Core Training for Smart Folks
by Mike Robertson
Bodybuilders and Powerlifters Unite
A few weekends ago, I had the privilege of presenting a full-day seminar on how posture relates to performance at the Poliquin Performance Center in Chicago. I was glad to learn that not only were people more cognizant of how important posture was, but that posture actually played a significant role in the performance of their lifts.
On the other hand, I also learned that quite a few people are so focused on one topic that they've totally missed the boat on others!
For example, T-Nation has published a couple of articles of mine about the benefits of glute activation work. However, the other half of the equation is getting your abdominals brutally strong. This is where most everyone seems to fall off the proverbial wagon. The goal of glute activation work isn't just getting the glutes firing; it's actually fixingthe postural flaws that cause lack of glute firing, most notably excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine and anterior pelvic tilt (APT).
Now, I'm constantly judged on two different ideals: Those of powerlifters and those of bodybuilders. For the powerlifters, you're never quite strong enough. For the bodybuilders, you're never quite lean enough or never quite big enough. But what if I told you I can help you improve the appearance of your mid-section while simultaneously improving the performance of your lifts? Sounds pretty cool, eh?
Let's look into the functional anatomy to see what I've come up with...
When we discuss the abdominals, we're essentially discussing four muscle groups: the rectus abdominus, external obliques, internal obliques, and transverse abdominus. Each has specific individual roles, but let's keep things brutally simple here:
Rectus abdominus – Trunk flexion, posterior tilting of pelvis
External obliques – Contralateral rotation (unilateral), ipsilateral side bending, trunk flexion or posterior tilting of pelvis (bilateral)
Internal obliques – Ipsilateral rotation, ipsilateral side bending, trunk flexion
Transverse abdominus – Abdominal "hollowing"
Our current line of thinking when examining the ab muscles is geared toward producing motion (e.g. rectus abdominus contraction leads to trunk flexion). However, Sahrmann states in her book, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, that a significant role of the lower rectus abdominus and external obliques is actually preventing motion, or promoting stability of the lumbo-pelvic region.
So, while many of you are focusing the majority of your ab training on trunk flexion movements (e.g. crunches), you should be working on the opposite movement: posterior tilting of the pelvis. This allows us to function from a more efficient position biomechanically.
So now that we know the functional anatomy, we need to critically examine how most athletes are performing their ab work. I bet that quite a few of you are still doing a few sets of bent-knee crunches and calling it a day! Simply put, if you have a traditional bodybuilding or powerlifting posture (APT/excessive lumbar lordosis), you need to get cracking on strengthening your external obliques and lower rectus abdominus.
The Revenge of Paul Chek?
Now, I know that some of you are going to think I've fallen off the wagon and gone all Chek-style on you, but let's examine what's really going on.
First off, we're not talking about simple abdominal hollowing; what we want here is posterior tilting of the pelvis. The transverse abdominus (TVA) hollows; the external obliques and lower rectus produce posterior tilt.
Yes, it's true whenever you perform one you get the other to some extent, but there's a difference. Just keep the end goal in mind: improved posture and better performance.
As well, I'm in no way telling you to practice these movements under load (squatting, deadlifting, etc.)! The goal is to improve your static posture so that you produce better movement. Sucking in before you squat or deadlift not only puts you at an increased risk for injury, but is fundamentally wrong.
Why would you want to correct static posture in a dynamic movement? It makes much more sense to approach it the other way, e.g. fix the static posture and then allow dynamic movement to occur naturally.
Implications on Physique and Performance
Why do the exercises I've outlined below? I'll give you three reasons:
1) Improved recruitment
This is probably the most overlooked aspect of proper core training. While everyone has been caught up in simply activating the glutes, they're only fighting half the battle. I'm not telling you to stop the glute activation/strengthening work, but why not strengthen the lower abs/external obliques as well?
The goal here is to decrease the anterior pelvic tilt/lordosis in static posture so that when you take that posture into dynamic movement, you get better glute activation. Better glute activation very simply means more weight when you squat or deadlift. Whether you're a powerlifter, bodybuilder, or just an average Joe who wants a better physique, those things alone should convince you to try out some of these exercises.
2) Improved physique
I don't know about you, but since I work out, I feel like I should be rewarded with a physique that makes me look like I work out. Regardless, when you start to develop that APT/excessive lordosis posture, you get the appearance of having a bigger "gut" than you should.
