Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: Core Performance

By Mark Verstegen and Pete Williams
304 pages, published 2005

Like the Abs Diet, Core Performance is as much a series of books as a workout system. Several variations on the main title are available, ranging from Core Performance Golf to Core Performance Endurance. This review here is just on the "main" book.

Core Performance is designed as an integrated program of diet, exercise, and rest & rehabilitation. If you follow the program, you'll work on all aspects of your fitness - how you eat, how you train, and how you recover. It's a generic, 12-week program (plus an optional 3-week preparatory program), and it seems primarily aimed at the average trainee. It's meant to be a start, which you can followup with further on the Core Performance (from here out, "CP") website or just by making the exercises harder.

CP starts with the usual "why you should do this" introduction, although interestingly it puts a spin on it - you're asked to sign a covenant to make an honest, maximum effort (and so on). The act of signing on might be very effective for some trainees. Next, you're asked to do an evaluation, with the followup that your evaluation might change after you start training and realize where you really are. Again, another interesting tool.

The book has a fair number of celebrity endorsements - one for each major chapter - discussing the specific chapter's topic. They're interesting, but ultimately just act as endorsements not training value. It's nice to know Mia Hamm benefited from CP, but it probably doesn't help you do it. It's also common to see a reference to stuff you can buy from the website, but nicely, they don't emphasize it. When you need a stretching rope (Regeneration, below), the book points out you can buy one off the CP website, but then says you can just get any rope cheaply cut to length and that'll work just as well.

A lot of credit needs to be given for the emphasis on movement prep (also known as dynamic stretching), prehab, rehab, and strength. This isn't just a feel-good system of exercises with a swiss ball, although it's occasionally portrayed that way. It's a well-integrated system that prepares you for movement, reinforces those movements daily, improves your strength and power, develops your endurance, and keeps you moving towards new goals. At least, it gives you the opportunity to do so. The integration reminds me a lot of Eric Cressey's Maximum Strength, which also tightly integrates these elements although with a more powerlifting-style bent.

The emphasis throughout Core Performance is, appropriate enough, the "core." This is a word that features in any popular workout looking for attention, and which brings shivers to the spine of many trainers. For most people, "core" means "abs" and "a strong core" means "a six pack," while "working the core" means unstable surface training and lots of crunches. That's not quite how it gets used here. The book repeatedly refers to "pillar strength," and makes it clear this includes the abs, lower back, upper back, and gluteals. Your "pillar strength" is your ability to use your postural muscles to transfer power and energy around your body. All of the workouts look to develop this pillar strength and work the body outwards from here. It does sell the idea with the usual bodybuilding bashing about big showy muscles, but doesn't go overboard with it.

Let's look at each of the pieces of the program. It's meant to be done over a six-day period, with multiple pieces of the program on each day. You never do all of the pieces on one day, but you may do 2-3 of them. It's more easily seen on a chart of days than written out in text, which makes the workout charts they provide almost indispensible when you start out.

Pillar Strength: The basics are that aforementioned Pillar Strength. Basically, you work on your postural muscles. There is a big emphasis on the transverse abdominis, or the muscle you use when you suck in your gut. So much so that "sucking in your gut" is going to be a core element of the technique in almost all lifts. This is the opposite of the advice of many widely respected trainers; suffice it to say this is controversial. You'll need to decide for yourself if it's a useful cue for you.

Movement Prep: A workout of dynamic stretches / movement prep. Similar to this one on the CP website. It's meant to get your body moving correctly and fluidly, and getting you ready for working out.

Prehab: This is similar to movement prep, but it's meant primarily as corrective exercise and not a warmup. You'll do Y-T-W-Ls on the floor or a swiss ball (aka physioball) and planks here.

Physioball Routine: Sharing some similarity with prehab, this is a short routine of mostly ab, hip, and lower back centered exercises using a physioball. You'll do crunches and Russian twists, reverse hypers on the ball, bridging, reverse crunches, knee tucks, and otherwise crunch/twist on the ball or roll it around with your body. It's aimed as much at balance and coordination as it is at strength and endurance.

Elasticity: Explosive training. In this section, you'll jump, quick-step, split jump, hop over lines, and otherwise do plyometric-style exercises to increase your explosive strength. It's a mix of exercises aimed at working on how fast you can apply your strength and how quickly you can shift from movement to movement. This stuff is rarely an emphasis in workouts aimed at the average trainee, but it gets a good push here.

Strength: Normal strength training. The exercises are good - no machines other than cables, and lots of compound exercises - alternating dumbbell bench presses, pullups, Romanian deadlifts, split squats (including Bulgarian split squats, my favorite), thrusters (called front squat-to-press here), and similar exercises. You'll generally start with 2-3 sets of 10 reps, but as the workouts go on you'll drop to sets of 6-8, and mix up the rep ranges (such as a set of 6 followed by a set of 3). Most of the workouts are built around supersets with rest.

Energy System Development: Basically, cardio. But it's mixed-mode training, intervals, and an emphasis on doing exercises faster and harder instead of longer and slower. It's not treadmill running but rather sprint intervals, for example.

Regeneration: Foam rolling, static stretching (with a rope), more physioball exercises, and an emphasis on getting sleep. You'll also find a good discussion of contrast showers (hot/cold), massage, and the difference between active and passive recovery.

Diet. The diet is very Zone-like, without being the zone. Avoiding high-saturated fat foods (whole milk and butter are no-nos) and alchohol, an emphasis on lean protein and "good fats" (mono and polyunsaturated fats), using starchy carbs as an extra in small doses. Whole foods over processed foods, avoiding sugars, low glycemic index foods - it's all very Zone-like without the Zone portions. Although there are disagreements between diet plans on what's good and bad, this diet is pretty solidly grounded. You couldn't go far wrong eating this way. Hydration is a big deal on this program, so there is a full-color urine color chart you can use to judge your hydration. You even get explicit permission to color copy it and put it up in your bathroom. Interesting touch, to say the least.

There is also a good section on required gym equipment, and what you need for a home gym. It's divided up by cost levels, so you know what to buy if you're on a budget (pullup bar, dumbbells) or have all the money you'll need (commerical cable apparatus, big power cage).

The final section is a Q&A layout. This is where the book falls down on its face, for me. It repeats a few completely mythical ideas that are so common. It claims you won't get bulky on this plan because it's designed to "lengthen" your muscles. Myth! You can't build "long" muscles instead of "bulky" muscles; your muscular length is determined genetically, and training can only affect size. It claims low-carb diets just cause less water retention, they don't really keep the weight off - again, a myth. It's maddening to see this stuff, because it's so wrong, yet the book's overall program is so clearly well put together.
Nicely, the other questions are generally good. It's nice to see "I'm short on time, do I do cardio or strength?" and get the answer "You do movement prep, prehab, and some strength." The strong emphasis on rehab, nutrition, and rest are great.

Content: 4 out of 5. Myths aside, it's got a good program for its target audience and the techniques are presented well.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Easy to follow text, good pictures that accurately portray the exercises described, and well written. Even indexed well.

Overall: The book is good, and it provides a really nice integrated program for a beginner. More experienced trainees could benefit too if they're looking for a whole-body program and not just a workout. The myths propagated in the Q&A sections detract from the book but not that much - they're stupid, but the rest of the book is pretty smart. Worth checking out.

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