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One viewpoint is that the basic barbell lifts train the "core" sufficiently. And indeed it seems reasonable that anyone who can squat and deadlift large weights have very strong core muscles.

Dr. Stuart M. McGill was a professor at University of Waterloo for 30 years where he lead a research clinic that investigated back pain. He has published 240 peer-reviewed scientific journal papers. Brian Carroll is one of the worlds best powerlifters. In 2013 he was told by doctors that he could never lift again due to serious back injuries. After training with McGill for 10 months he completely recovered. He is now working with McGill.

In this video they consult Layne Norton who is suffering from backpain. Norton is himself an extremely accomplished powerlifter and bodybuilder and is also very smart and knowledgable about strength training. In the video (at 7 minutes) you can see how Norton struggles with the simple bird dog bodyweight exercise. This is very odd and seems to contradict the view that anyone who can squat and deadlift large weights have very strong core muscles. Norton can deadlift 322 kg and squat 303 kg at 93 kg. He should have plenty strong core muscles.

The same thing can be seen in this video (starts at 7 minutes). Here Dave Tate, PR: 335 kg deadlift and 424 kg squat struggles with the same bird dog exercise.

What is going on here and what implications should this have for ordinary people (who do strength training)?

One thing I notice is that in basic barbell training the cross pattern (left leg to right arm and vice versa) is never trained. In athletics and everyday life this pattern seems very important. It us used when running, shotputting, boxing etc. I wonder if what we see is more a problem of coordination than lack of strength. Perhaps Norton and Tate is so used to excerting force in both legs simultaneously that they struggle to "switch off" one leg and still excert force trough the other.

The functional movement screen (FMS) includes the bird dog and the same exercise but with arm on same side as leg (ipsilateral). According to this article 75 % out of all pro athletes struggle with these excercises. Knowing that the purpose of the FMS is to identify athletes that are in risk of injury this does not sound good. Granted the people administering the test have a vested interest in finding lots of shortcomings, but still.

  • Squats train the core to the same extent deadlifts train your brow muscles.... Just because a muscle is being tensed for balance or to force blood flow, it doesn't mean it's getting bigger or stronger.... Otherwise endurance runners would be the strongest people on earth (the entire body contracts in a sequence while running) – user33304 May 23 at 9:39
  • There's probably a reason why gymnasts who are probably stronger than all the active users in this site together still need to train their core in various specific and isolated movements in order to perfom their discipline. – user33304 May 23 at 9:43
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    Consider that strength is often referred to as a skill and that any skill requires practice to get better at. I would theorize that what you have observed is merely an unpracticed skill rather than a lack of strength. Were the individuals who struggled with the exercise you mentioned to practice it regularly, I would expect them to show high degrees of strength in a relatively short period of time. – JustSnilloc May 23 at 13:22
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    @JustSnilloc: Yes. The reason they both have for doing this exercise is back pain. If this motorprogram is missing from their "neural software" due to practising bipedal lifts only, it could be that this may have been a problem in their daily life and that compensations done by their bodies caused the back problem to begin with? – Andy May 23 at 14:51
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    Do you assume, that "lack of strength" is the main cause for injury in general? The reality is, that many people who are "strong" are in pain. Conversely, simple interventions which objectively speaking, don't increase "strength" work for eliminating pain. – BKE May 24 at 8:56
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‘The core’ is one of the most ambiguously used, misused, and poorly understood terms in physical fitness. Much of the trouble with this discussion originates from our distinct ideas of what the core actually is, and why (or sometimes even if) it is important.

In most of the academic literature, the core is understood to be comprised of three muscle groups: the diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor complex at the bottom, and the deep multifidus and superficial transversus abdominis in the middle. Together, they function to support the lumbar spine and pelvis statically for postural stability, and dynamically during gross motor movement. The strength of the core depends on the cooperation of these muscle groups.

By another common definition, the core is further comprised of the internal and external obliques, the rectus abdominis, the erector spinae, and even such muscles as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and gluteus maximus. This is sometimes described, instead, as the ‘trunk’.

The distinction is extremely important because it is a functional one. By the first definition, the core is comprised entirely of deep, relatively weak, endurance-based postural muscles, while by the second definition, we are including the powerful prime movers at the periphery. Or, in the most simple terms, we are comparing functional (strength-) endurance with functional strength.

In the first instance, core strength is functionally appropriate to balance, coordination, and economy in disciplines that demand prolonged or repetitive motion, such as running or dance. In the second, core strength is appropriate to disciplines that demand power, such as weightlifting or wrestling. Of course, there are any number of a third category of disciplines, such as cricket, which lie somewhere in between, and which would thus benefit from a compromise of core strengths by both definitions.

If we can agree upon a definition, we thereby simplify our question. And the answer, as always, comes back to fitness for purpose.

Barbell lifts are sufficient if we are assessing the strength of the core on our ability to perform common functional lifts safely, as we may be required to do in such activities as construction or landscaping—or even just carrying the shopping in from the car. Powerlifting, for example, has been shown to improve the contractile rate of the transversus abdominus and the strength and thickness of the diaphragm. However, the stable nature of the core barbell lifts limits their ability to challenge propriocepsis, which has been shown to improve the sensory motor control that allows us to correct perturbations to our spinal and pelvic posture. In such cases, they may be modified to provide a greater degree of instability, or they may otherwise be supplemented by exercises targeting the multifidus and transversus abdominis specifically. Moreover, core strength should be viewed and trained with the loading characteristics of the target discipline in mind. As with all muscles, the strength and power of the postural muscles comes at some expense to the endurance and fine control they exhibit.

