Perform squats and Olympic lifts to increase core strength and power. A new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research provides more evidence that dynamic multi-joint movements are best to train the core musculature, and that they are absolutely essential for athletes. The study also highlights the important role the core muscles play in the transfer of power from the lower to the upper body. But it also points to the fact that a weak lower back or poor hamstring strength will hamper lower body power output, thereby affecting force transfer to the upper extremities as well as overall sports performance.
Researchers used Division 1 college football players and had them perform a number of sport-related performance tests such as the 1RM back squat, push press, 40-yard dash, pro-agility test, and vertical jump. They then performed dynamic and static medicine ball throws in various directions to asses “core” strength. Through various correlations, researchers identified that maximal strength and power ability of the players was associated most directly with strength and power ability in the posterior core muscles (made up of the paraspinals and gluteals). There were moderate relationships between strength in other core muscles (rectus abdominus, pelvic and hip girdle muscles, and the obliques) and the squat and push press as well.
Researchers point to the uselessness of the plank exercise to assess or train the core both for athletes and the general population. The plank (and side planks) is performed in a nonfunctional static position that is rarely replicated in sports or in daily life, making it useless as a primary component of training. Equally, unless abdominal or “core” endurance is required for sports or daily life, it’s undesirable to devote valuable training time to abdominal endurance exercises such as sit-ups.
Rather, Olympic lifts and squats have been proven best for training core strength and power. Research shows the clean and snatch are especially effective at causing hypertrophy in the obliques, which is valuable information if you’re in pursuit of chiseled abs. Push-ups (although not a great upper body strength exercise for any well-trained person) provide adequate static horizontal abdominal training, and chin-ups are ideal for abdominal endurance because you must stabilize the body throughout the motion if you do it properly. Additionally, if the lower back, gluteals, or hamstrings are weak or imbalanced, glute-ham raises and back extensions are ideal.
Take away from this study an understanding that for the best performance in sports, you will build a strong “core” with heavy squats, Olympic lifts, and other multi-joint exercises. For trainees who want to look and feel good, the same advice applies, but if Olympic lifts are not part of your program, heavy multi-joint exercises are essential, as are chin-ups. Leg lowering exercises or similar abdominal endurance exercises may be in order but should only take up a very small part of your training time.
Also, if you are training athletes, the dynamic forward medicine ball throw (performed seated but with the trunk allowed to move) correlated with maximal squat and bench press performance, indicating that the anterior musculature is involved in these exercises. As mentioned above, in the case of the squat, posterior is most important, but anterior core strength is a factor.
Dynamic left and right lateral throws correlated with maximal jumping ability and running speed, making them possible performance tests. Overall, push press performance correlated with bench press, jumping ability, and agility. This indicates the role of upper body strength in each of these exercises, and that although to be performed properly the push press requires a large contribution from the lower body, the upper body is a contributing factor.
Shinkle, J., Nesser, T., et al. Effect of Core Strength on the Measure of Power in the Extremities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. January 2012. Published Ahead of Print.
Okada, T., Huxel. K., Nesser, T. Relationship Between Core Stability, Functional Movement, and Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. January 2011. 25(1), 252-261.
Sharrock, C., Cropper, J., Mostad, J., Johnson, M., Malone, T. A Pilot Study of Core Stability and Athletic Performance: Is There a Relationship? International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. June 2011. 6(2), 63-74.