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I mentioned last week that cricket's strength-and-conditioning coaches encourage their international players to perform one or more "core" sessions per week. This term is used freely nowadays in any discussion about physical training but what does it really mean?
The term "core" means different things to different people, but one thing is clear that it's not about doing sit-ups. In the study of human movement, there is a consensus that stability is developed before mobility. What that means is the limbs need to be attached to a stable platform before they can be coordinated and positioned in space accurately. There are muscles or groups of muscles that traditionally act to "stabilise" the body, others to "balance" the body, and those that "move" the body - but they all work as a unit to produce coordinated athletic movement. This is developed as a newborn/toddler and not generally a conscious act, but problems can occur in the system due to injury, pain avoidance and postural imbalances. Core stability training tends to target these stability and balance muscles and get them firing properly.
To sports physios this could mean educating and facilitating the player to isolate the deeper muscles of the trunk and pelvis. Research has shown us that back pain tends to delay the activation of the deeper stabilising muscles of the spine, potentially leading to ongoing dysfunction and increased loading of the spinal structures. So core sessions could just be about fine-tuning and improving the trunk neuromuscular patterning. Contemporary physios use real-time ultrasound to help the player identify and activate the correct muscles. It is, as it sounds, quite high-tech stuff but very effective.
But physios also assess for areas of movement impairment, tightness or weakness by using functional movement screening. For example, if a player can't squat properly, the physio needs to identify the problem - is it the ankles, knees, hips or in the trunk? Often players are strong in normal squatting but poor in single leg movements - this could indicate poor proximal (hip, pelvis, trunk) control and/or balance issues. Core rehab will then target the problem areas.
To the trainer or strength-and-conditioning professional, core training could similarly mean targeted training of the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle during functional movements. Since the body is connected at every level, from the ground up to the skull, weakness in one area will lead to compensation elsewhere. The trunk, however, is the link between the upper and lower halves of the body so it is critical for it to be controlled and conditioned. Weak core stability, to me, then is analogous to building a house on poor foundations - if the foundations shift the walls are eventually going to crack.
Balance, as mentioned, is also a key component of core training, and exercising on unstable surfaces has been shown to increase the activation of stabilising muscles simply due to the increased feedback into the central nervous system - the balance muscles activate to correct for small changes in the centre of gravity. In this regard, trainers love challenging the body by using tools such as foam mats, wobble boards, Swiss balls, Bosu balls, medicine balls, pilates equipment and so on. Physios often use them to help identify areas of weakness as unstable environments can also highlight where a movement is failing. These are, however, progressions of basic exercises and firm surfaces should always be used initially.
Although there are potentially limitless modes, variations and progressions of core exercises, the following are a few of my favourites that anyone can try. Hopefully they give you some idea of what cricketers are put through in these sessions. Readers' feedback has been taken on board and so some photos are included. You will see that there is minimal load used unlike other training, and as such can be programmed into a player's week quite easily.
Leg lowers The goal is to allow hip extension whilst keeping a neutral lumbar spine
Lie along a bench/bed, pelvis at one end with hips/knees flexed at 90/90. Place hands under each side of the arch of the lower back to feel for any movement. Slowly lower one leg and attempt to touch the floor, keeping the lumbar spine in neutral. Repeat on the opposite leg.
Bowling rock backs The goal is to develop control and balance in extended single leg stance
Stand on "back" leg, other hip flexed, arms holding 2-3kg medicine ball above head. Extend arms back behind head, lifting chest, but maintaining neutral lumbar spine. Allow full hip extension but no lumbar extension. Return to vertical. Can be done on foam mat.
Alternate superman The goal is development of hip extensor, trunk and scapula control
Get on your hands and knees with the spine in neutral and scapulae slightly protracted. First, lift one extended arm up above your head, keeping the thumb up. Next, extend the opposite leg backwards to the wall behind you. Maintain a horizontal pelvis and neutral lumbar extension position. Alternate left and right.
Plank with extension The goal is development of trunk stability endurance and counter-rotation control
Get in plank position, on toes and elbows, body in a neutral alignment. Slowly extend one leg at the hip, squeezing the glutes. Maintain a neutral trunk position, not allowing pelvis to rotate. Alternate left and right. More challenging with elbows on a Swiss ball.
Stand with a Swiss ball pressed between the side of one knee and a wall. Bend this knee and press it firmly into the Swiss/soccer ball or even a pillow. Hold pelvis horizontal at all times and perform a small ¼ squat.
Table top The goal is pelvis and proximal hip control
Lie supine with feet flat and shoulders on a bench. Slowly lift one leg off of the floor so the hip reaches 90 degrees flexion. Do not allow the pelvis to drop on the unsupported side. Alternate left and right. More challenging with shoulders on a Swiss ball.
Arabesque windmill rotations The goal is balance and control at end of range in single leg stance
Bend forward on one leg as far as possible whilst maintaining a neutral spine. Have the knee "soft" not locked. With arms out wide, perform slow trunk twists in both directions, maintaining balance and the neutral spine. Start on the floor and progress to standing on a foam mat or wobble board.
Send in your questions using our feedback form or leave them in the comments below. Andrew Leipus will answer the best ones every month
Gillette Fitness Zone video series presented by Adrian Le Roux will explore fitness exercises to enhance the performance of the modern day cricket player. The 25-episode series will focus on the functional exercises that can be done anyplace anywhere; and then move on to functional and core stability exercises that involve lot of movement and power.