You would have heard it time and time again your professor telling you that you need a strong core. This is great advice – except for the fact that most people’s understanding of the function and proper training of the core is limited. Don’t get me wrong I am far away from the chiselled torso that most people think of when they think of strong cores, however my core strength is one of my strong points and it could be one of yours too if you understand the muscle group and how to train it correctly.
In grappling sports, such as wrestling, BJJ, and judo, a strong core is needed to improve performance and prevent injuries. But don’t stop reading just yet to start your sit ups and crunches to make your core stronger. You need gain an understanding of your core – the muscles involved, the function, and the proper training progressions.
We are going to share all of that with you, as well as the best three core exercises you should be doing, if you aren’t already.
The Core: What It Is and What It Does
The term core has to be defined before you can understand how to properly train it. The function of the core muscles is to stabilize and protect the spine. They are designed to resist extension, transverse rotation and lateral flexion of the spine. The major muscles that form the system of core muscles are:
Rectus Abdominis: the muscles that show up as ‘six packs’.
Transversus Abdominis: they run diagonally across the torso and they form an important component of the breathing mechanism by creating movements in the diaphragm. They also aid in thoracic and pelvic stability. Functionally, they resist extension of the spine.
Internal and External Obliques: The obliques are situated on the front and side of the trunk. The internal obliques lie deep to i.e. below the layer of external obliques. Together they create flexion and rotation of the trunk. Aesthetically they create the V taper at the bottom of the Abs
Apart from this the spinal erectors, lats, glutes and the psoas muscles also contribute to the function of the core. A good strengthening program addresses all these muscle groups to help the athlete move faster and stronger through all the possible movement planes of the body. The core supports all the limbs and other organs of the body and directly controls their functions. Hence following such a program also builds strength through the entire structure of the body and not just isolated strength.
For the core to function optimally, the gluteal muscles need to be the primary power generators and must work synergistically with the pelvis. Simply put the core is not just a group of muscles. It is a group of muscles that work together as a unit. A weakness in any of the core muscles will affect its ability to function properly.
Many trainers feel the core functions to initiate movement. But according to certain experts, the core functions to prevent motion rather than initiate it. This definition is important for grapplers who must change directions multiple times during a match or training session (more on that in a moment).
Another important function of the core is its ability to function as a transfer mechanism. When power is generated in the hips, it is transmitted through the stiffness of the core. Every technique in BJJ requires the movement of the hips and the stability of the core.
The Core and Grappling
During a match or even in practice, grapplers need to change directions frequently and at various speeds. Often as grapplers we need to change directions against resistance. An athlete looking to pass the guard has to be able to change directions while maintaining his or her balance. If the core is unable to stabilize and act as a transfer mechanism for the power being generated by the lower body, the athlete will have a difficult time changing directions and maintaining that posture. The end result is a failed guard pass and possibly getting swept.
Grapplers need to maintain a high strength-to-weight ratio. Improving the strength of the core is one way to improve relative strength. According to a study done on strongman athletes showed that the core assisted the hips during tasks allowing the strongman to accomplish tasks they would not have been able to using only their hip strength. The end result is evidence that a strong core makes the rest of the body stronger. Improving the strength of the core will improve the overall strength of the grappler.
A strong core is also needed for injury prevention. The physical demands of grappling increase the risk for injury. A strong core may provide you with the insurance you need to stay on the mats injury free.
Training the Core
Training the core requires proper exercise selection that causes the core to be stiff. Another way to look at it is that you want an ability to maintain contraction. People are quick to jump on a stability ball and do balancing movements to strengthen their core. But these movements are not effective in training the core to be stiff.
Step 1: Eliminate Pain
As with any exercise program, proper progressions and programing are essential. If there is pain associated with a specific movement, then the first step is to eliminate that exercise. For example if a grappler feels pain in their back every time they shoot a double leg, the first step for this grappler is to temporarily eliminate double legs from their training.
Step 2: Practice the Big Three
After that, you add in corrective exercises that focus on developing a stiff core. It is recommend starting with what we will call the “big three”:
All of the big three exercises require an isometric contraction at the end range of the movement. Hold that isometric for no longer than ten seconds.
Step 3: Motor Control and Movement
Grapplers need to be able to maintain the strength of the core while in motion. In order to do this, the body must maintain stability in certain areas of the body and provide motion in others. An easy way to picture this is that during a squat the lumbar spine and core need to remain stable, while the hips must move. Good exercises to include in a core-training program are weighted carries such as farmer’s walks where the core must be stiff while the lower body moves.
Another way to categorize motor-control movements is by foot position. You can group exercises based on foot position. An example of a group of exercises organized around foot position could be squatting, stepping and lunging. Each foot position places a different stress on the core. And in any of the grappling sports, the participants are going to find themselves in all three of those foot positions.
Core training is more than doing crunches. To properly train the core, you need to understand its function first. Grapplers require a strong core to help prevent motion and to transfer power from the hips. Having a strong core allows grapplers to perform tasks they do not have the strength to perform. A proper core-training program may be the missing element to many grappler’s strength and conditioning programs.
- McGill, S. “Core Training: Evidence Translating To Better Performance And Injury Prevention.” Strength and Conditioning Journal.