Thursday, September 29, 2011

At the "core" of strength training

Get it? See what I did there? Laugh, dammit! That was funny!

But seriously, core training is something that is talked/written about constantly nowadays. However, I still see tons of people at my gym coming in and crushing multiple sets of endless stability ball crunches, followed up by some dumbbell side bends, and then finished with some high volume captains chair knee lifts. How's that working for you? Not great, huh? Yeah, that's what I thought.

First, a basic outline of what we mean when we say "core" muscles. For my purposes, "core" refers to your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominus, internal/external obliques, erector spinae and your glutes. 

Most of your core musculature.

Your, uh...wait, what? Hey. Oh! Glutes. Yeah, these are glutes.

As you can see from the first picture, your core is much more than your 6 pack muscles. I don't feel the need to dive into the diatribe about why you shouldn't be doing crunches, but if you don't understand why I don't prescribe abdominal flexion exercises, you should go do some research. Go Google "Stuart McGill". 

If you only train flexion exercises, you are only utilizing one aspect of your core muscles. It'd be like using a Ginsu knife to only cut through fruits and vegetables; it's just a small part of what it can really do.  

(NERD ALERT) To really understand what your core is here for, you need to understand the different planes of motion: the Transverse Plane, Frontal/Coronal Plane and  the Sagittal Plane.  

The Transverse Plane covers rotational movement, Frontal/Coronal Plane refers to flexion and extension movements, and your movement in the Sagittal Plane would be lateral flexion and abduction/adduction. 

With the planes of movement in mind, we can take a look at the muscles of the core and figure out how they are intended to work. Your rectus abdominis and erector spinae are antagonist muscle groups; meaning they work together, but perform opposite actions. Your RA creates flexion, and your erector spinae help to prevent that flexion, but can also create extension (along with help from your glutes, your main hip extensors). Your TVA, which acts like your natural weight belt, helps to stablilize your mid-section/pelvis, and works synergistically with your internal/external obliques to prevent rotation. Your internal/external obliques also works with your erector spinae to prevent lateral flexion (bending at the side). 

Ok, now how does that relation to exercise? Well, pretty easily actually. Your body wants to maintain a normal, upright position (good posture). So, these muscles are all constantly working together to prevent your body from moving in those planes of motion. Don't agree? If you were walking down the street, and your erector spinae stopped working you'd be pretty screwed. Your RA would cause you to bend over into a crunch, and you'd be unable to stand up straight. (Also, your spine would probably collapse). So, it turns out after all these year that the role of our core musculature is to PREVENT motion, not create it. This not-so-recent revelation changed the way we trained our cores forever. How do the exercises we perform help us?

-Prone Plank: Anti-flexion/anti-extension exercise. Basically, you are trying to maintain a good strong posture while in the prone position. This exercise really works your rectus abdominis, TVA and your erector spinae. Too easy? Try 1-legged planks, alligator walks, the bodysaw or Ab Wheel rollouts. 

-Side Plank: Anti lateral-flexion exercise. Your obliques and erector spinae work to keep you from bending. Your RA and TVA work to keep you from folding at the waist. Too easy? Try shovel holds or shovel deadlifts. 

-Pallof Press: Anti-rotation exercise. If you don't know the benefits of the Pallof Press yet, go do some research. 

-Suitcase Farmers Walk: Anti-Everything exercise. Try it out, wake up every muscle in your body. Pick up a heavy dumbbell in one hand and walk, while maintaining strict posture the whole time. This is one of my favorite core exercises. If it gets too easy...well, you're doing it wrong. It should never be too easy. But you can switch it up and do a normal farmers walk, which Mike Boyle recently described as a "walking plank". You can also try a single or double waiters walk (DB's held over your head).

These are just a few of the core exercises that I really love to do, both for myself and with clients. Keep in mind that there ARE some flexion based exercises that I do with clients (GASP!). They are exercises that I feel don't have the negative thoracic spine/lumbar spine effects that conventional crunches do. These exercises are reverse crunches, straight leg situps with a barbell over your head, and hanging knee-to-elbow's or toes-to-bar. 

Your core is the key to being strong. Nothing else can get strong unless you're strong in the middle. It is also the key to good posture. Add heavy farmers walks into your program and see if your posture doesn't improve at all. 

Have fun with it, play around. Watch some of your lifts skyrocket as your core gets stronger. Now, go pick up something heavy...and walk with it!

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