The Real "Core" Exercise
by Michael Boyle
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A few weeks ago, Jeremy Frisch wrote an article called Strength Exercises That Work Your Core. I enjoyed Jeremy's article, but I didn't see a lot of my favorite exercises.
I also didn't agree with some of the thought process. Jeremy was proposing more of an "either/or" version of core training. It was back to the macho stuff. If you don't have weight in your hand, it's a sissy exercise. Well, the concept of core training isn't that simple.
Referring to core training, the article contained this line: "Have you ever taken a look at some of the people who write this shit?" He was talking about those of us who've written about things like drawing-in or bracing. Sorry, but as the Three Stooges used to say, "I resemble that remark." Yep, I'm one of the guys who writes that stuff.
You know what? We still perform some of that stuff. As you may know, textbooks are often said to be out of date by the time they're published. This isn't the case with just textbooks; it's the case with just about all books.
My 2004 book, Functional Training for Sports, still sells 5000 copies a year, but if I had it to do over I'd change the entire core chapter. That's how fast both research and the practical application of research changes. (My second book, Designing Strength Training Programs and Facilities, has an eight thousand word core chapter that updates the previous book.)
Both books go into great detail about what we knew at the time, so I'll make no apologies for learning or for continuing to learn. The truth is that my core programming has changed every year for the past seven or eight years. All the changes were and are based on the latest research. I'm not ashamed to say that we've used the knowledge of Paul Hodges, Stuart McGill, and Mark Comerford to improve the health and performance of our athletes.
I also hate all the macho crap people throw around. You can't just squat for core work. Sorry, look at the McBride research on my website. You can see that exercises like squats activate primarily back extensors like longissimus and multifidus. It would or should be obvious that a shoulder-based loading pattern produces a flexion moment (think squats and deadlifts) and would stimulate the extensors.
However, most of the better exercises for the anterior core ("the deep sleeping abdominal muscles") are in the "sissy" category. In fact, push-ups and side bridges were superior to squats for the external oblique. The bottom line is that squats are great for developing the posterior aspects of the core, but do little for the anterior muscles based on McBride's research.
Another point to ponder: Will bilateral exercise of any type truly work the core muscles as they're intended to work in a unilateral activity? What we should do is look at the research and try to use that info for the betterment of our athletes and clients.
Jeremy Frisch's article also had a section where an unnamed coach credited his core strength as such: "I lift heavy weights, you dope. I back squat, front squat, power clean, and snatch. I deadlift, bench press, and do pull-ups."
The coach has a few holes in his thought process though. Five of the seven exercises listed work the posterior core primarily, and two (the bench press and pull-up) provide little to no core activity.
What about the front? The deep sleeping abdominal muscles? Unnamed Coach goes on to make his most significant statement and one that probably went relatively unnoticed: "A couple of days a week I sprint and throw medicine balls around the gym. I also throw the discus about fifty times a day."
This is the key observation. Unnamed Coach does two things that not enough athletes do: he regularly throws heavy objects and runs fast. The key point in Unnamed Coach's training program may have been overlooked.
Overhead medicine ball throws are excellent for the anterior core.
Side twist throws are excellent for rotary core.
Another huge problem: For good med ball work, you need a good wall. Easy if you live in a warm climate — simply take your ball and head outside. Also easy if you have access to racquet sport courts: find an empty court and throw. But it's tough if you work out in a "normal" gym.
Okay, let's cut to the chase in core training. We have a number of varying approaches, all of which seem to work and correspondingly also get criticized. Let's review:
Hodges/Australian: This approach was initially based on the book, Therapeutic Exercise for Segmental Spinal Stabilization in Lower Back Pain by Jull, Richardson, and Paul Hodges. This was a landmark work in 1999 and I believe the research in this book formed the basis for the "core revolution."
This is also the stuff that aggravates the weightlifter crowd. This is where the "draw-in" idea originated. It's important to remember that these folks are therapists who study low back pain. The fact that we can't figure out how to correctly apply what they do doesn't make them wrong.
Paul Chek was the first in the US to embrace these concepts and bring the stability ball into our realm. Like so many other concepts, the uninformed ran away with the idea.
My guess is that the authors feel differently about their concepts now, but the old concepts were firmly entrenched by people like Paul Chek and Mike Clark at NASM. As Alwyn Cosgrove and Ian King like to say, "An overreaction in the short term, an under-reaction in the long term."
I have an orthopedic surgeon friend who likes to say, "Don't be the first guy to use a new technique, but don't be the last guy either." Many coaches got carried away with the blood pressure cuff stuff and a lot of the draw-in stuff. Doesn't mean it's all bad.
McGill Approach: Stuart McGill is a Canadian researcher who has taken the next step. McGill's books, Low Back Disordersand Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, are the current state of the art in low back health.
In reality, McGill is in agreement with much more of the Australian thought process than you might think. The major difference is that McGill favors a technique he refers to as "bracing" over the Australian technique of drawing-in. This has become a huge disagreement, but is in my mind a tempest in a teapot.
The exercises used and concepts applied are actually very similar. The difference is in how you elect to stabilize the core. I use a little bit of both concepts. I think I like Gray Cook's idea best: just tell them to get tall and skinny.
Gary Gray/Functional Approach: The "functional" approach has no real connection to the previously mentioned two. In the functional approach, most of the conventional wisdom of core training is rejected. True proponents of the functional approach believe that it's "non-functional" to lie on the ground and attempt to utilize individual muscles or groups of muscles. All core training is done standing.
