Core Strength

     The core muscles provide a stable base for the movement of the extremities and force transfer [3]. A strong core allows for the transfer of forces from the lower body to the upper body with minimal dissipation of energy. If power is generated but does not transfer from extremity to extremity, performance is negatively affected, and injury can occur [3]. Including extra training for the trunk extensors and lateral trunk flexors, at least two times per week has been shown to increase pelvic and spinal stability, and elevate the trunk muscle fatigue threshold. This increased stability and fatigue threshold can prevent the lower back pain prevalent among female collegiate gymnasts [1]. Shinkle et al. (2012) recommend the addition of training the lateral core with specific dynamic exercises such as medicine ball throw variations [3]. 

      Insufficient strength, muscular endurance, and stability of the core are associated with potential future low back pain in adolescents. Including progressive trunk strengthening exercises as part of an integrative neuromuscular training program for all youth is an essential preventative measure to reduce the prevalence and severity of activity and sports-related injuries to the spine and extremities [2]. Supplemental core strengthening and balance exercises may help to provide young athletes with a dynamically stable core that may be better prepared to respond to the forces generated during multi-joint movements [2]. 

     Remember the order of training for the day--performing high volumes of core exercises can lead to fatigue in these muscles[2]. Immediately asking gymnasts to complete a full gymnastics practice in this fatigued state may lead to vulnerability for back injuries or injuries resulting from a lack of power transfer due to power leaks stemming from the fatigued core. 

     The core can either create motion or resist motion[4]. In gymnastics, athletes need to be proficient in both. Creating motion refers to creating flexion, extension, rotation, lateral flexion, or a combination. Resisting motion refers to resisting these same motions. While gymnastics coaches are excellent at training the muscle creating spinal flexion, other aspects of training the core are often forgotten or not given the same attention. In reality, the core encompasses all of the muscles surrounding the trunk, and proper core strength and stability affect the function of the entire body. The whole core must be trained adequately and with appropriate variety.

     Often, in an attempt to create gymnastics specific adaptations, coaches overtrain hip flexor intensive spinal flexion patterns, such as leg lifts, v-ups, and similar exercises. While none of these exercises are inherently bad, gymnastics already requires a high volume of elements that heavily utilize these structures, such as split jumps and leaps, kips, etc. Pairing high volumes of “gymnastics specific” core work with gymnastics skills training can lead to overuse hip flexor injuries and compensations. Use these types of exercises in appropriate doses, and with intent--for example, a few sets of low to moderate reps of speed leg lifts performed at the beginning of a bar rotation could be a great “warmup” for bar skills.  It is important to remember that one of the goals of a good strength and conditioning program is to give the athletes what they don’t already get from their sport--to fill in the gaps. There are many other core exercises to choose from that are hugely beneficial for gymnasts: deadbug variations, anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti flexion/lateral flexion, rotation, isometrics, med-ball work, heavy compound movements, and more are all part of a well-structured core training program for these athletes.  

Examples of core exercises broken down by anatomy and function:

  • Anterior Core

    • Flexion: v-ups, leg lifts, press handstands, reverse tuck-ins, anterior loaded squatting/lunging variations, hollow holds

    • Anti-extension: Planks, Straight body holds off a block (supine), sled pushing, squatting/lunging with posterior loading, dead bugs, body saws, bear planks & crawling, loaded carries (farmers, suitcase, overhead, front rack)

  • Posterior Core

    • Extension: arch ups & rockers, reverse leg lifts/leg drivers, back extensions

    • Resisting Flexion: candlestick shaping, straight body holds off a block (prone), sled pulling, glute-ham raise, deadlifts, good mornings, anterior loaded squatting/lunging variations.

  • Lateral Core

    • Side bending: side plank up-downs, side v-ups/arch ups, side sit-ups, med ball work, upside down crawling

    • Resisting Lateral Flexion: side plank hold variations, single-leg landings, suitcase carries, lateral sled dragging, lateral crawling variations, straight body holds off a block

  • Rotational Core

    • Creating Rotation: around the worlds, twisting drills, windshield wipers, med ball work, upside down crawling, woodchoppers 

    • Resisting rotation: paloff press, plank drag throughs, bear plank walks

  • Global Core/Bracing

    • Landing drills, deadbugs, handstands, swinging drills, farmers carries & variations, sled pushing/pulling, squatting/lunging, resistance training

References

  1. Durall, C. J., Udermann, B. E., Johansen, D. R., Gibson, B., Reineke, D. M., & Reuteman, P. (2009). The effects of preseason trunk muscle training on low-back pain occurrence in women collegiate gymnasts. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 86-92.

  2. Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (Eds.). (2019). Strength and conditioning for young athletes: science and application. Routledge.

  3. Shinkle, J., Nesser, T. W., Demchak, T. J., & McMannus, D. M. (2012). Effect of core strength on the measure of power in the extremities. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(2), 373-380.

  4. Tilley, D. (2018). Changing Gymnastics Culture: Reflections, Lessons, and Visions for the Future (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://shiftmovementscience.com/freeresourcelibrary/