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Core strength for speed

This is an excerpt from Anatomy of Speed, The by Bill Parisi & Bill Parisi.

Core Strength

Training the body to become a powerful elastic spring that results in faster speeds starts at the core. Over the past few decades of training athletes of all types for faster speed, the biggest deficiency we’ve consistently seen at the Parisi Speed School is in the athletes’ cores. Obviously, most athletes need to get stronger in their lower and upper bodies too, but the core is usually the biggest deficiency. In some ways, I think the core gets forgotten in a lot of high school and college weight rooms where they spend too much time focusing on squats and deadlifts. Those exercises help activate and train the core if proper core bracing is applied to the lifting technique, but they are also limited in application. They can increase muscle recruitment by providing the ability to work with high loads, but it’s with very limited degrees of freedom and only on the sagittal plane. The trunk and core provide the stable foundation for efficient distal force transfer to the limbs. But the trunk and core also need to be neurologically programmed to activate quickly and provide stability on all three planes of motion. This is where Newtonian mechanics come up short as a model for thinking about human movement.

New Jersey Italians get a pass for repeating themselves to make a point, so I’ll say it again with feeling: Humans are more like plants than machines. We are not robots assembled from a box of component parts that can be trained in isolation. We biologically self-organize in response to the stress of our environment—just like trees. I’ll give you a core-related example. When trees grow in the wild, the wind forces their limbs to move constantly. This multidirectional loading from wind creates stress that is distributed through the limbs and trunk of the entire tree all the way down to the roots. Trees respond to this stress by internally growing what is known as reaction wood (or stress wood), which is mechanically different than structural wood in terms of cellulose content and how it is composed. Cellulose is a polymeric fiber that self-organizes in reaction wood in a triple-helix pattern along the lines of stress in much the same way collagen does in fascia tissue. Reaction wood responds to loading by creating a mechanical composite that provides structural stability in trees just like rebar does in concrete. It’s what allows trees to grow toward the best light in contorted ways and survive extreme loads even in awkward shapes that would cause a Newtonian building to collapse. The multidimensional submaximal loading that wind creates makes trees strong enough to support their own weight as they grow. In fact, when scientists tried to grow trees in the fully enclosed Biosphere 2 research facility in Arizona, they were surprised to find that, while the trees grew faster than they did in the wild, they would collapse before they fully matured because they were never exposed to the stress of wind. As a result, they didn’t develop the shape-stabilizing reaction wood that makes them strong. Our bodies, and specifically our core–trunk complex, require similar multidimensional submaximal loading to develop the resilient myofascial connections that create stability.

This is why it’s important to understand Stu McGill’s concept of mechanical composites and Michol Dalcourt’s concept of developing odd-position strength. No one muscle group is responsible for core strength. Proximal stiffness in the core comes from the simultaneous co-contraction of multiple agonist and antagonist muscles working together as a single composite that makes the whole stronger than the sum of its parts. And this mechanical composite feature is enabled by the mesh of myofascial tissues that surround and connect every muscle in the body.

So how do we train the core multidimensionally? Well, it starts in the pre–warm-up with the exercises in the McGill Big 3, which activate and fire the small muscle motor units of the core (see chapter 3) and planks of all types. In addition, ab rollouts are also great for the core because they engage the rectus abdominis, glutes, lower back, and obliques while forcing the entire kinetic chain to work together in coordination. Loaded isometric carries, such as the suitcase carry and the farmer’s carry, are also valuable for core activation; and antirotational exercises, such as the Pallof press, are beneficial for strengthening the core on the transverse plane. While isometric exercises are integral for developing core strength, ultimately you also want to program the core to fire and co-contract quickly in ways that transfer to the field and court. This is where dynamic medicine ball and plyometric exercises that require whole-body movements with greater degrees of freedom and lighter loads excel at engaging the kinetic chain while programming the neuromuscular system for rapid gamelike response.