The point is that a number of really smart people have been effectively skinning the same cat in very different ways. The thing that drives me crazy is the ability of the uneducated to function as critics.
I catch a lot of flack because I read, change, and experiment. I do as Bruce Lee says: accept what is useful and reject what is useless. Just remember, if you do what you always did, you'll get what you always got. After all, many of the great innovators in history were thought to be crazy.
The Core Exercises
My favorite exercises work the core as "anti-rotators" or as stabilizers. It's key that we rethink our ideas about core training and begin to look at anti-rotation as the key concept. Here are some of the best core exercises:
Feet Elevated BOSU Ball Push-ups
This might be my favorite core exercise. Can you believe it, a Testosterone author who actually has a use for a BOSU ball? No wonder at least half the readers will immediately question my masculinity.
I can only say this: don't knock it 'til you've tried it with your feet 18 inches off the ground and a twenty pound weight vest on. Great for the core and for the overall shoulder girdle. BOSU push-ups will work the anterior core — the deep sleeping abdominal muscles.
TRX / Jungle Gym / Blast Strap Inverted Rows
All three of these gadgets function in a similar manner. All three allow an improved version of the inverted row that can incorporate the rotator cuff and the core.
Why the rotator cuff? Because you can begin supinated (palms up) and end pronated (palms down). This incorporates an element of external rotation not present in a regular inverted row.
Besides being a great addition for the rotator cuff, it's also a shoulder saver. Being able to rotate freely is great for shoulder health. Keeping the body straight as if you were shot out of a cannon is great for the core, particularly for the glutes.
I have to give strength and conditioning coach Loren Goldenburg credit for turning me on to the Landmine, but the credit for how to use it goes to Stuart McGill.
Just for the record, the Landmine may be the worst idea for a name of a piece of equipment in recent memory. In today's current environment, I wish they'd call it something else. However, that doesn't change the use of the piece.
The Landmine has become, in my mind, a core training essential. If someone asked me for the best core exercise, I'd say the Landmine. Make sure you get the handle as pictured in the video.
What makes the landmine so great? It allows us to work the anti-rotator function of the core in a standing posture. This is a "machine" that really satisfies all of the core training proponents. It doesn't get much better than that.
McGill often speaks about "sparing the spine" while Porterfield and DeRosa, authors of Mechanical Low Back Pain, talk about training the core as anti-rotators. I really think this anti-rotator concept is a quantum leap in core training. The core muscles are stabilizers first. This is the reason you see such great core activity in isometric bridges.
Look at the McBride research again. Front support and side support positions provide the greatest stimulus to the rectus abdominus and the external obliques. Both are isometric exercises. I think we need to rethink core training in light of this idea of anti-rotator training.
Watch the video. The key to Landmine usage in our program is to produce the largest arc with no movement of the core — anti-rotator training. This is what McGill has been talking about. Train the muscles to do exactly what they do: prevent movement. We know the core rarely does what we train it to do. Let's train it to do what it does.
One-Arm Dumbbell Snatch
Another Testoserone author, Charles Poliquin, stated a few weeks ago that no "qualified" strength coach uses the one-arm dumbbell snatch. I'm here to respectfully disagree.
I love the one-arm dumbbell snatch. I find it to be great for core stability and for shoulder stability. I love the fact that the overhead load goes to one shoulder and to one side of the trunk. The core effect is the reason I like the lift so much.
Very often in sports we need unilateral shoulder stability while in a bilateral lower body stance. Imagine pushing or pulling in so many sports. Unilateral upper body, combined with bilateral lower body — it just screams one-arm dumbbell snatch.
The Convertaball twist is another exercise that Stuart McGill breathed new life into. I can remember seeing Paul Chek perform this exercise and saying to myself, "I could never ask a client or an athlete to do that." The exercise seemed far too dangerous. The idea of combining explosive trunk rotation with a violent abrupt ending was appalling to me.
After listening to Stuart and reading Porterfield and DeRosa's book, I realized that it wasn't the exercise I didn't like, it was the way the exercise was performed. I went from thinking "never" to thinking "advanced progression."
The key in McGill's version is that the ball is moving and the exerciser is doing everything in his power to not rotate. Just as in the Landmine, we're training the anti-rotator function of the core versus the rotator function. The core musculature is forced to stabilize against an aggressive rotary force and collision. An advanced exercise, but a beneficial one.
This might be one of the best core exercises you can do. It's also one of the more difficult to learn. It can be done on any Functional Trainer apparatus, I'm just partial to Keiser.
The big key here is that the core is used to stabilize against sagittal plane motions that are attempting to produce rotary force. If the body/shoulders turn even slightly, the core effect is lost or dissipates. The exercise forces the trainee to use the core again in its primary function — the prevention of rotation.
Kettlebell Slideboard Lunges
Another sneaky exercise. I love slideboard lunges and by loading the hand opposite the working leg, a rotary force is applied to the working hip. The glute is an external rotator as well as an extensor.
The kettlebell provides an internal rotation force that stimulates the external rotator capability of the glute. A uni-planar exercise becomes multi-planar — great for the core.
One-Leg Squats and One-Leg Straight Leg Deadlifts
I'm always singing the praises of one-leg squats and one-leg straight leg deadlifts. Both exercises stimulate all the pelvic stabilizers.
There are a lot of great core exercises. Just remember that the core is a cylinder. It has a back, sides, and a front. Don't forget the front.
About the Author
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