One of the secrets behind core training and functional exercise is in understanding the importance of foot position. I have spent a tremendous amount of time, over the past 10 years, reviewing research on core stabilization and functional movement. In addition to that information, a major influence, which completely changed my perspective on how I review core stabilization and functional exercise, was the work of Dr. Yanda. He demonstrated that by altering foot position and placing the foot and leg in poor alignment, responses of the core could actually be inhibited. However, if the foot placement and leg position is in good alignment and appropriate for the situation, the muscles of the core can actually be facilitated.
This information was further refined with my work in functional movement screening. By looking at three completely different foot positions in the functional movement screen, we noted how a person with great core stability in squat stance (which is a symmetrical foot position) might have completely altered in poor core stability in single leg or split stance. Furthermore, the lunge stance and the single leg stance offer an opportunity to compare the left and right sides of the body as there may be significant functional differences between these foot positions. This concept went against everything I had learned in both my strength conditioning and physical therapy education. I blindly operated under the assumption that if I trained my abdominal wall, back extensors and hips in any position, there would be carryover of the stability to any functional position. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Individuals who demonstrate excellent core stability in a seated position (symmetrical) could be placed in a half kneeling position (split stance), which may exacerbate their faulty mechanics. For example, this person may use the hip flexor as a secondary stabilizer and not allow the primary stabilizers of the trunk – like the transverse abdominus, obliques and spinal erectors – to function optimally. Hip position and foot placement are keys, not only in assessment of core function but also in restoration of correct core responses. We must remember that the core functions at a subconscious level. The transverse abdominus, obliques and the spinal stabilizers automatically anticipate movements of the extremities to stabilize before the extremities move. This gives us control of the pelvis and shoulder girdle while balancing the spine over the top of its base of support.
When we train the core at a conscious level, we forget that is not how it is used in everyday functional activity. Sure, it is simple and nice to be able to supplement and isolate core musculature sometimes, but don’t fool yourself, because when it is all said and done, the core must be automatic if it is going to help us in sports, training and daily activities. I have also found that it is extremely important to think more about removing the negatives than adding a “magic bullet” or positives to core training. Every other article I read is offering a new exercise or innovative way to approach muscular training, and they are all excellent ideas. The problem is when these neat, innovative techniques are applied to someone who possesses a functional asymmetry – like poor single leg stance on the right – they only serve to reinforce the asymmetry and problem.
This type of individual would have benefited more from improving single leg stance, not by adding innovative exercises. Every time there is an asymmetry in the body with respect to mobility or stability, the core is what has to compensate. The core is what has to make up the difference when stride length is different between the left and right. The core is what has to balance the body when single leg stance is not stable. The core is what shifts out of control when one hip does not want to squat as well as the other hip. If we allow these asymmetries and imbalances to exist in the body, we will continually have to substitute to keep the core strong. If we remove the reason that the core needs to compensate, every exercise we do will evoke an appropriate core response and reinforce core stabilization. If this occurs, we may find we do not need to train the core as much as we initially thought.
In your future training and conditioning endeavors, do not make the mistakes I have made in the past. Do not consider the core as a single isolated unit that functions the same way in all positions. Realize that changing foot position changes the feedback to the core. A great example I have found that helps to explain this concept is to watch the alignment of my forearm and wrist as if I were going to hit a heavy punching bag. Now, what would it be like if I bend my wrist about 20 degrees into flexion and attempt to hit the bag? If I hit a heavy bag in that position, I would possibly fracture my wrist. This helps demonstrate the fact that the body will never allow 100 percent of its energy to go into faulty alignment. The minute you pronate your foot, cave in your knee during deceleration, there is absolutely no way that the powerful strength of the glutes or the stabilizing force of the core is going to allow you to exert 100 percent of your control. Your body will actually inhibit muscle contraction because of faulty alignment and poor foot position.
When doing functional movement screens, the first three moves to check are commonly called the “Big Three.” Both Mark Verstegen and Mike Boyle have referred to these as the “Big Three” because they understand the intrinsic importance of the three fundamental foot positions of all functional activity that are the squat stance, a split or lunge stance and single leg stance. By looking at functional movement screens since 1997, we have had the opportunity to not only check core strength and stability in each of these foot positions, but we have feedback that tells us which exercises correct faulty core responses in each of these positions in the shortest amount of time. As the position improves and mobility and stability improve, we know we are tapping into something.
From this knowledge, we have been able to break things down. Runners who have poor core stability are asked to do push ups with only one leg on the ground at a time. In this position, you can watch one hip drop down as compared to the other, thus demonstrating their poor single leg stability in the push up position. This refines the single leg stance problem. Correcting a lunge does not just have to occur in lunge stance. We can go into half kneeling position and do a cross body chop with a stick and a cable column. This half kneeling position places the hips in a split stance or lunge position.
Alterations in trunk stability and control demonstrate the fact that if you move to any higher level of difficulty, you are only going to have bigger problems and more compensation. So consider the three primary foot positions whenever you are doing core training and always assess and evaluate the automatic responses that occur to either support the body for functional activity or compensate for a weak link that you may have missed. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do some form of functional assessment when trying to elevate or advance an individual’s core control and stability for higher levels of performance.