifting, because we are focusing on neural adaptations. So, a couple sets with rep ranges maybe starting at 6 reps the first couple lifting sessions and decreasing to 5,4,3 as you progress. This is all with heavy weight. Once a base of heavy weight is established, I'd switch to more ballistic work for power.

      Combine that with plyos for reduced ground contact and to help with the Stretch shortening cycle a bit and you've got yourself a solid program.

    3. Anonymous on January 2, 2010 at 8:07 am

      do you reccomend core workouts at all then if you think they are overated?

      what are some specifics on what you do for "core"?

    4. Anonymous on January 3, 2010 at 12:34 am

      Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

    5. stevemagness on January 3, 2010 at 12:46 am

      I recommend doing some core strengthening work. But that doesn't mean doing a bunch of situps or poses that isolate the core. Do I recommend doing some of the isolation exercises? Yes, butonly for those muscles that are hard to train. So, using the above information, I wouldn't do many, or any, back isolation work if I was getting the double whammy of running and doing some strength work like squats. Lifting seems to be a better stimulus for the back core muscles then traditional core isolation work.

      Other research on the external obliques, shows that strength training like that mentioned above provides at least the same activation, if not more in most cases, then most isolation ab work, so if you're already doing stuff like squats, your covered there. The only place where core isolation exercises provide more activation seems to be the abs. SO, maybe some isolation work there would be worthwhile, but then it becomes a question of how do you train that area. In isolation movements/static contractions or reactively like they are used in running?

      That may be a post for another day.

      One other thought to ponder is does having too strong/tight of abs effect the cost of breathing. I have no evidence for this at all but in theory, if one is a belly breather, having constantly tight/braced abs could increase the cost of breathing. No idea, just thinking out loud.

      I'm afraid we don't have all the answers yet for core strength.

      Anonymous #2- Thanks for the comment. It's no coincidence that this increase in creativity coincides with winter break from school! Please feel free to provide input or suggestions on anything you'd like to see covered/explored.

    6. Sean Wade on January 3, 2010 at 2:04 am

      team kroger should sponsor your website.

    7. Anonymous on January 4, 2010 at 11:20 am

      Great post!

    8. Edward Edmonds on February 2, 2010 at 4:34 pm

      A few months back I started doing hold squats, where I would get in the position of a squat and hold it for 10+ mins (I got the idea from a the Shaolin Monks who hold this position for an hour), I do these every other day (w/ no added weight), not only did I experience increased muscular stamina, but I noticed that my core was tremendously more stable then before. It's always a nice feeling when you discover something on your own and some research comes along to give some credibility to your foreign methods.

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