There are a myriad of different core exercises, a wealth of opinion on how to train the core and body of knowledge that has increased dramatically over the last decade or so and continues to do so, so it’s no wonder core training is a somewhat contentious and confused subject.
As I see it the problem with a lot of golfers core training stems from not understanding the anatomy and function of the core, and not utilising proper progression strategies to actually improve core function overtime. Static exercises like planks and side planks are great but doing them for ever increasing lengths of time in the name of progression invites fatigue and loses many of the benefits of the exercise with regard to muscle activation and spinal control. Hyper specific ‘core’ exercises that mimic the golf swing may have a place but if you don’t posses the segmental stabilisation to execute them in the first place they aren’t going to do anything for you, and may even leave you worst off. With that in mind this article is not a set of prescriptive exercises or not do’s and don’ts but rather a set of principles for you to follow when picking your own exercises and progressing your training.
Before we get to the progression element though we must understand the function of the core in the golf swing.
The function of the muscles in your core and lumbo-pelvic hip complex work is to work in tandem to provide protection for your spine, specifically at the lumbar segments in your vertebral column. In an athletic sense the core transfers force between the upper and lower body. Think of this as minimising any power leaks in your spine.
“Train the Function of Your Core; Not the Anatomy”
The work done by Dr. Stuart McGill proves, performing core training exercises that force your trunk and spine into excessive flexion (i.e., crunches and sit-ups), causes the facet joints and vertebral discs within your vertebral column to degenerate quicker. The same can be said for excessive extension.
Of course, we don’t want to avoid moving into rotation, flexion and extension at all costs during our daily lives or the golf swing. That’s not my point. However, spinal injury has been linked to the number of these moments we do so it’s make sense 1) not to increase that number in the gym (particularly by doing sit-ups or crunches). 2) train to be strong in resist these movements which will reduce injury potential.
Most notably, we want to train the abs to resist motion at the spine in an anti-rotation, anti-flexion and anti-extension manner.
Now we understand a bit more about what we want the core to do and the exercises we should utilise to reflect that, let’s take a look at where these exercises fit into a properly planned core training progression.
Establish correct spinal position and control of spinal segments.
This is vital if you want to achieve a strong core that functions well. The spine should have a slight lumbar lordosis (not too much, not too little) and a thoracic kyphosis.
If we want a core that functions well, resists movement appropriately, fires in the most efficient sequence, and is strong and powerful we need to first get the spinal segments in the right position and learn to control them.
Here’s a video of John Rusin, a.k.a. the strength doc, taking you through how to find neutral spine in a standing position (if you haven’t already check this dude out by the way…super smart!)
The cat-cow exercise is also an awesome way to learn how to find and control this position.
Additionally, most people can benefit from developing more thoracic extension. This will increase mobility in the upper back as well as improving posture, meaning movement can be better stabilised at the lumbar spine.
Achieve proper core stability.
Now you understand where neutral spine is and how to control it, you can begin to develop the ability of the core to stabilise the spine in that position against forces acting to pull it out of position
“If you can stabilise the muscles in your core in the presence of change (i.e., movement), than you’ll achieve a greater level of low back and core health and performance”
Static exercises that emphasise pelvic position exercises, planks, bird-dogs, dead-bugs, half-keeling positions, Pallof Press are the right call here.
The problem with these exercises is that they are often done incorrectly. With planks and side planks, for example, the key is getting into and maintaining a neutral posture where the spine, hips, and legs are linear, not arched or drooping. Common compensations are shrugging the ribs up, shrugging the hips up, rolling the shoulders or hips forward, or pretty much anything that’s not neutral. A good front plank should make your glutes incredibly tired from forcibly making them contract so that your hip flexors stretch and the abs bite down harder. Breathing plays a big role in this too, so tensed and halting breathing will negatively impact the effects of the core exercises compared to deep powerful and full breathing using the diaphragm.
Considering this a 10 second plank, done for 3 or 4 reps, with perfect neutral spine, glutes squeezed and controlled breathing produces much better benefits compared to a 30 or 40 second constant hold where fatigue may cause neutral spine to be lost and the glutes and abs not to contract as hard so as the hip flexors become the primary stabilising muscles and not a muscle on stretch as they should be.
Similarly, both bird-dogs and dead-bugs are predicated on holding stable core position whilst the limbs move, not moving through the greatest range of motion possible.
Keep the abs squeezed tight, hold a stable lower back position, and don’t allow the lower back to slip into extension (for dead-bugs, as in the video, keep the back flat to the floor throughout). Moving the arms or legs further while flexing the spine defeats the purpose.
Go slow. Gain control. And earn the right to progress.
Strengthen your core multi-directionally.
At this point begin to add forms of external resistance (i.e., medicine ball, resistance band, cable column, Valslides, etc.).
More dynamic planks such as planks with pulldown, planks with dynamic weight shift, rotational planks, rollouts, TRX fallouts and body-saw’s would all fall in to this category for anti-exetension work.
The Pallof press to overhead raise, Dead-bug with Pallof press or Pallof press with reverse lunge would constitute your anti-rotation work. Whilst weighted carries and deadlifts would make up your anti-flexion work.
Add power and explosive movement patterns into your core training.
Training a movement like a Pallof press to overhead raise sounds awesome and does a lot to work on controlling stability through transverse and frontal plane, all in a relatively slow and controlled manner.
For athletes who compete in relatively specific directions and actions without the elements of contact and chaos (i.e. golf), they can benefit from training with a high degree of specificity to their goal activities, as such it makes sense to train the core to produce force quickly just as in the golf swing.
For golfers this also means anti-rotation core work takes a front row seat. Rotational med-ball tosses in half-kneeling or split-stance are my go-to here
Let’s think about a basic core exercise, such as the Plank Hold. During this exercise, your job is to brace your core muscles, create full-body tension and to hold posture, while gravity and your body-weight try to tell you otherwise.
On a higher level, you’re performing an anti-extension exercise, where you’re deliberately trying to avoid spinal extension, specifically in the lumbar spine. Basically, you don’t want to let your hips dip down toward the floor.
In order for you to be able to properly perform all of this at the same time, it’s necessary for you to have core stability. That’s the key. That’s also why I believe it is imperative to learn how to stabilize your core before adding strength. Similarly, just like training any other movement we want to develop strength and force production before we work on power and the ability to develop that force quickly
This progression above will help to bulletproof your spine for long-term health and performance. I recommend mastering the exercises in each section before moving forward along the progression line. Give it a try and see if your posture, you movement and how you feel don’t improve.
Also, I’ll be running a week long series of posts on lower back pain that will touch on many of the same concepts of spinal positioning and core stability on my Instagram page next week so be sure to follow us here if you’re not already, and to turn on notifications to make sure you see the posts.