Core Stability v. Core Strength

How do you become one of the strongest squatters in the world? If you ask people this question, you will probably get several different answers, but how many people will give an answer that has to do with developing an athlete’s core muscles? If you are familiar with world champion powerlifter Blaine Sumner, then you know that he didn’t become one of the strongest squatters in the world by focusing his training on just squatting heavy every day. In fact, accessory work has played a huge role in his success as a powerlifter.

In order to squat heavy safely, you have to develop more muscles than just those in your legs. Your core plays an important role in being a successful squatter because these muscles help stabilize an athlete’s spine. This is important because your spine is extremely mobile, but as soon as you place a heavy load on your back, you want your spine to stay in one place and it can’t do that on its own. It needs all of the surrounding muscles to turn on and create stiffness, which keeps the spine resilient to injury and allows you to unlock the strength potential in your legs.

So, how does stability improve performance? Think about it this way: which will you be able to jump further from and create more power? Jumping from flat ground or a wobbly canoe on water? When you do ‘core’ movements like sit-ups or v-ups, you are strengthening your core by moving your spine, but these exercises do not improve stability. See, stability is the emphasis on limiting excessive or unwanted motion at your spine so that you can have awesome carryover to the exercises that you perform in the gym (like the squat, deadlift, bench, clean, and snatch). Therefore, when you perform the typical ‘core’ exercise like a sit-up and you are moving your spine, then you are not practicing keeping your core braced and spine locked into place, which is the purpose of stability exercises. 

The following 3 core stability exercises train the front (curl up), the sides (side plank) and back of the spine (bird dog). These 3 exercises are called the McGill Big 3 and are based off of years of research from renowned back expert Dr. Stuart McGill. If you want to improve your power and strength in your lifts, then give these 3 exercises a go.

Curl Up 

  1. Lie on your back with one leg straight and the other with the foot flat on the ground and pulled in towards your butt so that your knee is pointed up.
  2. Place both hands underneath your low back (they are there to act as pressure sensors; their job is to feel if you start to round or flex your back). 
  3. Start by bracing your core (your lower back should be pressed into your hands and your ribs should be pulled down towards your belly button so that they’re not flaring out).
  4. Next, slowly pick your head up off the floor (just slightly; 1-2 inches) and hold for 10 seconds. As you left your head, your spine should not move because your core muscles should be locking it into place.
  5. Hold your head up for 10 seconds and then return it back to the floor. Perform this exercise for 6 reps. Note: if you feel that your neck is straining during this exercise, tuck your chin to your chest before you lift your head. 

Side Plank

  • Modified Version
  1. Start by lying on your side with your elbow directly under your shoulder. 
  2. Keep your legs together and knees bent so that your legs are about at a 90 degree angle with your feet behind you.
  3. Drive your hips up so that they are off the floor and only your bottom leg (from the knee down) and elbow are making contact with the floor. 
  4. Hold for 10 seconds at the top of the plank. Note: if you have weak hips and glutes, then you should feel it working these as well as your core. Repeat 6 reps on each side.
  • Full Plank
  1. Start by lying on your side with your elbow directly under your shoulder.
  2. Your legs should be straight with the foot of your top leg slightly in front of the foot of the bottom leg. Your top arm can rest across your chest and touching the opposite shoulder, or place your hand on your top hip.
  3. Drive your hips up and hold at the top of the plank for 10 seconds (think about turning on the muscles of the spine and limiting excessive unwanted motion – your chest should not be facing the ground and there should be no twist in your torso). 

Bird Dog

  1. Start by getting on the ground on all fours with your spine in a neutral position (back should not be rounded or over-arched). Think about bracing your core so that your spine does not move.
  2. Next, extend one arm (keeping your hand in a tight fist; this will engage some of the muscles in your upper back as well) straight out in front of you and kick back the opposite leg directly behind you and hold for 10 seconds. You want to keep your extended foot only a couple of inches off the ground (if you kick it out too high, then this causes the back to over-arch).
  3. Slowly bring your arm and leg back in towards your body, touch your fist to your knee in the middle, and then slowly extend them back out. Concentrate on keeping your back flat throughout the entire movement. Complete 6 reps on each side.