We've all heard it from strength coaches, training partners, even the old jacked dude in the corner who squats five plates on an easy day.
"Keep your core tight. Tighten up your abs."
Okay, what does that even mean?
Are they just saying suck in your gut, or is there something special about this core-tightening thing? And if so, why give a rat's ass if your weightlifting goal is to be comparable to a barbarian who crushes his enemies and hears the lamentation of their women?
The often-missed point of keeping a tight core is to stabilize the spine. If you're constantly hurting your back, this is for you. I've seen lifters hurt their backs from just bench-pressing because they had no understanding of spine stabilization.
Before you tune out and write this off as another pre-hab article, pay attention to this – proper spine (core) stabilization coupled with breathing techniques can actually help you lift more weight and improve performance.
Learning to properly contract the core and use intra-abdominal pressure is what separates the guys who are pretty strong from the ones who are freakishly big and strong.
The Core Defined
Your core isn't just the washboard that you see in the mirror, or in most cases, the bag of laundry that hangs from your midsection.
Along with the abs in the front (rectus abdominis), it includes the internal and external obliques, the transverse abdominis, quadratus lumborum, and psoas major, extending down to include the hips/glutes and up to include the pelvic floor and the muscles by the spine called the multifidus and erector spinae.
Some core muscles are more superficial and are classified as global muscles involved in spinal movement. Other muscles are classified as local muscles, which are deep and specifically involved in stabilizing the spine.
For movement to occur anywhere in the body, force has to be transferred through the core.
The most common techniques to stabilize the spine for preventing injuries and achieving greater levels of strength and performance are hollowing and bracing.
Hollowing is derived from drawing in, and is performed by trying to draw your belly button in to your spine.
You'll hear some say to find a neutral spine first. This technique has been used in rehabilitative settings to teach patients how to activate their transverse abdominus and internal oblique correctly. These are the local muscles involved in stabilizing the spine.
Abdominal bracing, on the other hand, involves contracting both your anterior abdominal musculature and your low back muscles at the same time and bracing, like you were about to get hit in the stomach. Some accompany bracing by pushing the abdomen out. This involves the use of the obliques to produce a more stable and powerful contraction.
A study done by Grenier and Dr. Stuart McGill showed that abdominal bracing is better than hollowing – and a purely observational study conducted by yours truly found that fitness "professionals" who talk about finding a neutral spine and drawing in while squatting usually never squat above 225 pounds.
Learning from Doing
Bracing is a technique learned in the gym or on the mat. When a fighter goes to strike, he instinctively immobilizes his trunk to a degree, braces his midsection, and swings his limb.
When an experienced powerlifter or informed gym rat gets ready for a maximal lift, he forcefully pushes his belly out and arches his back hard to keep it tight.
What he's doing is contracting his anterior abdominal wall and low back muscles simultaneously, creating a perfect brace. It's a technique acquired from putting your time in.
Looking at this method, it's important to emphasize that sticking your gut out does not create a stabilized spine.
Some physical therapists teach to actively force the abdomen out while others don't. I find it helpful to push out my abdomen when lifting heavy, but I also remember to actively contract the entire abdominal and low back areas as well as the hip musculature.
I've found this addition to be the difference between hitting a new PR and bombing out, or finishing those last two reps and failing before my potential was reached.
Learning Pelvic Floor Contraction
This full contraction can also include pelvic floor contraction.
A technique used to teach the full co-contraction of core bracing is to pull your pelvic floor upwards. This is similar to the kegel exercises that women practice while pregnant or that adolescent boys try in hopes it will give them a little more staying power in bed when they get to play with a real live girl.
To practice true pelvic floor contraction, imagine finally getting an opportunity to take a whizz after drinking a big cup of strong coffee along with a gallon of water during your hour-long commute to work. Now imagine you had to stop midstream. That feeling is pelvic floor contraction.
To practice a full brace with pelvic floor contraction, squeeze your glutes like you just sat on a tack, perform the pelvic floor lift, and brace your abdominals, obliques, and low back muscles like you were about to get hit.
Rest a second and repeat.
Obviously when you start throwing plates on the bar you're not going to be thinking about stopping a piss stream, but the big guys in the gym do it without thinking.
Does Your Core Work for You?
Have you ever seen someone bend his back squatting as if he were trying to kiss his shoelaces? He's doing so because of poor mobility and a lack of core strength, but working on core strength after restoring mobility is an oversimplification.
Spending too much time without adequate mobility and stability often results in a faulty core stabilization pattern. Adding core strength to a bad pattern won't necessarily fix the problem.
There are exercises that help fix this patterning, but just like strength training and bodybuilding, they have to be practiced. It's also best to add them in after you've first established adequate hip, ankle, and thoracic spine mobility.
