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Are CORE Workouts Overrated For Preventing Injuries?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 23 July 2018
Hits: 16983

"You need to strengthen your core", is one of the most over-used sayings in the medical world as much as the health and fitness industry over the past 10-15 years. From the rapid spreading of Pilates classes promoting "core workouts", to Sporting clubs adopting core training for the players in the belief stronger abdominal muscles will prevent injury. Even physical therapists and Doctors prescribe planks and abdominal exercises to their patients to treat back pain and various other injuries. The message is loud and clear that training your core is great for your body. But is that really true? Like so many things to do with nutrition, this is where some small bit of information has been twisted around to become a completely different message, and end up being nothing what it was intended. What I am going to show in this article is that not only is many of the core workouts people use to prevent injury a waste of time, but in many cases it is very likely to cause injury, not prevent it!

What Is The Core?


Before going any further we must define what the core actually is. And this might really surprise you but the core IS NOT just about your abs! Make sure check out the video above.

Ask someone what makes up the core? And the answer is often, your abs. This is what most people think the core is; "Core strength exercises strengthen your core muscles, including your abdominal muscles, back muscles and the muscles around the pelvis. Strong core muscles make it easier to do many physical activities. You can do core strength exercises on a carpeted floor or mat."

I found that definition from of a google search when I typed in what is core strength?

What people fail to understand is that your abs are unable to move you, other than making you wiggle or flop around like a fish out of water. You need your arms and legs to move you for your abdominal muscles are not capable of doing much. Basically the abdominal muscles have very little influence over how you move, for this is not their true purpose. This is very important to understand and will explain why I believe many core exercises are incorrectly implemented.

The CORE is really a combination of both small stabilizing muscles known as the Inner Unit, combined with large prime mover muscles that operate like a series of complex chains and systems to provide stiffness on a greater scale. This known as the Outer Unit. True core strength requires the use of both.

The inner unit is incorporated in almost every movement of the human body. These muscles can act as an isometric or dynamic stabilizer for movement, transfer force from one extremity to another, or initiate movement itself. The role of the inner unit is to stabilize the spine. That’s it. This is where the information to achieve great core strength is to focus on exercises that isolate this function and find ways to make you stiffer and stronger, such as a plank. It all seems to make sense but the problem is that every step, every arm swing, and every turn of the head our body needs to release this stiffness in order to move.

For example consider the need for abdominal tension during a throwing action or a golf swing, but when you start breaking down what is involved you’ll see just how complex the “core” really is. As you throw the ball, everything that prevents you from twisting or turning can be considered a core muscle.

The lower leg needs to be braced and strong to prevent the foot rolling in, which will cause the knee to cave in upstream. Likewise the hips need to be strong to prevent the exact same thing. The muscles that surround the spine – from the small stabilizers right up to the powerful back muscles such as the lats - all act to stiffen and stabilize the spine during such actions. There is definitely abdominal involvement but it is not powerful enough to move, as it requires the legs to the bulk of the workload. In summary the core can then be thought of as all the muscles below your head.

To explain what the core is you need to understand what the inner unit and outer unit are.

You will find a very detailed explanation of this here - The Best Core Strength Tip You Will Ever Get

The Inner Unit

The deep abdominal stabilizers (inner unit) are actually quite small and unable to generate much force in comparison to the larger exterior muscles. The stabilizers are mainly concerned with providing joint stiffness and segmental stability. Their work is what you would classify as low level activity needed for long periods of time. It would be bad if your stabilizers only lasted 30 seconds.

They are also known as "feed-forward" muscles in that they react quicker than any other muscle group, to prepare the body for movement. The only way they can work effectively and influence the integrity of movement is to fire first. The ability of the inner unit muscles to contract prior to force production of the larger prime mover muscles (geared toward movement) is more important than their strength. Research shows that in people with no history of low back pain, the TVA fires 30 milliseconds before arm movements and 110 milliseconds before leg movements.


