Sports Medicine Research: In the Lab & In the Field: Isolation or Integration Core Exercises? That is the Question... (Sports Med Res)
Friday, April 12, 2013

Isolation or Integration Core Exercises? That is the Question...

Integration Core Exercises Elicit Greater Muscle Activation Than Isolation Exercises         

Gottschall JS, Mills J, Hastings B.  J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):590-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2cc7

Take Home Message: Exercises that elicit abdominal/lumbar co-contraction coupled with shoulder and hip activation (integration exercise) provoke greater core muscle activation than muscle isolation exercises.

It is widely accepted that a strong core will benefit the individual in sports performance, rehabilitation, and general fitness. However, knowing what type of exercises to select to aid performance and prevent injuries is absolutely paramount.  While most studies have focused on isolation type exercises, no studies have been done to determine if muscle isolation exercises elicits greater muscle activation compared with abdominal/lumbar co-contraction coupled with shoulder and hip activation (integration).  Gotschall et al. hypothesized that isolation type exercises will elicit greater abdominal/lumbar muscle activation compared with integration-style exercises.  For this study they recruited 20 (10 male, 10 female) healthy college aged students.  Participants had surface electromyography placed on six core muscles: the rectus abdominis, external oblique, lumbar erector spinae, thoracic erector spinae, anterior deltoid and gluteus maximus.  The participants then performed 7 core exercises (4 isolation and 3 integration, respectively): the crunch, an oblique crunch, prone back extension with forward arm elevation, bird dog with resistance and hover with contralateral arm reach, side plank with arm raise, and mountain climber with alternating hip flexion to the opposite elbow.  Results showed that integration style exercises had a greater amount of rectus and lumbar extensor muscle activation compared with isolation exercises.  Most notably when comparing the isolation abdominal crunch with prone hover with lateral reach, there was a 27% increase in rectus abdominis and external oblique activity for the hover.  Furthermore, there was a 2-fold increase in lumbar erector spinae activity during integration style exercises. Integrated thoracic extension (Birddog) also elicited a 38% increase in lumbar and thoracic erector spinae activity when compared with the prone forward arm elevation isolation exercise. The same integration exercise elicited a 3-fold increase in external oblique activity as a result of the contralateral arm/leg raising.

While the findings of this study are interesting and enlightening, it is not surprising that integration style exercises were superior at eliciting greater muscle activity.  These exercises are designed to activate the core functionally and create overall stability as opposed to isolation exercises that elicit a concentric contraction.  For example, the resisted pointer (birddog) and the prone hover exercises elicit activation in the sagittal plane, but there is also an anti-rotational and stability component.  This requires co-contraction of the entire core which creates greater muscle activation.  The integration style exercises attempt to build isometric stability while performing functional activities. This study suggests that by performing integration style exercises athletes can optimize muscle activity thereby improving performance and prevent injuries.  When performing core strengthening regimens, do you use isolation or integration style exercises, or a combination?  If you are using both styles, isolation and integration, at what point do you begin to use one versus the other?

Written by: Mark Rice
Reviewed by: Stephen Thomas

Related Posts
Gottschall JS, Mills J, & Hastings B (2013). Integration core exercises elicit greater muscle activation than isolation exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27 (3), 590-6 PMID: 22580983

6 comments:

Nic Philpot said...

From my experience, I have used a combination, but prefer integration style exercises. This is because the body does not act in isolation. There are very few times where an athlete is only going to need to activate one muscle in order to perform their activity. So it seems to make sense that rehab should not only target one muscle at a time. Rehab is meant to get the athletes back into full participation as quickly and safely as possible. Isolation is useful in the beginnings of a rehab program, but I feel that they need to be progressed up to integration style exercises as soon as their pain level will tolerate it. So it just depends on the injury, and the athlete as to when you do either isolation exercises or integration exercises.

Gabriella Basile said...

I incorporate both isolation and integration style core exercises. I believe that during any sport you are using multiple muscles not just one so integration style seems better than isolation. However isolation should be used in the beginning of a rehabilitation program like Nic mentions above.

Anoopbal said...

I think the first line of the abstract needs a reference or some evidence to show that this belief is indeed true :) "It is widely accepted that a strong core will benefit the individual in sports performance, rehabilitation, and general fitness". I am yet to see anything that shows this is true. Has anyone?

Stephen Thomas, PhD, ATC said...

Anoop thanks for your comment. Along with the current study here are some research studies that have examined this. Although some studies have found difficulty directly linking core strength and performance.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24149767
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23568373
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23187323
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23108436
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22784233

Anoopbal said...

Thank you Stephen for the studies!

I think one of the systematic reviews above conveys the value of core training truthfully:
Targeted core stability training provides marginal benefits to athletic performance. Conflicting findings and the lack of a standardization for measurement of outcomes and training focused to improve core strength and stability pose difficulties. Because of this, further research targeted to determine this relationship is necessary to better understand how core strength and stability affect athletic performance.

Here is one of the randomized controlled studies above showing benefit for core training. Core training group: 40 min 5 days a week! Control group: Does nothing. Surely, we need a better design to study this.

I do think the benefits of core training are way too exaggerated that could be justified by the evidence.

Meaghan McMillen said...

I have used both techniques of isolation and integration within specific rehab protocols. Usually it is the case of beginning with isolation as more of a teaching technique then moving into integration once the person/patient/athlete has a better understanding of the role of the muscle.

Then I believe there are levels to integration, first being where you include basic limb movements with the cocontractions of muscles that work together, but then moving it into tasks where you also have to have some cognitive distraction or process, then finally within an actually sport specific movement.

I think that breaking integration down it may help make these rehab exercises into more natural processes as opposed to something that is done just within a clinical setting and forgotten or misused within an actual activity setting

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