Updated: Jan 23, 2020
What is core strength & stability
Core strength & core stability are different, with core strength simply being the amount of force the core muscles can produce, whereas core stability combines coordination & both core muscle strength & endurance. It requires highly coordinated patterns of muscle activation involving multiple muscles & task dependent recruitment patterns. Core endurance may be more important for injury prevention and rehabilitation and core strength and power may be more important for sports performance.
Why are the core muscles so important in gymnastics?
The ‘core’ plays many important roles in gymnasts. In order to hold complex shapes during highly dynamic movements it must be strong AND stable; to both produce & resist forces in many directions.
Anti-rotation, anti-flexion, anti-extension and anti-lateral extension are all important aspects & must be trained, in addition to the ability to produce either rotational, flexion or extension forces depending on the movement being performed.
What is the core?
The core usually involves all muscles contributing to the transfer and control of forces and motion through the trunk, think of it as a “muscular box” surrounding the trunk, made up of the diaphragm at the top, pelvic floor & hip girdle muscles at the bottom, abdominal muscles at the front and the gluteal muscles and muscles of the spine & back at the rear. The diaphragm is a muscle involved in the core, thus teaching deep breathing and the optimal use of the diaphragm during deep breaths may be beneficial.
Resistance of movement
Exercises which resist movement promote spinal stiffness and stability. Emphasis should be on resisting movement thus the core should remain totally still & stable whilst a movement of another part of the body is occurring (ie arm or leg) rather than just training gymnasts to hold an isometric movement such as a plank for as long as possible.
Anti-rotation exercises are designed to challenge the core to prevent rotation in the transverse plane & improve spinal stability. Examples include the landmine arcs, palloff press and woodchop exercises.
Anti-flexion exercises prevention flexion and use the posterior part of the core. Examples of exercises include glute ham raises/lumbar extension exercises.
Anti-extension exercises prevent lumbar extension and include the plank and all variations including body saws, stirring the pot and rollouts as well as deadbugs and all their variations (which challenge the core in other planes too) and quadruped exercises such as bird dogs which challenge the trunk in many planes. Below is an example of an antiextension exercises where focu is on keeping the entire spine flat on the floor & not letting the lower back extend & lift off the floor as the legs slowly lower. An inability to prevent lumbar extension in this way may be linked to lower back pain.
Anti-lateral flexion exercises challenge the lumbopelvic complex and spinal erector muscles to prevent lateral flexion Examples include side planks (shown below with lateral arm raise, designed to challenge core stability during movement), suitcase carries (shown in 2nd video below), single arm overhead press, woodchops & offset lunges/step-ups.
With these exercises that resist movement, especially the anti-extension exercises, attention to detail is important, the gymnast should focus on remaining stable & still, for example not allowing their back to arch off the floor during anti-extension exercises like deadbug variations.
More than just a 6-pack/crunches!
The muscles of the lumbo pelvic complex (ie muscles that stabilise the pelvis and spine make up a crucuial part of the core.
Maintaining lumbo pelvic stability is important in gymnastics and involves optimal patterns of muscle recruitment of multiple muscles of the core which are task dependent. Lower back pain is common in gymnasts and may be at least partly due to poor hip muscle function which is compensated for by excessive lumbar extension. Quadruped exercises such as bird-dogs (shown below), also teach glute and hamstring activation while maintaining a stable torso & neutral spine in multiple planes are useful. Other examples include bear crawls, fire hydrants, bird dogs. These can easily can be easily be incoporporated into warm-ups and can be regressed and progressed.
Challenging the lumbopelvic complex or ‘core’ to resist movement in all planes and in different positions is important so the gymnast learns to stabilise their trunk during the highly varied and dynamic movements required in gymnastics and may also minimise back pain.
As the gymnasts get closer to competition challenging the core or more gymnastic specific and dynamic movements is useful. Coaches should pay attention to detail and encourage slow controlled movement for many of the anti-extension and antirotation exercises.
Production of forces
Training the core to produce force should occur. Rotational medicine ball throws are useful for producing rotational force. Leg lifts and v-sits produce flexion force.
Conditioning the trunk for gymnastics should involve core strength, power & stability trained both to resist AND produce movement.
All planes of movement should be considered; ant- extension, anti-flexion, anti-rotation & anti lateral flexion using dynamic elements rather than static exercises.
The hips & possibly the diaphragm are important parts of the core to consider.