These muscles cannot provide movement and they are definitely not strong enough to provide gross stiffness for heavy or more powerful speeds. They need the assistance of the outer unit muscles to do this. Meaning that in order for them to be used correctly with correct timing and the way they are intended to, they must be trained in conjunction with the outer unit!

True stability is all about TIMING! Being able to react with perfect reflexes to be able to maintain joint alignment ready for efficient and smooth movement. A perfect example of the inner unit in action is with a simple exercise seen in the video below. If the person is adopt a stiffening method here, they will be unable to move and will fall over. The outer unit cannot help here, as it needs to relax to let the leg move. We use this as a test to determine if a person is over using their hips as stabilizers instead of the inner unit. The only way to get good at this exercise is to practice and learn how to use your breathing to create the stiffness at the right time and let it go at the right time.

Timing and breathing is everything for inner unit stabilizing. See article - Stability Training What Is It Really & How To Do It

The Outer Unit

This is much more difficult to explain and really involves all of the large prime mover muscles. The outer unit or large prime mover global muscles are more designed to move the body, and what you would classify as high level activity needed in short bursts. However they are unique in that they are also designed in a way to move but at the same time provide stability via use of what are called myofascial slings and co-ordinate the correct sequence of movements. This is very important to understand as it gives you some clues as to how the body prefers to move, and more specifically how it moves most efficiently!

Think of how the core would work in a sport like tennis. A player rushes to the side-line to hit a backhand and has to be able to able to brake hard with their muscles, but maintain balance and be able to hit the ball back with precise accuracy and power to stay in the point.

If the abdominal muscles were to hold you stiff and rigid, as you have been told and how you have trained them with a plank for example you would be too rigid to move. You would be more like a robot than an explosive athlete.

The abdominal muscles need to be relaxed at points and be able to instantly stiffen at the RIGHT TIME! The inner unit would be constantly flicking on and off like a light switch in order to maintain alignment of the joints and integrity of the body to play the shot efficiently. The breathing is the critical element here, for this is really how the switch is activated. More on this later. But for now understand how there is an intimate relationship between small inner unit muscles and large powerful prime movers, with each reliant on the other to provide movement. To blame your abdominal muscles for falling over is ignorance to how you move and all the other joints involved.

Problems arise when the outer unit tries to take over the inner unit's role. The secret to designing your core workout is to use an exercise in this position to educate both systems on their role, and at what time they are needed!

I highly encourage you to read our article - Core Strength Training Using Myofacial Slings. Also the video below shows several examples of the 4 slings in action

Now that we know what the core actually is what is the problem with many of today's core workouts?

The Problem With Most Core Workouts

Most of the current core workouts is all about training abdominal muscles in isolation. This would be doing crunches, planks, back extensions and many other typical ab exercises. The belief here is that if you train your inner unit like you would with a bicep curl to make a bicep stronger, you can have a stronger inner unit and it will correct the problem. Unfortunately it does not work this way at all.

Remember the inner unit is not dependent on strength, but TIMING is of most importance, and it has very little capability to move you. It works best when used in conjunction with your arms and limbs as a reflex muscle to stabilize in preparation for movement.

Planks are what many regard as the king of core exercises and there is endless versions of these used everyday. I very rarely use the plank and would prefer a push up or prone jack knife to this any day. True stability is about effortless timing and the ability to go from relaxed to stiff within the blink of an eye. Staying stiff as a board is not stability at all. It is confusing strength with stability.

Remember to train stabilizers correctly you need to train them in the way they are used. They need quick reflex movements and reactions to force them to adjust quickly to restore posture and balance to the body in order to move efficiently. They do not try to hold you still for minutes at a time, that is not their role. The plank has zero need to adjust or move with reflex skills and reactions and has very little carryover to changing a movement.