As an addendum, it should be noted that the ‘bird dog’ exercise is a highly specific and (unless one is a bird-dog) non-functional exercise for anyone who does not practice yoga, Pilates, or a similar discipline. It is entirely unsurprising that most elite athletes, indeed most people, would struggle to perform it. But it can be learnt just like any other skill. And although it is undoubtedly assisted by core strength, it is not in itself indicative of core strength. In order for such a test to have any meaning, it should provide participants with a period of practice and learning, and compare their development thereafter. In the words of a recent research paper on core stability training, “commonly used methods of measuring core stability in research do not reflect functional nature of core stability in uninjured, healthy and athletic populations.”

I hope that gives you a different perspective on the whole argument.

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    Thank you for a very thorough answer! "The strength and power of the postural muscles comes at some expense to the endurance and fine control they exhibit." Motor learning/control is where the SAID principle originated. Brain surgeons should probably not do heavy strength training of arm muscles? What happens if you get used to using both weak stability muscles and strong prime movers together? Could this cause problems with only applying stability muscles due to loss of fine control? – Andy May 25 at 18:11
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    Of course, we can and do develop the strength of the weak postural muscles, and that can afford us some relatively strong resistance to the perturbations that have been associated with spinal injuries. However, there is some limitation to the degree. It has been suggested that postural strength works against postural suppleness—a theory that is completely consistent with everything else we know about muscle development. As you say, brain surgeons (or pianists, ...) shouldn't do a lot of heavy lifting. So again, it is a matter of fitness for purpose. – POD May 26 at 0:10
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Basic barbell lifts train bilateral strength for the core sufficiently for most athletics. They do not maximize all athletic qualities in the trunk, nor do they resolve all problems in the trunk, so other exercises are necessary for those purposes. Unilateral exercises, rotational exercises, non-sagittal-plane movements, and just more movement variety in general are all useful and productive for other goals, such as injury prehab or rehab, muscle endurance, sport-specific performance, mobility, and so on.

In my opinion "barbell work is enough for the core" is an unfortunate perversion of a true but context-specific call to focus. It's almost always overstated by both its proponents and opponents.

Here's a version I'd consider true: it's hard to convince people just how athletically productive getting stronger is, because it involves actual hard work of the sort that most people shy away from. We want to get people to focus sufficient training time and effort on lifting heavier so they don't spend half their limited training time doing knee-elbow planks while their deadlift stays below bodyweight. Therefore we truthfully say that squatting and deadlifting is plenty of core work, with regards to raw bilateral strength, to get them to stop doing a dozen exercises lightly and instead focus on a few done heavily. We're telling them to prioritize the big lifts so that they get a taste of the amazing effects of consistent progressive overload with heavy weights. Once a person has pushed those lifts for a few months and has become sufficiently strong, it makes sense to introduce other exercises to work on other goals.

Another context in which it's appropriate is to get people to stop prematurely optimizing their workout programs. Consider how many people ask "how do I get stronger for [underwater baseball/space judo/competitive niece carrying]". They want fun, individualized, sport-specific exercises, but the truth is that fundamental strength and conditioning should come first, and only after someone is quite capable do they need to introduce more specialized S&C. "The barbell lifts are enough" leaves out a lot of nuance, but is arguably the correct message: focus on general strength for now; you'll get more out of bird dogs after you have a base level of strength.

I find it unfortunate that strength zealots (as I have been) overstate this case and end up denigrating other exercises, because there is a valid point that gets lost in "strength über alles" messaging. This contributes to people rejecting consistent strength work and never seeing the benefits of being a lot stronger than they are. It's important and useful not just to be strong, but also to be flexible, able to perform a wide variety of movements proficiently, to have a high work capacity, and so on across many athletic qualities.

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  • What are the benefits of barbell strength in daily life when compared to workouts focused around injury prevention, endurance and flexibility? Who is really wasting time with silly exercises? – user33304 May 24 at 11:55
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    @Kyu That would be a fine question on its own. But IMO the best answer is to get a double bodyweight deadlift and then see if you still need to ask it. – Dave Liepmann May 24 at 13:52
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    @Andy If you have fuckarounditis then I recommend picking a program and sticking to it strictly and consistently for six months. I've been there; the desire to try new shiny exercises is real — "Maybe this one is what I'm missing!" I would think. If you want to do one light exercise after your primary work it shouldn't usually interfere too much. – Dave Liepmann May 24 at 13:54
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    @Kyu: For anyone who does any kind of physical labour whatsoever, the functional strength developed by the standard barbell lifts is an excellent mechanism through which they can avoid injury. And these are not mutually exclusive of endurance or flexibility. – POD May 24 at 21:13
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    @Kyu Again, the best way to discuss this (especially if you want evidence) is for you to post a question, though POD has already summarized it well. Secondly, to discount the significant empirical knowledge that comes from gym rattery is to embrace ignorance. – Dave Liepmann May 25 at 7:02

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