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Increased Core Strength and Stabilization for Optimal Performance and Back Health

We have all heard one of the following about the core… ♦ The core is the center of all movements ♦ My sport requires high amounts of core training ♦ The core is essential for optimal performance …if you’ve been trained, were/are an athlete, or are currently training.

Having strength and stability within the core allows athletes across all spectrums to increase performance while decreasing injuries. For sports requiring high levels of stabilization and rotation, like polo, having a strong core can save your back as well.

Polo requires high-level players to have very high amounts of stabilization and core strength in order to perform coordinated movements with control and power. When an athlete lacks the optimal strength levels to perform a skill, other muscles of the body must kick in. When the core can’t handle the load or stress, it will habitually recruit muscle activation from the lower back. Although the back should be strong enough to handle the stresses, it can lead to overuse injuries of the fibrous tissues along the spine – leading to pain, discomfort and a shortened career.

Getting ahead of the overuse and impact injuries becomes important, if not more important, than training to enhance performance. My philosophy is to habituate our athlete’s bodies to move optimally through large ranges of motion with proper muscle activation and enhanced strength and power.

Specific to core strength and stability for polo, we focus on three key points:

Focus on and increase Range of Motion (ROM) ROM limitations within the hip joint are a major precursor for lower back pain (LBP), lack of gluteal musculature development, and altered lumbar spine kinematics1. Normally, the first train of thought is to simply prescribe a comprehensive stretching routine. However, there are multiple forms of stretching, as well as active, dynamic and static flexibility. Dynamic flexibility is generally placed in the athletic category because it is more related to movement/ exercise. Static flexibility – more commonly known as stretching – is more closely related to yoga and recovery. Individuals who engage in a comprehensive training program with a goal of increasing hip joint ROM, as well as overall flexibility, must incorporate both dynamic and static forms of flexibility, core stabilization and eccentric resistance training2,4. Arguably, the number one total body exercise for dynamic mobility is overhead squats. Whether performed with weight, an empty barbell or a PVC pipe, all polo players – and all athletes for that matter – should be able to perform this movement well.

Increase core stabilization Core stabilization training should focus on multi-joint complex exercises (i.e. squats, deadlifts, etc.). These movements require multiple joints to work together while placing heavy focus on the core to stabilize the torso. Individuals with insufficient core strength are often leading candidates to suffer from lower back pain (LBP), which leads to altered lumbar spine kinematics. Altered lumbar spine kinematics results in poor movement mechanics during complex movements like full ROM squats and restricts results from any resistance training program. LBP athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and laypersons typically round their spine at the end of hip rotation during prone hip rotational activities (full ROM squats, lunges, etc.). Core stabilization, strength increases, local muscular endurance, motor control and spine/hip positioning during squat movements should be the focus of any musculature correction program. When an athlete suffers from LBP, our suggestion is to take precaution with big movements such as squats and deadlifts until the athlete demonstrates the ability to maintain lordosis with no hip shifting during the movements. All movements should start with a controlled tempo that places increased time under tension during the eccentric muscular action.

Work specifically on flexibility on the legs and hips Less elastic lower limb musculature results in altered kinematics within the hip and spine. For polo players, this means during riding or in the gym, their movements will be off due to hip deficiencies. Athletes who are unable to perform ROM squats end up performing parallel squats. Parallel squats lead to more knee pain and less performance than full ROM squats. This problem arises when individuals are unable to maintain posture and technique during complex multi-joint movements, such as squats. Performance coaches should remove their athletes from movements that require full ROM until they can correct their musculature imbalances and weaknesses. Through comprehensive musculature correction, such as self-myofascial release therapy, S&C coaches can save their athletes and clients from LBP and further injury. Once corrected, S&C coaches should re-incorporate full ROM movements back into the program. Recent research looks into the fascia tissue and how it affects adjacent musculotendinous structures2. A link between myofascial tissue connections and the coordinated transmission of force into those adjacent musculotendinous structures are found. These findings have resulted in an increasing popularity in the practice of foam rolling. A prescription of foam rolling, followed by static stretching, on soft tissue should follow every workout.

We have found that Functional Muscle Fitness athletes who stay consistent with the three aforementioned techniques increase hip ROM and reduce LBP significantly, often within the first two weeks. All performance coaches must direct and guide their athletes to be proactive in performance, recovery and health by ways of training, nutrition and health.

Mark Wine is the CEO of Functional Muscle Fitness


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