You've been training your abs incorrectly forever. That's right, forever.
But how? Have all of us T-Nation writers missed the "core training" boat? While we as authors hopefully know a little bit about this stuff, the fact of the matter is there's a paradigm shift going on with regards to the functional anatomy of the core, as well as how it should be trained for maximal performance.
I'd be willing to wager that if you take the steps I outline in this article you'll not only be stronger, but you'll have improved posture, better recruitment patterns, be less prone to injury, and live to do a lot more "hanging and banging" in the weightroom than some of your meathead buddies.
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?
What is the Core?
Let's start off with a basic, working description of what the "core" is. Some will tell you it's just the abs, some will say the abs and low back, and some will tell you it's a whole host of muscles including the gluteals and lats. In essence, while some people are focused solely on the abs, others are focused on how the entire torso and surrounding musculature works together to promote stability.
For our purposes, let's define the core as the superficial and deep abdominal muscles (transverse abdominus, rectus abdominus, internal obliques, external obliques, and quadratus lumborum) along with the superficial and deep muscles of the low back (multifidi, spinal erectors, etc.) We could make this very messy, but let's keep things simple for now.
Core Strength? Or Core Stability?
The "core stability" fad started almost a decade ago, with every trainer under the sun putting his clients and athletes on stability balls and having them crunch their little hearts out.
The line of thinking espoused at that time was that strong abs would help support the back and therefore reduce low back injuries. As well, this smoke and mirrors approach appealed to the masses and gave unqualified trainers a selling point for their one-hour core training class and other "services." But, I digress...
A few years later, we decided that rotation was more important; after all, most sport movements are rotational in nature, right? So, we had people espousing the benefits of "rotational" core training such as Russian twists, Tornado Balls, and a host of other movements that trained the obliques and lateral core musculature.
Now remember, all these exercises were trained to enhance "core stability." But let's back up for a second. Were we really training stability? Or, were we training for strength? Wouldn't stability inherently be describing something that isn't moving or is unable to move? In fact, just check out the definition of stability:
"The state or quality of being stable, especially resistance to change, deterioration, or displacement."
So in other words, when we think core stability we should be thinking about maintaining a certain (hopefully optimal) position versus promoting movement. In this case, what we consider optimal would be a position of "normal" lumbar curve and a neutral pelvis.
As strength athletes, how much do you think we need to train for core strength? I'd argue not nearly as much as we are right now. Think about it like this: When you're squatting or pulling a ton of weight, all you do is get your core super tight and then squat, right? How often do you load up a maximal squat, throw it on your back, and then rotate? Or flex your trunk?
Hopefully not often (at least if you value the health of your spine!). Instead, every movement we train in the weightroom demands that we stabilize our core and therefore our spine. In fact, as current literature seems to suggest, the role of our core musculature is to actually preventmovement at the lumbar spine versus promoting it.
Literature on Core Stability
Let's start off with a quote from Shirley Sahrmann regarding the role of the abdominal muscles:
"The most important aspect of abdominal muscle performance is obtaining the control that is necessary to:
- appropriately stabilize the spine,
- maintain optimal alignment and movement relationships between the pelvis and spine, and
- prevent excessive stress and compensatory motions of the pelvis during movements of the extremities."
Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, p. 69.
What Ms. Sahrmann is getting at here is when you have the right amount of abdominal or core strength, not only do you stabilize the spine optimally, but you can carry this optimal relationship over to movement (squatting, deadlifting, lunging, etc.).
While it's obvious that very few of us have an optimal relationship at rest, this is magnified more so when we're asked to perform complex or heavily weighted movements (such as squatting, deadlifting, lunging, etc.). Think about it, if you're in poor alignment when you're just standing around, how bad is it going to be when you're trying to move heavy iron?
So what happens when we have weakness of the core? I'll let Porterfield and DeRosa explain:
"Weakness of the abdominal wall results in an increase in the anterior rotary motion of the pelvis (anterior pelvic tilt). The motion increases extension and compressive loading of the lumbar facets."
Mechanical Low Back Pain, p. 137.
If we're looking solely at the spine, the anterior pelvic tilt produced can increase low back pain, but what else can it do? This anterior pelvic tilt puts increased stress on the anterior joint line of the knee, and also puts the hamstring in a position of constant stretch, leaving it open to strains as well.
So not only are you at an increased risk for injury (in both the short and long term), but this position also shuts off your primary hip extensors – the gluteals. While some people still doubt the power of the booty, I'm here to remind you that poor gluteal function is going to negatively affect virtually every compound lower body lift you perform.
A Better Model
Now that we're beginning to see how the abs are better suited to preventing movement and increasing stability, where does this leave us? If we know that one segment of our body needs increased stability (in this case, the lumbar spine), it's highly likely that the segments which lie above and below (e.g. the thoracic spine and hips) need improved mobility. (Eric Cressey and I covered the topic of hip mobility from top-to-bottom in our Magnificent Mobility DVD.)
If you don't believe me, take it straight from the man himself, Stuart McGill:
"The most successful rehab programs appear to emphasize trunk stabilization through exercise with a neutral spine while stressing mobility at the hips."
Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, p. 38.
So if I've totally lost you along the way, here's the three second synopsis:
Hip mobility + lumbo-pelvic stabilization + thoracic spine mobility = healthy, optimal functioning body.
