Landmark study shows weak correlation between core strength and sport performance

July 2 2007

How important is core strength to athletic performance? According to an initial study at Indiana State University, not very.

In the study, which is the first of its kind, Thomas Nesser, assistant professor of physical education at Indiana State, has found that while there is a correlation between muscle strength in the core of an athlete’s body, and their demonstrated strength and power in sports performance, the link is moderate to poor, and inconsistent.

“The results are not showing that greater core strength is going to help you -- across the board -- with your sport,” Nesser said. “Only certain areas of the core showed a correlation with specific performance-based activities, and even then, the correlation was slight.”

One example Nesser gave from the study was a correlation found between trunk flexion (abdominal strength) and sprinting.

“Those athletes who had stronger trunk flexion did better on the sprint performance, but having that increased abdominal strength only accounted for 24 percent of their better performance,” Nesser said. “This is a very small percentage. In addition, a relationship between sprint performance and back extension was not even identified.”

While the importance of the core and methods of training and assessing it have been largely publicized, few studies have quantitatively demonstrated core strength’s role in strength and performance; and none have tested strength and power athletes, such as football players. Nesser is the first.

“There is a preponderance of information being generated right now about how to strengthen the core, with new equipment and videos being released at a dizzying pace, but the evidence that all this core strength will help you in your sport performance is not there,” Nesser said. “There is a lot of theory out there, and some good ideas that make sense, but we’re trying to put the hard data to the hype.”

Using 29 members of the NCAA Division I Indiana State football team as subjects, Nesser tested each athlete’s core strength and then compared it to the athlete’s ability in three strength variables and four performance variables.

Core testing consisted of measuring how long the athlete could hold each of four different positions: back extension, trunk flexion, and left and right bridge.

Strength variables consisted of bench press, squat, and power clean; and performance variables included vertical jump, 20- and 40-yard sprints, and a 10-yard shuttle run.

Overall, the results of the study suggested that torso stability is only moderately related to strength and performance.

“We were surprised that core strength is only moderately responsible or related to an athlete’s overall strength and power performance, based on the variables we tested,” Nesser said, “so we are continuing our research in this area and endeavoring to discover if core-specific training is really necessary, and if athletes with superior core strength are capable of doing greater things.”

While core stability is an important component of training and injury prevention, Nesser says that core strength exercises have not been proven to be the best use of an athlete’s time and energy if they are trying to improve in their sport.

For the average person, however, Nesser says core strength plays an important role in a person’s overall fitness and everyday functioning.

“Having a strong core can help everybody in their daily activities, whether that’s lifting and holding a child, or carrying an unbalanced load of groceries,” he said. “We know that core muscle strength helps with balance and stability, but what we don’t know yet is if an increase in core strength plays a significant role with respect to sports.”

A follow-up study was conducted by Tomoko Okada, athletic training graduate student, which built upon the research of Nesser. In her study of 28 non-athlete subjects, Okada also found that there was not a significant correlation between core strength and functional movement.

In addition to teaching at Indiana State, Nesser serves on the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Education Committee and is the NSCA state director for Indiana; he is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and certified health fitness instructor with a Ph.D. in kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. Nesser’s research interests include the effects of training and the factors related to athletic performance.

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Core Strength Study

Cutline: Tomoko Okada, athletic training graduate student, built upon the research of Thomas Nesser, assistant professor of physical education, for her master’s degree. Here she explains the core stability tests she used to see if there was a correlation between core strength and functional movement and performance.

Contact: Thomas Nesser, assistant professor of physical education, Indiana State University, (812) 841-4346 (cell), (812) 237-2901 (office), or tnesser@indstate.edu

Writer: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or kspanuello@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

According to an initial study by physical education assistant professor Thomas Nesser, how important is core strength to athletic performance -- not very. In this study, which is the first of its kind, the link was found to be moderate to poor, and inconsistent. The subjects were 29 members of the university's NCAA Division I football team.

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