Core training is something nearly every strength/power athlete and everyday fitness enthusiast are concerned about, in one way or another. Some athletes and coaches are looking at ways to improve core stability to boost squatting performance, while others are looking for deeper oblique cuts and less abdominal body fat.
While there are a magnitude of factors to consider to answer the question as to whether or not you should train core every day, we have set out to discuss the benefits and potential negatives of training core, what are the recommended frequencies to train core based on your goals, and why.
Should You Train Core Every Day?
In an earlier article we addressed the question, “How often should we train core?”, which discussed in depth various aspects of the core musculature, physiological make-up, and what that means for general core training. In short, the article came to conclude that while most individuals can sustain high amounts of core training frequency, there is a need for proper muscle recovery (much like most muscles) as well.
Odds are that if you are a strength, power, or fitness athlete your core is being developed by most of the strength and power lifts you are doing, regardless if you are actually doing crunches, sit ups, and planks. In my opinion, you should not train core specifically (via core exercises) on a daily basis just like you shouldn’t train other muscles every day. Training the core muscles daily may result in them being fatigued during heavy squats, cleans, and competition lifts, making training frequency a potential reason you are limited in core strength during lifts. That said, let’s break down more in why training core every day may actually be/will holding you back.
Why You SHOULD NOT Train Core Every Day…
Core training is key for increased overall strength, spinal stability, and performance in nearly every athletic/performance event. The core is made up of primarily Type I muscle fibers (slow-twitch), making them highly resistant to fatigue and able to withstand the demands placed upon them on a regular basis (1). This means that we can often get away with training them more frequently, however as strength, power, and fitness athletes we must be aware of the potential negatives of training the core too frequently. It is important to note that the core also has muscle fiber types that can vary slightly athlete to athlete based on genetics and external factors (such as training specificity), making core training a sports specific manner.
In the case of strength, power, and fitness athletes, core muscles need to not only be able to withstand constant stress from the day to day acts of training, but they must be able to contract at high force outputs to support maximal level exertions in squats, clean and jerks, and other high intensity (loading) movements. Below are a few reasons why strength, power, and fitness athletes should think twice before training core every day.
May Limit Strength Development
While a strong core is necessary for maximal strength development, there may become times where an athlete is training the core muscles too frequently that their muscle recovery (see next section) is inadequate; resulting in slight fatigue during highly core depending movements (such as squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, etc). It could be thought that if an athlete is training core prior to higher intensities days that they may actually be limiting their ability to remain rigid and controlled, as the core muscles may be slightly fatigued and less than optimal when needed.
Inadequate Muscle Recovery
Lack of muscle recovery, regardless of the muscle group or how resilient they are to fatigue, can often lead to acute decreases in maximal force output, rate of force development, and performance. The core muscles, which were briefly discussed above, are highly resilient to fatigue, however do still require proper recover from dedicated core strengthening, hypertrophic, and stability training. The recovery amounts may vary on an individual basis, but it is important that coaches and athletes do not take core muscle recovery lightly if their goals are maximal strength and power.
Compound Exercises Build Core Strength Too
It should come as no secret that squats (pause squats, high rep squats, front squats, etc), heavy carries, overhead lifts, and most movements found in the strength, power, and fitness sports require high amounts of core stability and strength. That said, most athletes will find that the dedicated strength lifts (such as the ones just listed) offer nearly all of the “core strengthening” stimulus one may need.
That said, it is still important to perform dedicated core strength and development on a regular basis, often in the form of accessory work or during warm-ups (breathing and bracing technique)…just be sure not to overdo it.
Why You SHOULD Train Core Regularly
In a previous article we offered powerlifters, weightlifters and functional fitness athletes a listing of core exercises that can be used to increase core strength, build lean muscle, and improve core stability for movements like squats, overhead lifts, carries, and more.
While we spent a great amount of time discussing why you should not train core every day, I do feel it is important to hit on the benefits of performing dedicated core training on a regular basis (a few days per week), regardless of your goals as a strength, power, or fitness athlete.
