Oftentimes, when we think of getting stronger we think of movements like squatting, deadlifts and presses. But we often fail to recognize or understand the importance of strengthening our core muscles to increase overall strength. How many times have you heard your CrossFit coach yell, “Engage your core!”? If they are doing their job correctly, probably quite a few. CrossFit teaches the concept of core-to-extremity movement and in order to understand the importance of a strong core, you have to understand exactly what that concept means.
As described in the Level 2 Training Guide, core-to-extremity movement “begins with the large force-producing, low-velocity muscles of the core (abdominals and spinal erectors) and hips, and ends with the small force-producing, high-velocity muscles of the extremities (e.g., biceps, calves, wrist flexors).” A movement’s base is established with the core muscles. This is important for effective force to be transferred from one area of the body to another. This movement pattern maximizes efficiency because the largest muscles generate the force first, which allows the greatest amount of force to develop. Starting a movement with these larger muscle groups and then moving out from there improves efficiency and allows the greatest amount of work to be accomplished.
Let’s examine this concept in action by using the example of an athlete performing a snatch. When you do a snatch, there is a pattern of movement that you follow in order to get the maximum amount of efficiency and power for the lift. The ‘core’ portion of the movement starts before the athlete even pulls the bar off the ground – it starts when the athlete engages their core and maintains a neutral spine (flat back) through the pulling portion of the movement. Now, if the athlete bends their arms too early (before their hips have fully extended) they will have violated the core-to-extremity movement, relying on their limbs instead of using the full strength of their large force-producing muscles – the abdominals and hips.
Having a strong core and engaging it correctly not only increases the amount of power an athlete has during a lift, but it can also be a simple way to prevent injuries. For discussion purposes, consider movements like the back squat, deadlift and strict press. During a back squat, it is essential that an athlete keeps their core engaged throughout the duration of the movement. Oftentimes, your coach may instruct you to take a big breath before you begin your squat, hold it on the descent and when starting the ascent, and then to let it out as you return to a standing position. This cue is a reminder for the athlete to keep the abdominal muscles engaged as you complete each squat. If an athlete relaxes their core, it could result in flexion or hyperextension of their back which may result in serious injury, especially if the athlete is under a heavy load.
This same concept applies for the deadlift as well. When the athlete sets up for the deadlift, it is essential that they brace their core and maintain a neutral spine throughout the pull of the deadlift. If this does not occur, the athlete will most likely round their back (flex their spine) which can prove disastrous, especially when pulling a heavy load.
Finally, when an athlete performs a strict press, one of the most common faults or dangers that occurs is hyperextension of the spin. Before the athlete presses the bar overhead, they must engage their core (tighten their abs as if they were about to be punched in the gut) by keeping their rib cage from flaring out and pulling it down towards their belly button. If they neglect to do this, they could put themselves at risk for back and shoulder injury, as well as neck pain. Therefore, the importance of engaging one’s core cannot be emphasized enough. Once an athlete becomes aware of how and when to engage their core properly, they will see vast improvements in their movement patterns and experience fewer risks for injury.