Overworking the core: Don’t ignore your body’s brakes
I rarely discuss core training because of the inappropriate use of the word, the confusion this buzz term brings and because we often overemphasize specific core training to the detriment of our entire biological system. Let me explain. I’ll begin with an appropriately long story.
Riding bicycles was a favorite activity of mine as a young child. Our neighbors had two high-school aged boys who were, if I’m not mistaken, Category 1 cyclists. Chip Frazier might have been 19 years old, and routinely won the Athens Brick Criterium — a phenomenally dangerous, hilly race that was spectacular to watch in September when the bricks were wet from the rain. My brother and I looked up to Forrest and Chip, and riding bicycles was a way to emulate their attitudes in life.
One of my closest friends moved away from Athens, to Zanesville, Ohio, when I was 10 years old. Zanesville is separated by 52 miles of twisty tarmac; Route 13 in Southeastern Ohio is a classic, scenic two lane road that is great for the driving enthusiast. At the time, my father owned a four dour, BMW 318 sedan. This was an entry-level, yuppie-equipped sporting contraption. Even though this model produced only 118 horsepower, the car was quite impressive as an energetic, capable asphalt burner.
I had been visiting Jack in Zanesville over a weekend. My dad came to pick me up on a Sunday afternoon, and on the way home I asked if we could stop at a local bike shop on Route 13 just on the edge of town. Upon investigation, I noticed an electric blue Panasonic 10 speed bike that I had to have. By the way, as an obese child, my parents always promoted the acquisition of tools that would help me lose weight. They never said it, but it’s very clear today how my parents always gladly encouraged sports and activity. My dad would discuss the bike with my mother, and if it was okay with her, we would come back the following Friday and pick up the machine.
The following Friday, my father instructed me to come straight home from school so we could make the trek to Zanesville; the bike shop apparently was closing early, and we had an hour drive ahead of us. I eagerly anticipated my dad picking me up from the house at 2:35 p.m. Before I knew it, it was 3:12 p.m. The shop closed at 4 p.m. I remember throwing a tantrum as my dad squealed into the driveway. He assured me we would make it in time.
For the record, I’m not condoning reckless behavior. Driving fast on public roads is hugely irresponsible. Nonetheless, my father made the journey in 35 minutes. The voyage is quite similar to driving from Minturn to Leadville; averaging 89 miles per hour on a road like U.S. Highway 24 in a very meek sports car, if you can even call it that, is very impressive. I specifically remember a black, late 1960’s Chevy Camaro SS, with a likely 327 Chevy small block engine, trying to keep up with the little Beemer that could. It wasn’t even a match.
Core training’s intended purpose is to build a chassis that is similar to a well-made German automobile. Many novice lifters are too concerned with building large, global muscles that perform much like a late ’60s muscle car. A bigger motor increases power and speed, but a greater motor demands much larger brakes to harness the performance. This is why the Camaro lost the race. A big, fast car cannot manage the performance without a capable braking system. Your deep stabilizers are your body’s brakes. Deep stabilizing muscles reduce, or dampen movement to create a level of postural integrity necessary for injury prevention. Big, moderately strong beach muscles are like shooting a cannon from a canoe. They might look cool and interesting, but the performance won’t be there. On the other hand, a pet peeve of mine is individuals who take core training to the extreme and isolate this wonderful braking system to the detriment of increasing the motor size, so to speak. I use this example all the time; the reformer and all those cool stability ball exercises are great and all, but if you don’t have the requisite leg strength to stand up off of the floor, well, I hope you don’t slip on ice this winter.
How do we build core strength given the dialogue so far? First of all, the body doesn’t necessarily understand parts, but understands synergy and patterns. Train movements, not muscles, and your brain will strengthen your core muscles appropriately. Bending, twisting, pushing, squatting, pulling, locomotion, jumping, crawling, and climbing are movements that will reinforce the proper stabilizing muscles’ response to protect from the dangers these movements pose to your postural integrity. For example, squat a heavy enough weight, and your deep spinal stabilizers and abdominal muscles will get the message. Your safety demands it. Also, if you train your body like a random box of parts, and you don’t create a sensory rich environment that will challenge your movement ability, don’t expect to build a foundation of core strength and ultimate performance. European and Japanese automakers have known this for years. They have consistently assembled comparatively under-powered vehicles that outperform American counterparts by not ignoring horsepower per se, but by intelligently investigating the suspension, total weight of the vehicle, braking, and efficiency. Look at the entire organism of your body the same way. All of the parts work together to create a total package of movement and performance.
OK — let’s keep talking about this stuff, drive safe out there, and have a great week!
Ryan Richards is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.
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