In a recent post, I mentioned that I attended John Cissik’s thought-provoking presentation on core training at the 2011 NSCA National Conference. In short, John reviewed the peer-reviewed literature on the effects of core training on athletic performance, injury, and pain. His conclusion: contrary to popular belief, there is not much evidence that core training significantly improves any of these variables.
John was nice enough to consent to interview for Workout911.com readers to expand on his views on core training. Whether you ultimately agree with his conclusions or not, it should at least highlight the need for more research on the subject.
BJS: Thanks for consenting to this interview. Tell us a little about your background.
Thanks for the opportunity! Like a lot of people in our field, I wear many hats. I work as the Director of Fitness and Recreation at Texas Woman’s University. I also spend a great deal of time working with track and field programs on their strength and conditioning. I have worked as a strength and conditioning coach at several levels, worked as a personal trainer, have experience in rehab, and have even taught at a university. I have a master’s in exercise physiology, an MBA with an accounting focus, and certifications from the NSCA, USA Track and Field, and the old US Weightlifting Federation. I’ve written a number of books and articles on strength and speed training, done many presentations on these subjects, and even done four videos. I also serve as an associate editor for Strength and Conditioning Journal.
BJS: You challenge the commonly held belief that direct core training improves athletic performance. What led you to this conclusion?
I was asked to review an article on testing core stability. The article had several “field” tests along with norms, which is fine. What interested me was a statement that the article made which was essentially that everyone needs to have their core stability assessed prior to being allowed to engage in movement because movement is so inherently dangerous. At the time I felt that things have gotten a little silly with regards to core training and I thought it was time to actually seek our and review the literature on this topic.
One of the key claims regarding the efficacy of core training is that it improves athletic performance. If you wanted to demonstrate this through research, you’d have a group of subjects engage in core training and compare them to a group that doe not. Then see which group improves the best on athletic performance measures. Surprisingly, with all the claims associated with core training, this kind if research is really difficult to find.
There is a lot of research that shows that core training improves core strength and endurance. There is a lot of research to show what exercises are best at recruiting specific muscles. When it comes to athletic performance, the research is at best conflicting at and worst it shows that core training is not effective.
Research that looks at core training and its ability to improve performance does not establish that it is a magic bullet. Now, some research establishes a relationship between some measures of athletic performance and core endurance, but it is unclear if one causes the other. For example, does better core endurance create a stronger squat or does the stronger squat create better core endurance?
BJS: Many fitness pros claim that core training helps to prevent injuries, particularly those to the lower back. This is predicated on the belief that strengthening the muscles supporting the spine makes this region less susceptible to injury. What’s your take on this?
Currently, there is not a very good understanding on what causes lower back injuries. The medical literature classifies lower back injuries to two types; specific and non-specific. Basically specific are the result of an incident and can be seen through imaging. This represents about 10% of lower back pain. The other 90% are non-specific which means that there is not an established “incident” which caused it and it cannot be seen via imaging. There is no consensus in the literature about what causes either kind of injury. As a result, it’s impossible to say that exercises addresses any of the things that causes these injuries. Research that looks at exercise “preventing” low back injuries is inconclusive.
BJS: What is your opinion on performing core exercises as a treatment for those with lower back pain.
Exercise seems to be effective at reducing pain and improving quality of life for people with chronic (grater than 12 weeks) low back pain. It seems to be ineffective for people suffering low back pain for fewer than 12 weeks. The important thing to note here is that any kind of exercise seems to be effective; stretching, aerobic exercise, general strength training, and core training. There does not seem to be a best kind of exercise for chronic low back pain.
BJS: You have discussed the differences between specific lower back pain and non-specific lower back pain. Some fitness pros claim that there is no such thing as “non-specific lower back pain.” How do you respond?
Those are not my terms. Those terms come from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Spine, the European Spine Journal, the British Medical Journal, and JAMA. I understand it’s fashionable to bash medicine, but I’d rather take a sick or injured family member to a medical doctor as opposed to a fitness pro that thinks that they know more.
BJS: Given the evidence, do you think there is any value in training the core with specific exercises or does the core get sufficient work from performing multi-joint exercises so that direct core training is unnecessary?
At the end of the day, anything that gets someone into the gym is a good thing. If it’s core training, Cross Fit, yoga, Zumba, Olympic lifting, whatever it takes to get someone in the gym. I think core training is great from that standpoint, it’s great for vanity, but it is not a magic bullet. Many free weight exercises (squats, deadlifts, and cleans) activate the core muscles just as well as core exercises. So when I only have a limited amount of time to work with athletes, I include some core work to address vanity issues but my focus is on multi-joint exercises.
BJS: Any closing thoughts about core training?
Core training is a victim of poor science, marketing hype, and stretching research to say something that it doesn’t. Many of the claims are unsubstantiated or simply wishful thinking. When it comes to working with athletes, we’re always looking for some type of magic bullet but these do not exist and they do not replace hard work and structured programming.
Follow John on Twitter at: John Cissik on Twitter
Cheick out John’s blog at: JCissik’s Blog