Whether an individual in pain, a desk worker, recreational gym rat, or an elite athlete, the single most influential variable to optimising performance is an ineffective core. Core stiffness and endurance is essential for injury prevention, performance enhancement and can only be optimised by specific training, not general bodybuilding exercises.
The spine is a stack of vertebrae in which is required to tolerate load, while maintaining a flexibility.
Prof. Stuart McGill from the University of Waterloo, Canada describes the make-up of the spine from an engineering stand point. A structure cannot be good at both tolerating load and being flexible simultaneously. For example a steel beam support structure must be stiff and able to resist loads that try to compress, shear and twist it. It must handle load, and be able to prevent movement. On the other end of the spectrum, a flexible rod can allow movement, bend and give way under load, while absorbing shock, bit cannot provide stability.
The design of our spines allow it to do all of these functions – It is flexible, allowing movement, but requires support systems to stabilize and tolerate load. Skeletal muscle, and the accompanying fascia make up a ‘guy wire’ system designed to produce a stiffness which can resist giving way and subsequent injury. The problem that exists is that majority of us don’t tune this system.
Upon loading of the spine, comes a need for stiffness to support it, which must be created by muscular contraction. This muscular contraction generates a force and stiffness – stabilizing joints and preparing for load bearing, reducing injury risk.
Creating this stiffness is essential in optimal performance whether running at maximal velocity, rapid change of direction, or bearing heavy load. Although heavy lifting requires a stiff core, an ineffective core can be the difference when transferring gym based strength to on field performance.
E.g. A gym trained rugby league player, running at full speed, plants his right foot to step to his left, the pelvis drops, causing the spine to bend laterally. Although great leg strength has been developed, and subsequent force is generated, this force cannot be transmitted through the hips and be expressed in leg speed due to the bend in the spine. Power output has been reduced due to poor lumbopelvic stability. Proximal stability created by the lateral core muscles would see the hips muscles anchored down, and produce powerful leg movements.
Core stiffness is essential in optimal, safe and efficient work practice, whether lifting heavy loads few times, or light loads a lot of time e.g. a supermarket night filler. Transfer of load from one location to another is often performed with a rounded back, or via twisting the spine, placing large stress spine. In fact twisting as a means of moving a load can increase the stress on the spine to 4 times more than forward movement.
Incorrect lifting technique including repetitive lumbar flexion (bending the spine), and rotating the spine can cause severe disc injury and increase time off work and workplace productivity. Alongside correct lifting technique, ability to stiffen the core, maintain safe spinal position, and ability to use the ‘hip hinge’ to lift, can dramatically improve workplace efficiency, decrease injury risk, and reduce energy expended during work demands, and can further be optimised by an effect core training exercise prescription.
These examples exhibit the necessity of a core stability component of exercise programming. If you have lower back pain, are looking to improve sporting performance, work efficiency, or prevent injury, discuss with your exercise physiologist how optimising your core musculature can improve your quality of life.