Therapists trained in Rolfing call this a "spilling" of your guts or organs, or "shortening the core." While other weight trainers understand that this is a functional thing that allows more weight to be moved, to the lay public it flat-out looks like you have a fat stomach!
Simply put, training the external obliques and lower RA will not only strengthen your abs, but give you a more aesthetically pleasing look to boot.
3) Decreased risk of injury
A huge lordosis and/or APT can lead to a myriad of injuries: low back pain, pulled hammies, anterior knee pain, etc. This very simple aspect of your training can go a long way to preventing these injuries.
Many of you may be thinking, "My lower abs and obliques are super strong. I don't need this program!"
Okay, tough guy, time to put your money where your mouth is. Take this one simple test. If you pass with flying colors, I won't harp on you any more about proper core training. But, if you fail miserably (which I'm betting you will), you have to give some of these exercises a solid go. Fair enough?
The leg lowering test is probably the single best test of lower abdominal and external oblique function when it comes to stability. Here's what I want you to do:
Lie on the ground (ideally with your shoes off) and fold your arms in front of your body in the "genie" position. Flex the knees and hips to 90 degrees, and then roll your legs up in the air and straighten them (extend the knees) so your legs are perpendicular to your upper body.
Leg Lowering Test
Posteriorly tilt the pelvis and flatten your spine to the ground. While holding this posteriorly tilted position, slowly lower your legs and feet with a tempo that allows them to reach the ground after 10 seconds. If you feel any rounding whatsoever (your low back starts to arch or come off the ground), that's the cutoff point of the test.
You may want to videotape it or have someone give you feedback to see the angle at which your back arches or comes off the ground. Simply put, if you can't do this with your shoes off, you need to do some serious work! If you passed this version, try again with your shoes on and record your ending position.
I've put quite a few people through this test, and even some of the buff guys and athletes I've trained fail miserably. It's not a natural movement for most, and most definitely something that needs to be trained if we're to achieve optimal function.
Now, if you didn't do so hot, don't think I'm going to leave you hanging. Start off with the basic exercises I've outlined below and slowly work your way through the progressions. Your body will thank you!
Lower Rectus Exercises
The Dead Bug Series
While I'm sure you want to know the most difficult exercises possible, humor me by starting off with the most basic of exercises and building your way up to the most difficult ones, okay? If you need any incentive, remember how the leg lowering test just kicked your ass!
The first exercise is the dead bug. There are four variations, but I'm only going to describe the first one. Once you figure that out, the pictures below should explain the subtle variations that follow.
To perform the dead bug, start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Instead of simply hollowing the stomach, think about posteriorly tilting your pelvis by activating the lower rectus abdominus and external obliques. (It may help to place your fingertips on your obliques to get them to fire.)
While maintaining the flat back/posterior tilt position, extend one leg out until it hovers just above the ground, then return to the starting position. Alternate legs for the necessary number of reps.
Now, believe it or not, some of you won't even be able to perform this first movement correctly! If so, follow the same steps, but instead of taking your leg/foot down toward the ground, just lower the foot to the point where you feel like your back is going to come off the ground, then return to the starting position. As you get stronger, you'll be able to improve your range of motion (ROM).
Dead Bug 1
Dead Bug 2 (arm movement with legs)
Dead Bug 3 (knees/feet start in air at 90 degrees)
Dead Bug 4 (same as 3, arms move with legs)
This exercise is a little tougher than the original dead bug, but not by too much. Start in the same position (supine with hips/knees flexed and feet flat on the floor). Extend one leg so it's straight up and perpendicular to the body, and then posterior tilt and lower the leg all the way to the ground.
Much like unilateral work for the upper or lower body, if you have one side that's weaker than the other, perform all the repetitions on that side first before switching.
While I'm typically not a fan of training simply to beat the test, this is a pretty good exception because it's a functional and hard movement!
All you're going to do is set-up just like you're taking the leg lowering test and perform repetitions, maintaining that posterior tilt for as far down as you can go. I'd start off with low rep sets (3-5) until you get those abs up to par!
Let's get one thing straight: If you can't consistently and repeatedly smash the leg lowering test (or double-leg lowering exercise), you have no business even trying dragon flags! This exercise, along with the straight leg raise, are the toughest ab exercises you're going to perform.
