Core training for outdoor sports

Hiking with a heavy pack is core training. Credit: Sierra Trading Post

Core training is a popular term in sports training circles, but it has a strange status. Everyone seems to talk about how important it is, yet it gets relegated to the end of a training session as an afterthought. Core training usually consists of a few ab exercises, such as crunches, sit-ups, planks or the like. Except for planks, these are similar to exercises that target the major muscle groups. The athlete concentrically contracts her trunk muscles against resistance and then eccentrically releases them under control. The logic is that if extension and contraction of the muscles under load works for the arms and legs, then it must be effective for the abs, too, right?

The farmer’s walk: a short walk performed with an equal weight in each hand (weights need not be live animals)

But to answer this it is important to look at the purpose that the core serves in the context of outdoor sports. While the core can move in all planes, it has a very limited range of motion. In fact, any movement of the core is usually only a precursor to movements by the extremities. It’s a bit like the first gear used to get a car moving, which is why we say “power comes from the core.” So instead of producing motion,  the core mainly works to lock the ribs to the hips in order to efficiently transfer force generated by the limbs to another part of the body. This means that in contrast to the arms and legs, the primary function of the core is stabilization.

Imagine a kayaker paddling. The arms produce a force against the paddle in the water. This is transferred through the trunk to the lower body braced inside the kayak, thereby propelling it through the water. Another example is running. The opposite arm to the lead leg extends to counteract the force generated by the movement of the leg. This is only made possible through the stabilizing function of the core. These examples demonstrate a key point: movements comprise a chain of actions and the power of the movement is determined by the weakest link. In this way, the strength of your core determines the power of your movements.

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What does this mean for core training?

Rocky in the seminal work Rocky 4, demonstrating that core work needn’t be complex, just unpleasant

As above, the primary purpose of the core is stabilization. Your core needs to be able to remain fixed and immobile while your arms and legs do their thing. Keeping in mind the principle of specificity from before, effective core training will thus involve moving the body while loading it as a whole. Therefore effective core training for most sports could include:

  • farmer’s walks and other loaded carries
  • sled pushes and pulls
  • weighted walking lunges
  • stair climbs

Note that this implies that core training can actually be incorporated into other activities. If you are a mountain climber, you could just add extra weight to your pack for a short walk up a steep hill, for example. This is good because the less time spent in the gym, the better.

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What are your “favorite”* core exercises? Let me know in the comments below!

*”Favorite” as in “do despite hating.” I don’t think anyone does these for fun.

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