The following exercises teach anterior and posterior core stability in the saggital plane as well as rotary and lateral core stability in the transverse and frontal planes.
The first three basic exercises are the curl-up, the bird dog, and the side plank. These movements have typically been used as an introduction to formal strength training after an injury or long hiatus as they recruit the proper pattern in an unloaded state.
The curl-up pattern helps if you have difficulty stabilizing while bending and teaches you how to resist excess extension of the spine in the anterior plane:
The bird dog helps if you have trouble stabilizing in trunk extension and teaches you to resist lumbar spine flexion in the anterior plane:
The side plank teaches you to resist lateral flexion in the frontal plane:
These should always be progressed to more dynamic and loaded movements. For example, a progression that trains you to resist lumbar extension in the anterior plane is the rollout:
A progression to teach resisting excessive spinal flexion in the anterior plane includes hip extension movements like the deadlift, while the suitcase carry teaches resisting lateral flexion in the frontal plane dynamically:
Rotary stability, which involves resisting too much spinal rotation, is also an important part of core stability that's been receiving considerable attention.
Exercises to train this include cable chops and landmines.
Why Even Care About these Exercises?
I'm sure you've seen 'that' guy, the one who can do front, side, and one-fingered planks on a half-deflated Bosu ball. He can hold this for an hour with perfect alignment, but if you ask him to do a deep squat he literally can't – despite perfect ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility. What's the problem?
He has no dynamic stabilization. All that core strength in a stationary position doesn't mean he can stabilize himself during movement.
Bottom line is, it's wise to spare yourself a similar frustration and learn a couple of techniques that will save you time and energy in the long run.
Breathing techniques can and should be coupled with bracing to allow for better performance. The bracing techniques discussed above won't help you lift more weight if there's no increase in intra-abdominal pressure.
Spinal stability is generated partly by diaphragm activation.When pressure is increased in the abdominal cavity, it helps support the spine and works against the compression forces of axial loading (the kind of loading in a squat or standing shoulder press).
Without intra-abdominal pressure created by breathing in air against a braced abdominal musculature and forcing the diaphragm down, true spinal stability can't occur.
The classic breathing technique used is the Valsalva maneuver.
The idea behind this is to create intra-abdominal pressure, which is meant to lead to a greater production of force and stability.
Perform the Valsalva maneuver by breathing deep into the lungs (which are down near your abdomen, for those who still think making your chest and shoulders rise is taking a deep breath), then holding it and forcing the air against a closed glottis.
To learn how to breathe into the lungs and create that intra-abdominal pressure, you can practice something called crocodile breath.
Lie on your stomach with your face resting on the back of your hands. Now breathe deeply so that your low back rises instead of your shoulders and upper back. You want to feel your abdomen pushing against the floor and expanding out sideways. Practice a few times and you'll get the idea.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
There are a few drawbacks to this type of breathing pattern. It can seriously increase blood pressure and restrict blood flow back to the heart. This can be harmful to anyone, let alone someone with a history of heart problems.
Because of this, it's recommended that the Valsalva not be held more than a few seconds to ensure blood pressure doesn't increase dramatically.
Why even use this technique? The opposite idea of breathing out during a heavy lift has been shown to compromise spinal safety. Furthermore, the Valsalva can improve performance in everything from getting a new PR to aiming a gun.
If this isn't for you but you're still looking to create intra-abdominal pressure and brace your core, you can also use forced expiration. Easily explained, this is done by sniffing in air against a braced core and blowing out some air against a braced abdomen on the working phase of the lift.
Everyone wants to learn the newest program, lifts, and techniques to wow the treadmill bunnies and stand above their friends. It's wise to first take a step back though and look at the champions in any sport – I guarantee you'll see that they all share an obsession with practicing the basics that produce results.
Don't believe me? Just ask that 50 year-old grey beard squatting a Mack truck what's more important, the newest advanced periodized squat program or knowing how to arch your back and "keep your damn core tight"?
Akuthota, V. & Nadler, S.F.Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation - March 2004 (Vol. 85Supplement 1, Pages 86-92, DOI: 10.1053/j.apmr.2003.12.005)
Grenier, S.G. & McGill S.M. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation - January 2007 (Vol. 88, Issue 1, Pages 54-62, DOI: 10.1016/j.apmr.2006.10.014)
McGill, S.M. & Karpowicz, A. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation - January 2009 (Vol. 90, Issue 1, Pages 118-126, DOI: 10.1016/j.apmr.2008.06.026)
Verkhoshansky, Y. V., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. (6 ed.). Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2008). Science and practice of strength training. (2 ed.). Human Kinetics Publishers.