Lie on a bench, grabbing it with your hands at approximately head level. From here, press your entire body up in a straight line, with your upper back (not your neck!) supporting your weight. Keeping this nice straight line and a tight posterior tilt, lower the body under control as far as you can go.
It may just be me, but I'm assuming ankle weights are a long way off!
Hanging Leg Raise
The hanging leg raise is one of those exercises that everyone wants to do for two reasons:
1. They look cooler than crunches.
2. They totally smoke the abs!
But herein lies the dilemma: Most people don't do them correctly! Remember, the goal here is most definitely not strengthening the hip flexors.
To perform hanging leg raises correctly, grab a chin-up bar with legs straight, then posterior tilt the pelvis. From here, slowly and under control bring the knees to the chest, maintaining the posterior tilt throughout. Lower under control to the starting position.
When you can do multiple sets of 12-15 with no problem, feel free to give the straight-leg version a try.
Hanging Leg Raise – Knees Bent
Now that we've talked about the lower rectus exercise menu, let's discuss some tips to get the most out of these exercises.
First and foremost, keep in mind that proper execution of these exercises is absolutely critical! If you aren't able to maintain a posterior tilt throughout the movement, you need to get your ego in check and try an easier exercise. Once you get the basics down, then start challenging yourself with tougher variations.
Remember that we're posteriorly tilting, not just hollowing! Yes, it's true that any time we posteriorly tilt we're also going to get some hollowing, but that's not the intended goal. Focus on using the proper musculature throughout the entire set!
It can (and probably will) help to statically stretch the hip flexors prior to performing these movements. More on this topic below.
Miscellaneous Odds and Ends
Now that we've covered the major topics, let's touch on a few odds and ends.
1) Get some ART!
ART stands for Active Release Techniques. Just as the hip flexors can inhibit the gluteals via reciprocal inhibition, they can also decrease the firing/recruitment of the synergistic muscles (e.g. obliques and lower rectus) via synergistic dominance.
Now, you can stretch and stretch those hip flexors all you want, but if you have any adhesions, scar tissue, or flat-out shortness of the muscle, you need to have it worked on to restore the full length of the musculature. Simply put, if you haven't had any ART done on your psoas, iliacus, rectus femoris or TFL, get it done!
2) When doing upper rectus work (e.g. crunches), do it right!
I'm sure some people are going to fly off the handle after reading this and say, "Mike Robertson says not to do any trunk flexion work!" No, that's not what I'm saying. I just want you to prioritize different aspects of abdominal training for a while (e.g. the movements I've outlined above).
Now, when you do include trunk flexion work, think about trying to pre-tense both the lower rectus and external obliques via a posterior tilt. Not only will it make the movement that much more difficult, but you'll elicit greater contractions from the muscles you want to get stronger!
3) Respect key training principles.
There are two specific principles in training I'm not sure enough people understand yet:
A. You can change the priority of an exercise by where you place it in the training day.
B. You can change the priority of an exercise by where you place it in the training week.
So, an exercise that's placed first on Monday (bench press for 99% of the population) is going to get the largest training effect. An exercise that's placed last on Friday (abs for 99% of the population, if they even make it to the gym!) is going to garner the least training effect.
Simply put, if you want and/or need to prioritize your ab training, respect these principles and plan accordingly.
4) Modify your behavior.
I'm not going to harp on this topic too much, but here's the money statement: If what you're doing for extended periods on a daily basis is negatively affecting your posture, you need to fix it!
In other words, if you're sitting at a desk all day, find a way to get up and move around. It's really not that difficult when you think about it. Behavior modification is every bit as important as the training you're doing.
Just remember that even if you're training four days a week for an hour or more, that's still only 2% of your week. What you do when you're working, sleeping, etc. is going to have at least as much bearing on your posture as anything you do in the gym.
Before you mindlessly blow through another set of old-school crunches, think about all the benefits of intelligent core training. Whether you want a better body or a better total, the exercises I've outlined here will get you there faster!
About the Author
Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of Custom Athletics and President of Robertson Training Systems (www.robertsontrainingsystems.com) in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, and has been a competitive powerlifter for the last 5 years. To contact Mike or sign-up for his newsletter, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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