• Building an Exercise Program that Includes Core Training
    Core strength can be defined as the ability to transfer force from the feet, through the legs, to the midsection, and finally to the upper body. This article covers five steps to improving core performance with your athletes or clients, including sample exercises. From the NSCA's Performance Training Journal.
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  • PTJ10.5-CoverWhat is Core Strength? 

    Core strength can be defined as the ability to transfer force from the feet, through the legs, to the midsection, and finally to the upper body (3,4). For example, in track and field a shot-putter drives with the legs, then twists at the midsection, and finally releases the shot from the fingers of the hand.

    There are several methods of increasing sport performance and strength through core training. There is also a wide range of activities, movements, and training strategies that can be used in program development such as strength, balance, and sport-related activities, all of which engage the midsection of the body.

    For example, a weighted medicine ball can be used to improve chest pass basketball performance for an athlete, or it can be used as a personal training activity for someone who does not play basketball but wants to improve his or her fitness level. This article takes the perspective that core training, when included in an overall exercise program, can enhance sport performance and overall fitness. 

    Developing a Core Training Program 

    General parameters for creating and maintaining an exercise program that includes core training and adheres to the principles of physical training and safety are paramount. The program can be used for athletes wanting to improve competitive performance, or the general public hoping to improve their fitness. 

    It is encouraged that coaches and educators not limit themselves to traditional core exercises but see that exercises used to develop core strength and coordination are limited only by one’s imagination. For this reason, general categories of activities and movements are listed in Table 1, allowing for individuals to choose from a wide range of specific activities of their choice when designing their own program. 

    Table 1. Core Training Exercise List
    Strength Balance Sport-Specific
    Crunches Swiss Ball Any sport in an unstable environment
    Low back extensions BOSU ball Any sport with a weighted vest
    Sit-ups Bridges Golf shot from one leg
    Supermans Yoga Basketball pass with medicine ball
    Leg raises Gymnastics Boxing with heavy gloves
    V-ups      Break Dancing Tennis with weighted racket
    Hanging leg raises Free weights      Hockey with a heavy puck
    Twisting cable cross-overs Tubing      Sprinting in sand
    Lateral oblique raises Kettlebells Volleyball in sand
    Inverted sit-ups Weightlifting Water Polo with weighted ball
    Reverse back extensions Calesthenics Football routes in sand

    Making Safety a Priority 

    The most important component in building an exercise program that includes core training is the safety of the participants. A health history questionnaire given prior to participation can provide valuable information regarding readiness to exercise. If someone has an injury or illness they might not be ready to engage in a core exercise program and a physician’s clearance should be obtained.

    For healthy individuals, or those cleared to participate conditionally, core training should be part of a comprehensive exercise program. A comprehensive program is one in which participants follow healthy eating guidelines such as those outlined in http://www.choosemyplate.gov/, and get adequate sleep each night for recovery and the rebuilding of muscle tissue (5). With proper nutrition and rest, core exercise programs will be much more effective. 

    Any exercise program should also adhere to the principles of training, which include progressive overload and specificity.  

    An exercise program should not focus solely on core training but involve other aspects of strength and conditioning to provide the most benefits to the participant (3).

    However, an exercise program that includes a core training aspect may improve sport performance and thus, is an important component to an overall exercise program. With that being said, there are five steps to building an effective exercise program that includes core training. 

    Five Steps to Effective Core Training 

    Step One: Decide on the days of the week that the training will take place. Three days per week with one or more days of rest between them should allow adequate recovery and significant stimulation of the neuromuscular system (1).

    Step Two: Determine the duration of the workouts. Fifteen minutes of exercise per training session can stimulate change and help to avoid the potential for injury and overtraining. As tolerance is built up, the length of time can slowly be increased. 

    Step Three: Choose the intensity of the exercise. It is important to start at a low intensity level. By doing this, the chance of injury and soreness is reduced and the chance for success is increased which can be encouraging to participants. Some core exercises are difficult because of the extreme balance, strength, and power needed to execute them properly. It would not be practical to start a beginner on movements that would be nearly impossible for them to perform, or put them at risk for injury.

    Step Four: Select the exercises or activities that will make up the core training exercise program. There are at least three general categories of exercises to choose from, all of which can vary in difficulty level and can be used in a progressive format. Core strength exercises, balance drills, and sport-specific movements provide a large amount of choice and variation to training programs (6).  

    Almost any exercise or activity that does not isolate an extremity involves activation of the core. For example, a cable triceps pushdown, throwing a baseball, and long jump all require core strength, balance, and neuromuscular control and coordination. 

    Table 2 lists general categories and some specific exercises that can be used to create an exercise program that includes core training.

    Table 2. Core Training Exercise Program
    Day Monday   Wednesday     Friday  
    Time 15 min 15 min 15 min
    Exercise Strength: 5 min
    Balance: 5 min
    Sport-specific: 5min  
    Strength: 5 min 
    Balance: 10 min

    Sport Specific:   15 min
    Intensity Low Medium-high Medium

    Step Five: Monitoring the exercise program is of high importance to the overall success of the program. Continuous evaluation is important because the program might be too stressful, and needs to be made easier, or it might be too easy and requires exercises of greater difficulty. The core component can be made easier simply by reducing the amount of exercise time and decreasing the exercise difficulty. To make the program more difficult, the exercise time can gradually be increased by five minutes each month for several months at which point intensity will be increased but not workout time. 

    Another way to make the workout harder is to replace easy exercises with moderate to difficult ones. Variation is also important to reduce boredom and maximize physiological adaptation. Gradually, new exercises can be introduced. It is also acceptable to change a planned workout at the last minute depending on the participant’s energy level. 

    This takes advantage of the concept of flexible nonlinear periodization (2). If the participant feels well rested and strong, a harder workout can be implemented. Alternately, if the participant feels tired on a particular day a planned workout with high difficulty can be changed to an easier one that is less intense.  

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    About the Author:

    John McNamara, PhD, CSCS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D, USAW

    John McNamara, PhD, CSCS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D, USAW is an Associate Professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Alberta in Canada, and his Doctorate in Kinesiology from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is currently a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® and NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer® with distinction from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He is also a Sports Performance Coach with USA Weightlifting. He teaches exercise physiology as well as conditioning courses for applicants of the New York City Police and Fire Department. His research focus is training theory and flexible nonlinear periodization. He also competes in Olympic weightlifting, track and field, and ice hockey.


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    McNamara, JM, and Stearne, DJ. Flexible nonlinear periodization in a beginner college weight training class. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(1): 17–22, 2010.
    Nesser, TW, Huxel, KC, Tincher, JL, and Okado, T. The relationship between core stability and performance in Division I football players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(6): 1750–1754, 2008.
    Sharrock, C, Cropper, J, Mostad, J, Johnson, M, and Malone, T. A pilot study of core stability and athletic performance: Is there a relationship? International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy 6(2): 63–74, 2011.
    U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (7th ed.) Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; 2010.
    Willardson, JM. Core stability training: Applications to sports conditioning. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21(3): 979–985, 2007.

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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