Special Guest post from Billie Rehberg PT, DPT. Billie is a former softball catcher and current physical therapist about core strength. Billie is one of the top PT's in the region, the knowledge she has gained through years of training and providing therapy to athletes is insurmountable. Thank you BR for a great article!
I was seventeen years old, my varsity team’s starting catcher squatting for anywhere from 100 to 500+ pitches per day, and bigger and stronger than the majority of my team. I couldn’t understand why I could show up my team mates in the weight room when it came to things like triceps extensions, wrist and bicep curls, or seated leg presses, but when it came to squatting, I was getting out-lifted by girls half my size and four years younger. This was embarrassing to me. I even strained a quad while lifting half of what the “little” girls were lifting and had to sit out several days of conditioning.
Now that I know what I know, it occurs to me that my legs weren’t weak at all. My core abdominal and spinal musculature were. So I couldn’t squat as much as the other girls. Who cares? I had no problem squatting on the field. But before I continue, let me talk about another issue I was having.
My shoulder was killing me. There were days where I wanted to cut my arm off because surely it would hurt less that way. I went to physical therapy and got better. But not all the way better. My physical therapists were very good. They diagnosed shoulder weakness and they were right. However, we never did a single core exercise as part of my therapy. And I think we missed something. With every throw to second base, I was putting everything I had into getting the ball there but it wasn’t working and I was in severe pain. I have no doubt that my shoulder played a role in my throwing. But I also have no doubt that my core did too.
The sports conditioning world has recently started paying more and more attention to core stability training. Think of your core as the ground on which you build your fortress. If your core is loose and unstable, the fortress will crumble and fall because it has nothing solid to sit on. If your core is tight and
stable, the fortress will stand because it is strong from the bottom up.
So why couldn’t I perform a barbell squat when I could perform a seated leg press against hundreds of pounds? The leg press took out the need for my core to stabilize because I was seated, creating a false core stability. When that false stability was taken away, my legs, the “fortress,” if you will, couldn’t hold up on the loose ground of my core and I couldn’t do a barbell squat.
Why couldn’t I make a throw to second base without feeling like my arm was going to fall off? It was like shooting a cannon with only half the gunpowder and expecting the cannonball to go just as far. The shoulder had been rehabbed and was trying to fire. My legs were strong and could help me push off for the throw, but they weren’t as strong as they should have been because I couldn’t condition them appropriately. The core hadn’t been addressed and wasn’t firing at all.
More than half of my gunpowder was missing. How many core exercises did our softball team perform as a part of our coach-designed preseason conditioning? Exactly one. And it was one of the worst ones: the traditional sit-up. How many core exercises did we perform during the actual season? Zero. How we didn’t ALL end up injured is beyond me. When it comes to core stability, there are so many more effective and functional activities that can be performed in place of a traditional sit-up. Sit-ups actually focus primarily on the hip flexors anyway.
That’s why it’s easier to perform one when someone holds your feet- it creates something for the flexors to pull against. If a coach insists on his players performing such an exercise, it would be much wiser to have them perform a curl-up opposed to a sit-up, and the athletes should focus on curling up one spinal segment at a time, beginning at the neck and moving down the spine from there. More effective activities include planking (don’t forget side planks too!), reverse curls while keeping a neutral spine, bridging, Swiss ball prone tucks and walkouts, and many, many more besides traditional crunches.
The bottom line is if you just aren’t performing in an aspect of your conditioning or play that you think you ought to be, and everything else you’ve tried to fix it is failing, you might take a second look at your core program. I can’t guarantee that it’s the culprit, but let me put it to you this way: if I could go back in time, I’d certainly re-evaluate my seventeen year-old self’s workout routine.
Billie Rehberg, PT, DPT
Try this 90s Plank Routine to start improving your core!