Improved Bracing and Breathing
While bracing and breathing are separate skills that must be learned (as having a “strong” core doesn’t necessarily mean you are breathing and bracing correctly), a stronger core can aid a lifter by understanding how to activate and contract the core muscles. Lifters who are aware of how to properly brace, breathe through the diaphragm, and contract the entire core under load often find themselves stronger and less injury prone than those lifters who chronically extend or flex the lumbar spine or allow for lateral flexion to occur during lifts.
Stronger core muscles, such as obliques and rectus abdominis, help to stabilize the trunk under heavy loads. This is key for lifts like back squats, deadlifts, and ballistic movements like the clean and jerk; as the trunk must stay rigid (and often upright) in order to allow for proper barbell trajectory and patterning.
Core stabilization is due to both muscular and neurological control, both of which have been shown repeatedly to have a significant effect on exercise performance and injury reserve during athletic movements (2). Lifters who are better capable of withstanding loads via a strong, stable, and neurologically controlled core can not only increase exercise and lifting capacities, but also do so in a safer manner. Note, that there are always risks to lifting, and lifting heavy. By no means does the above statement conclude that you are except for assuming such risks, but rather to suggest a core strengthening exercise can improve your injury resistance significantly.
Assuming you are adhering to nutritional guidelines on how to decrease body fat, it is possible that training the core muscles will result in the abdominals progressively appearing more and more from under the midsection’s diminishing body fat stores. Like most muscles, the abdominals can increase in size and therefore appear more easily when partnered with a sound nutritional strategy.
How to Train Your Core
In previous articles we discussed various core training exercises athletes can do to increase core strength, stability, and enhance overall force production in strength and power lifts. Below, are three common goals athletes and coaches have as to why they want/should include core training into their program on a regular basis.
If your goal is strength, power, and sports performance…
If your goal is maximal performance in sport, you should first address any bracing and/or breathing issues you may have. From there, focus on training the core after you have performed your main strength and power lifts. Add a variety of movements, such as rotational exercises, core isometrics, and muscle endurance movements to build a stronger foundation, making sure to not overdo your training volume so that you do not impede muscle recovery necessary for successive heavy training days.
If your goal is core strength for injury prevention purposes…
If you are recovering from an injury to the spine, lower back, or core, it is first recommended that you consult your physical and trained physical therapist for specifics on how to properly rehabilitate your injuries and get back to normal training. Current research shows that a strong core can help alleviate lower back pain, making core (and glute) training key for most lifters (as well as proper breathing, etc).
Looking to build core strength and stability after your initial rehabilitation phases? Research suggests that the Swiss/stability ball can be a great tool, with the Swiss ball roll-out and the pike showing the highest EMG activity compared to common core exercises (3).
Assuming you have completed/consulted with a trained medical professional and have acquired clearance to partake in core training, you can start by performing 1-2 core exercises a few days per week, for moderate repetition ranges (8-15 repetitions) and time duration (30-90 seconds) to build new muscle, increase stability, and enhance isometric core strength.
If your goal is a 6-pack…
If you are performing core training because you are looking for a visual 6-pack, you should start addressing your diet first. Most athletes looking to lose body fat around the midsection will have little success gaining visual abs unless they first control caloric intake, and then address building more muscle around the core. If you are someone who HAS been eating clean and still having some issues with core development, try mixing the repetition ranges up and adding load so that more faster-twitch muscle fibers start to grow.
- Häggmark, T., & Thorstensson, A. (1979). Fibre types in human abdominal muscles. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 107(4), 319-325. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1979.tb06482.x
- Bliven, K. C., & Anderson, B. E. (2013). Core Stability Training for Injury Prevention. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 5(6), 514-522. doi:10.1177/1941738113481200
- Escamilla, R. F., Lewis, C., Bell, D., Bramblet, G., Daffron, J., Lambert, S., . . . Andrews, J. R. (2010). Core Muscle Activation During Swiss Ball and Traditional Abdominal Exercises. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 40(5), 265-276. doi:10.2519/jospt.2010.3073