Why Is Core Stability Important in Movement?

By Sean Beckford (CSCS, RYT, FST) on October 3, 2022

Hey all! Welcome to my blog. It’s been a long time. Great to be back. 

One of the things that I often see on social media, and in the gym settings is individuals going about training their core in the wrong way in flexion based movement (sit-ups). The prevailing assumption is that if we strengthen the musculature of the core via this format, it enhances stability. This often leads to athletes doing endless crunches or using machine assists to train the core. While these muscles (rectus abdominus – six pack muscles) needs to be strong, training your core in isolation alone doesn’t promote trunk stability that carries over to squatting with good form.

When we think of core stability, it’s important to think of stability while moving, and being coordinated as we move. The lumbar spine must stay neutral while the hips, core and back work together. When we combine the action of bracing our core along with diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing- more about that below) it creates the opportunity to lift heavy weights while being safe and reducing injury risk. 

To that end, doing corrective exercises that support lower back health doesn’t involve the number of sit-ups that we can do, but rather how stable of a position we can keep. Training core stability will also involve working on hip mobility and addressing any sticking points. Lack of hip mobility will end up affecting lumbar stability in the long term. In the case of the squat, if the legs cannot move freely in the squat without restrictions, then it can affect the lumbar spine negatively. 

Ungluing the Hips

If hip mobility is limited, the femur (largest upper leg bone) will hit end range in the hip joint sooner than expected. Some factors that are behind this is are lifestyle related from too much sitting that builds up over a lifetime of being at the desk, creating orthopaedic issues with both young and older populations. Genetic factors also loom large, and it is directly related to  the individual anatomy of your bones. When our hip mobility becomes compromised, the femur will no longer have space to move due to restrictions in the joint capsule, and movement with pain is more likely as a result. 

When hip mobility is compromised, as you descend, the pelvis will pulled underneath (posterior pelvis tilt) causing the lower back to round creating what’s known as a butt wink as you descend into the bottom of the squat pattern. The more mobile your hips are and stable your core is, the likelihood of having the butt wink lowers.

In the video below is one of my favourite stretches to unglue the femur and open into the quadricep.

Train the Brain to Protect Lumbar Spine (Diaphragmatic Breathing)

Accomplishing proper core stability involves training the abdominal muscles of our core, back and diaphragm to work in sync with each other. To do this, we train the brain how to properly brace our core. 

This involves activating our abs by creating 360 degrees of pressure around the spine, along with having proper breathing mechanics. So think of having the back, abdominals and pelvis working together as one.  Regardless of whether or not you’re doing barbell back squats, goblet squats with a light load or a heavy load, being able to brace the core will keep the lumbar spine stable as you descend into the squat. If bracing is coupled with proper breathing mechanics during heavy squat attempts, stability is enhanced to an even greater degree which reduces injury risk.

It is important to not think of just the rectus abdominis, or the transverse abdominis (deepest layer of the abdominals that wraps around like a corset horizontally) as the only muscles that contribute to core stability, but rather as part of a team that helps to stabilize the posterior muscles of the lower back along with the erector spinae (long muscles that extend across the length of the upper back vertically). All of these, plus other muscles surrounding the torso work in tandem to help create stiffness in the trunk.

Here is a step by step instruction to help feel the muscles around your core, via the bracing sequence. Focus on feeling the muscles around your entire core activating as you go through this step-by-step process.

Step 1: Lie on the ground with your back to the floor. Keep knees bent to help lumbar spine stay fixed to ground. 

Step 2: Expand the muscles of your core with a big inhale and think as if you’re about to get punched in the stomach. Automatically your core should firm up reflexively, which will help to create stiffness around the lower part of the torso. As the picture indicates, I place my hands on my stomach to feel the tension being created. You can also move your hand along your lower back and the lateral abdominals to feel activation there as well. 

Step 3: Once you have step 2 down, you have to be able to sustain this stiffness created in the trunk for a period of time. Hold for 10-30 seconds, and MAKE SURE YOU DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE WHILE KEEPING THE CORE STIFF! Training to keep a stiff core benefits us not only in our workouts, but also in our day to day lives, walking around, sitting at the desk, playing with your kids, etc. Doing this pattern will help improve the core endurance outside of our workouts as well.  

Recommended sets/reps: 3 sets of 5-10 repetitions

Train the Brain in Movement to Protect Lumbar Spine (Birddog Regression/Progression)

After we have done the first pattern, the next thing to learn is how to coordinate the stability in movement patterns itself. What I’m doing here is a quadruped position that’s getting me ready for birddog. I used my tripod and timer at home to try and set this up so the picture, (which was difficult to say the least) so if you’re using the PVC Pipe or Dowel, have a friend help set this up, and make sure that you are making contact with all aspects of the PVC Pipe/Dowel so you’re able to maintain trunk stiffness. Keep in mind the bracing sequence that we completed when we we’re on our backs. Try to find a neutral position and hold.

Recommended sets/reps: 1-2 sets of 20-30 second hold

Once you complete this, you’re ready for the next progression of Bird Dog. Here is a video with instructions.

Recommended sets/reps: 2 sets of 30-45 second hold

Recommended sets/reps: 2 sets of 30 seconds to 1 minute hold

Takeaway from this article:

Core stiffness and being able to train it safely is a fundamental part in being able to squat well with heavy and lighter loads.

Happy Squatting 🙂