You will find a great article to read about the plank that features several exercise videos is - 7 anterior core exercises that are better than the plank

The second most over used exercise is the crunch or sit up. Not only does this ruin your stabilizing ability but also begins to contribute to postural problems that lead to severe back pain injuries like a bulging disc or herniated disc.

Repeated trunk flexion is the fastest way to develop a back problem like a bulging disc. And doing endless reps of sit ups or crunches to help you get in this position is pure craziness. Even worse when you consider people may be doing this to help with a back problem thinking that they need a stronger core! As the abdominal musculature become progressively shorter and tight, the following postural aberrations may be seen:

  • Short and tight upper abdominal musculature
  • Depressed sternum
  • Forward head posture increasing chance of neck and shoulder injury not to mention poor breathing
  • Increased thoracic kyphosis, (a hump on the upper back)

When you consider how many of us are stick sitting all day in a position that looks just like a sit up, why would you want to go to the gym and punch out another hundred more at the end of the day!

This is where the body building world has convinced us that all muscles are the same and can be treated like a bicep. When you understand that the body is not designed this way you become smarter in how to design workouts with exercises that enhance movement with timing and efficiency instead of just feeling the burn.

The other thing to consider is how much strength do you think you are gaining from these exercises? It is not as much as you think as you can build tremendous more core strength using integrated movements like squats, deadlifts, and Turkish Get-ups. I wrote a detailed article recently that compared over 50 exercises using EMG analysis to see just how much abdominal activation was created with isolation exercises versus integrated movements and the results were overwhelmingly in favour of the integrated movement. Check out the article - What is better for core strength integrated or isolated exercises?

The video below provides you a detailed look at this article.


Does This Mean Abdominal Isolation Exercises Are Useless?

No! Absolutely not. We can still use them and should use them where needed.

Just the way we train them needs to be smarter. And they must be progressed. I still use many isolated inner unit exercises, in particular BREATHING exercises to help people feel how to engage these muscles on a very basic level. But I also understand they will have very little effect on doing anything until I engage them in a movement or position that they are required in. And even more importantly with the required TIMING they need. I may even use infant development exercises from time to time to reprogram the body's ability to wiggle and roll. But I will not want to use these exercises for too long, I know that I must progress to standing positions to truly make positive change.

Two simple isolated exercises I regularly use are below.


What Core Workouts Should Consist Of?

If there is a problem with the larger prime movers they will be forced to make up for it by compensating in a movement. For example a stiff ankle that does not allow you to move with full range in a squat will seek someone else to give up their stability in order to complete the movement. This is where you may see the trunk fall out to one side in order to complete the squat. This appears to be a lack of core strength to most people but is really a compensation for a lack of mobility at the ankle. No amount of abdominal training will do anything to change this problem.

I have seen many people dominate abdominal isolation exercises like the plank, only to suffer with all types of back pain when they bend over to pick up a bag off the floor. Doing deadlifts for this person is near impossible. How can they have strong abs one minute, only for it to be lost the very next? It is not a lack of strength with your abs for remember strength is not that important to them.

The answer could be many things.

  • Poor timing of the stabilizers
  • The body had to sacrifice stability of the lumbar spine to make up for lost mobility at other joints
  • Weakness within the outer unit and the stabilizers trying to assist the movement
  • Poor coordination and motor control.

Doing more planks, sit ups or basically any abdominal isolation exercise is not the answer to your problems.

The body is forced to give up it's spinal stability due to a lack of these other components, not due to a weakness at the inner unit. The weakness at the inner unit is what you see, but it is not the problem. This is known as "cause and effect."

Let's take a look some examples.

With change of direction and cutting moves as used in sports you see a person fall over and assume this is a weakness at the core. The trunk falls over the right, not because the abs were weak, but because of 3 things.

