on Core Training
This past weekend, our team went to our first tournament of 2010, and although I made a lot of progress in terms of linear speed and running form, sagittal plane and shoulder complex strength (at least strong enough to do 20kg K’bell snatches and get-ups with good form) in 2009, the tournament made me realize I still have imbalances in my core.
You’ll find lots of seemingly conflicting advice on core training, from avoiding all loaded lumbar flexion to the importance of maintaining forward flexion and an unloaded deep squat mobility, from focusing in on McKenzie’s extension protocol to reminding folks to either brace or hollow, from posture is king to the biopsychosocial aspects of LBD (lower-back disorders).
I’ve written about lower-back pain before and have studied pretty much every reasonable perspective on the issue, from Eric Cressey to 1:1s with Esther Gokhale, from spine biomechanics professor Stuart McGill to David Butler and Lorimer Moseley of the neurodynamics and neuromatrix realm, from Mark Verstegen & Coach Boyle to Gray Cook, to getting coached into decent form by Pavel and Dr. Cobb.
What can I say, I probably have a lovehate relationship with pain =) — that and/or a epigenetic predisposition to it. I guess that either makes me an unlikely trainer or just that I’ve had to work harder, longer, and smarter than most to keep up on the field and out of pain elsewheres. But, just a few thoughts to add to the chorus of those that have come before me, drilled in on how this affects Ultimate players specifically.
First, as Bryan Doo has pointed out, Ultimate is a really tough sport to train for. First, as they say, you don’t (or rather shouldn’t) run to get fit, you need to get fit to run. And how many competitive teams teach you how to run? (not to mention decelerate or move laterally.) Next, we all know how long college-level tourneys can run, from 7-10 [hour+long] games over a 36-60 hour period (props to those gals who play savage for days at a time), which means that any minor asymmetries will just sum up to something later.
Finally, let’s talk about the role of the core as an anti-flexion and anti-rotation mechanism. Coach Boyle talks about this in his new book Advances in Functional Training, which I recommend to any Ultimate (strength) coach, as Coach Boyle has “been there, done that, and is still doing it” in the realm and role of college and pro sports strength coach. Coach Boyle has been very aggressive in removing any exercise which induces lumbar flexion (1990′s-era crunches) or lumbar rotation (the scorpion), which some feel goes a bit too far as an overreaction.
Here’s what I believe so far:
- You need to be able to comfortably move into unloaded lumbar flexion and extension, but whether or not you need more unloaded flexion or extension is variable depending on the day & person. I like programming with (nervous system) biofeedback, which is a Z-type paradigm that strongman Adam T. Glass talks about here (inspired apparently by FrankieF of Movement Dallas), which sounds very out there, which it is but in a 21st century way…
The truth is that if you’re reading this blog you are or perhaps aspire to be an advanced athlete, which means you need to eventually progress beyond templates and programs to systems and a somewhat more instinctive approach to training. This doesn’t mean that you should commit random acts of variety, changing your program completely every workout (remember that strength gains in the first 4-6 weeks are mainly neurological not hypertrophic), but that field sports athletes need to balance all the elements of the athletic performance (including game skills which we don’t talk much about here), from max-strength to stability, agility to endurance.
Another truth is that “stronger is not better, better is better” (thanks Dr. Cobb =)). How this relates to Ultimate and core training is that it really helps to be balances left/right and anterior/posterior when it comes to your movements and your core (where motion often begins). That said,
- Most people overtrain flexion, and undertrain extension. The McKenzie protocol and the late 20th century Nautilus era had lots of people on back extension machines (my old trainer had me doing back extensions on machines and crunches on Swiss balls, but that was the wisdom at the time), but I’m starting to agree with Coach Wade (of Convict Conditioning) that modern athletes undertrain back extension, specifically in the form of bridging.
Glute bridges, Cook hip lift or marching style are good progressions to a true bridge (get Wade’s book for the progressions if nothing else), which I know I’ll be working on for the months and years to come.
- In the spirit of “movements not muscles”, I realized recently first-hand, the hard way, why Gray Cook is so big on the chop & lift, and why simple planks, bird-dogs, deadlifts and swings aren’t enough for advanced (Ultimate) athletes. When you look at younger players throwing, you’ll see that a lot of them through with a fairly relaxed core. Boys can get away with this if they have some upper-body strength, but the other day I reminded a gal to tighten her core as she threw a backhand huck and that simple cue added some 25 yards and stability to her long throw.
On my team, I usually pull as I’ve been throwing for a long time even if I’m fairly new to competitive Ultimate as a sport. What I realized is that it’s very easy to train and be strong in anti-flexion if you consistently do planks and even side planks, deadlifts, and bird dogs, but none of these are particularly good at training the core–your core software (brain, NS and motor patterns) and not just hardware (muscles)–at anti-rotation. The spine is a delicate beast, and if you’re pulling upwind corner to corner, you better have core anti-rotation dialed in, especially if you don’t have much upper body strength (I don’t…).
Give it a try, get into standing plank positioning (Gokhale method calls this “rib anchoring”, but just imagine plank position on the ground, and then keep that anterior core engagement standing up)–can you still rotate? Yep. The same is true, although less so for doing a true side plank (which I can do with one hand on a med ball, elbow extended, one foot on the ground). Now, compare that to a cable chop, half-kneeling or otherwise. Not much rotation around the spine permitted there.
The point is that even if you train anti-flexion and movements not muscles, pulling or just hucks in general require a lot of core strength, both in terms of software (motor patterns and muscular activation, which are largely reflexive…) and hardware (strength-endurance in particular rather than max-strength actually), to keep your nervous system not so nervous. A lot of strength systems focus on max-strength in the sagittal plane, rather than encouraging the anti-rotation patterns (spiral and diagonal PNF patterns according to Gray Cook’s article series on the Chop & Lift) done for strength-endurance and (often subconscious) motor patterning.
If you’ve gotten this far, good luck–train hard but smart. As for me, time for some whey protein powder mixed in steel-cut oat meal (thanks for the tip, Precision Nutrition) before I cleat up for Monday practice.