Saturday, December 22, 2012

Core Strength

As winter really picks up steam and gets her frosty legs under her, all your various little inefficiencies are probably starting to rear their fatigued, glycogen-deprived heads and cry out for assistance. Though most of my winter is spent on the racing circuit I do get the opportunity to teach a few private lessons and there are some very common issues I see which can be categorized under the general heading: core strength.

Go for strength over showy
Let's start this discussion with a disclaimer: core strength is NOT six-pack abs. Not necessarily, at least. While the fit skier or runner will likely have a nice washboard stomach, it comes as much from leanness and body fat composition as it does sheer strength. Core strength encompasses far more than the rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle): there are also the external and internal oblique muscles and the transverse abdominus. These muscles comprise the deeper layers to the rectus; they are also the ones that help stabilize and support your structure during both dynamic movement and when still. Additionally, we add (perhaps controversially) the lesser gluteal muscles into the mix - the minimus and medius, both on the lateral side of your hip. These muscles are also heavily involved in stability, especially for the pelvis.

In thinking particularly about Nordic skiing, the core is hugely important. Without adequate core strength, you will often see people skiing with their hips behind them, gliding with their weight predominantly on their heels instead of more appropriately, on the ball of the foot. Furthermore, a lack of core strength will manifest itself in the form of a cranky lower back after your first few skis of the season. Because skiing is such a dynamic sport, demanding that you be in a forward-leaning position and alternating between tensed and relaxed, you need a sturdy core to take the load off your lower back.

We prefer a max strength approach to core training, as opposed to the "1000 crunches every day" routine. Yes, you will get a ripped tummy with that many exercises (provided you're not snuggling up with Mr. Goodbar thrice a day), but will it make you stronger? We go for few reps and a high load to get maximal engagement of the core, complete with (and this part's crucial) correctly-fired muscles. Put another way, you want to engage your deeper core muscles INSTEAD of your superficial rectus abdominus. The easiest way to do this is, when doing a sit-up, focus on pulling up your pelvic floor; pretend your trying to hold in a pee. You'll notice your stomach contract and tension in your pelvic region, distal to your navel.

For a more visual reference, picture this: when you're using mainly your rectus abdominus in a sit-up, it will bulge from your stomach, mimicking a "bread loaf". Our good friend Dr. Colleen Ryan, DPT, coined that term and we think it fits very well. In contrast to the bread loaf look, an engaged deep core will display a flat stomach:
The incorrect engagement - note the "bread loaf" abs. Notice also how curved the cervical spine is; a true, challenging sit-up involves a straight back, relying more on the deep core muscles instead of "rolling" along the spine and using the rectus.
A flat, sexy stomach in a sit-up is a sign of a strong core. See as well how the spine isn't as curved; when conducting the sit-up be sure to have the neck at a natural angle, as it would be if you were standing upright and looking straight ahead.
A strong core is beneficial in every single sport. Our core is what is supposed to hold us upright and stable so that our more superficial muscles are left free to do the more specific, powerful movements. Beefcake McGoo may have a slammin' six-pack but without strong deep core muscles, he ain't gonna be out double-poling you in a 50km ski marathon any time soon.

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