  1. Improper foot plant possibly from weak feet or stiff ankles
  2. Staying too upright from poor coordination or quad dominance
  3. Not keeping the hips behind the body from weak posterior chain or poor coordination

At high speed due to the poor positioning of the body, the joints of the ankle and hip cannot move with enough freedom, so to compensate for their lack of mobility the trunk gives up it's stiffness to provide the extra movement missing. And the end result is falling over or worse injury!

The CORE sacrifices it's stability to make up for the lost mobility. It has no choice as it is the last link in the chain.

This is a classic case of a catastrophic ACL tear!

The secret is to use simplified exercises that still require use of the arms and legs in positions you know you lose stability with. Here is some other examples.

Core Exercises For Bending

The typical way someone hurts their lower back is from poor bending movements. It does not have to be heavy, it just needs a lot of repetition. This is why bulging disc injuries are often felt from tying up their shoe laces or from picking up a piece of paper. The very first thing you should do with your treatment for a bulging disc is to identify your poor movement and eliminate it or change it. If you ignore this, you are likely to suffer repeated episodes that get worse each time. 

Make sure you read our full article - Bulging Disc Treatment All Starts With How You Move

The video below gives you a good example of how we teach improved movement habits to prevent this problem.

Core Exercises For Lateral Movement

With change of direction and cutting moves as used in sports you see a person fall over and assume this is a weakness at the core. The trunk falls over the right, not because the abs were weak, but normally due to 3 things!

  1. Improper foot plant possibly from weak feet or stiff ankles
  2. Staying too upright from poor coordination or quad dominance
  3. Not keeping the hips behind the body from weak posterior chain or poor coordination

Anyone of those 3 things will compromise how well you can move. At high speed due to the poor positioning of the body, the joints of the ankle and hip cannot move with enough freedom, so to compensate for their lack of mobility the trunk gives up it's stiffness to provide the extra movement missing. And the end result is falling over, or worse still injury!

The CORE sacrifices it's stability to make up for the lost mobility. It has no choice as it is the last link in the chain. This is a classic case of a catastrophic ACL tear!


Core Exercises For Pushing

Pushing is another area a weak core is often blamed as we begin to see a person over extend the lumbar spine to get their arms overhead or even in a push up.

Like the other examples there may in fact be a weakness at the abdominal region but is it due to it being or is it due to it being forced to give up stability to make up for a loss elsewhere? In the case of pushing overhead this is a common "cheat method" by the body to make up for lack of thoracic mobility. As the thoracic region becomes more rigid due to sitting too often, poor training habits and technique and lack of awareness to stretching it loses it's ability to extend the rib cage when we lift our arms overhead. This prevents the arms from reaching up correctly and the body is forced to find another way. The alternative is to extend at the lumbar spine further instead.


Make sure you read the article - Why Lack Of Thoracic Mobility Is The Hidden Cause Of Pain

Putting It All Together

What would a workout look like? I have given you several examples of what not to do and posed the question it could be lack of mobility that is the real problem. Where do you start?

Often some of the simplest things are the best and you will find some of the warm up workouts we teach people before they workout are great core workouts. There is no burn in the abs as such but they are learning how to identify areas of stiffness and use drills to free it up that mimic the movement they find hard.

There is a great article I published earlier this year that shows 4 different workouts you can use for specific injuries or needs. Go to this article to see them - Use These Warm Up Workouts Before You Train

Below is a video featuring a back specific workout.


You will also find tons of information about Core Training in our special reports below



I hope this article gives you a different perspective on how we can become much better at designing programs and choosing exercises to enhance stability in a movement. We must move beyond looking at our abdominal muscles being trained like a bicep and recognize the complex interaction between the stability of the lumbar spine when we move our arms or legs. If you learn how to move well, you can do amazing things and the body becomes very efficient, but if you ignore quality movement and think you can overcome this with planks and crunches you are in for a rough ride. When we move the core does exactly what it is meant to do. To get to this point however takes a lot of body awareness and recognizing your weak areas that will always need attention.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

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About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 16 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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