Now, let's give you the tools necessary to get that body healthy and hit some PR's!
Implications on Training
Now that we're on the topic of stability, you're probably thinking something along these lines:
"I squat or pull X amount of pounds without a belt, so I've got great stability!"
Sure, great stability to squat, deadlift, perform good mornings, etc. Hell, that's what I used to think, too! But when we think about it, we've only got one way to stabilize this load: via our spinal erectors. To fully understand this, let's go back to our typical flawed posture that most strength athletes share: an excessive lumbar lordosis, coupled with a significant anterior pelvic tilt. This leads to:
- Strong, tight erectors
- Lengthened and weak abdominals (especially the rectus abdominus and external oblique)
- Short hip flexors (may or may not be weak)
- Lengthened, inhibited, and weak gluteals
- Lengthened hamstrings
Now, imagine taking this already flawed posture into a dynamic movement like a back squat. When you add all this up, it tells me you're going to use your low back to stabilize all the weight, and your quads, hamstrings, and even your adductors are going to do all the squatting. Not only is this an inefficient squatting pattern, but it's going to leave you open to a number of possible injuries.
In essence, we've taught our bodies to stabilize in half of the sagittal plane (the low back) because our abs are lengthened and weak, putting them in an inefficient position to produce stability. So what if we got our abs on par with our lower backs? We'd decrease the lordosis of our spine, decrease our anterior pelvic tilt, get our glutes into the game (moving more weight!), reduce the risk of strained muscles, and balance out wear and tear on our joints.
If you ask me, that sounds pretty sweet!
Now, let's take it a step further, because we've still only discussed stability in one plane. What if we strengthened our quadratus lumborum and obliques to provide stability in the frontal plane? And our obliques and deep back musculature to provide stability in the transverse plane?
Now, my friend, you've built the stability to move some serious weight in the healthiest, most balanced posture imaginable. But how do we do it? The key is a step-by-step progression that provides you with all the tools necessary to fix the problem at hand.
The program I've outlined is much like a geographic map: it's going to give you the basic idea of how to get from Point A to Point B. However, what it's not going to do is give you the exact directions to get you there. Why? For one reason, we're all starting from a different point. I wouldn't give you directions to travel from Indy to Chicago if you were starting in Detroit, would I? Instead, I challenge you to know where you're going and to find the most efficacious route for you to get there.
Phase 1 – Basic Re-Training (emphasis on core stability, T-spine and hip mobility, and glute activation)
Our first goal is to re-educate our core muscles to do what we want them to do. Very simply, most of us will need to make wholesale changes to our abdominal training, putting an emphasis on stability.
I covered a ton of exercises and progressions in my Core Training for Smart Folks article, so if you haven't read that, it's a great starting point. As well, the pillar bridge (pictured below) is another great isolation exercise for the core.
Don't get lulled into the "more time is better" mantra. Instead, focus on posteriorly tilting the pelvis and squeezing the glutes hard throughout. On the side bridges, make sure to keep the hips up, pelvis tilted posteriorly, glutes tight, and the body in a nice straight line.
Pillar Bridges (Side and Front)
Along these same lines, it helps to add in exercises that force our abdominals to work as stabilizers. If you can front squat properly, that would be a great option; however, I'd imagine since you're reading this you'll probably need something more remedial! Instead, try out the plate-loaded front squat that I learned from my colleague Bill Hartman:
Plate-Loaded Front Squat
The beauty in this exercise is the simplicity. By putting the load out in front of your body, you have to use the abdominals to stabilize. Remember, the goal here isn't to see how much weight we can use, but rather to challenge the abdominals' role as stabilizers and strive to maintain optimal low back and pelvic position. If you can't do this, either shorten the range of motion or use less weight!
Phase 2 – Taking optimal positioning to "simple" upper and lower body exercises
This article wouldn't be too exciting if I simply listed and described a bunch of isolation core movements. Not only would it be boring, it would be impractical, too! The following exercises are great for training economy because you'll not only be training your core but big muscle groups as well.
The first exercise is the two-point row; it'll challenge our stability in the transverse (rotational) plane. You're going to set up with a dumbbell in your hand and your legs and torso as if you're going to perform a Romanian deadlift. From here, brace the core and perform a row. It's really that simple! The most important facet of this exercise is to not allow rotation while raising or lowering the dumbbell.
The single-arm military press is very similar to the two-point row: we're preventing movement versus creating it; however, this time we're preventing movement in the frontal (side-to-side) plane. Grab a dumbbell and set your feet shoulder-to-hip width apart. With the dumbbell resting on the shoulder, brace the core and drive the dumbbell overhead. The key here is not to allow any side-bending throughout the movement; keep the core tight!
Single Arm Military Press
The Zercher squat is another great exercise to include during this time because it really loads our anterior stabilizers (our rectus abdominus) versus the spinal erectors (think movements like good mornings and squats). While Zercher squats can be brutally painful, they can be brutally effective as well.
Load up a barbell in the rack and set it on a set of low pins or catches. Placing the bar in the crook of your elbows, lift it out and set-up with a moderate squat stance. Brace the core, sit back to the proper depth (you know where it is), and then return to the start.
Finally, single-leg work is another great option at this point in time. Single-leg movements not only allow for optimal positioning, but they can really blast your legs as well! While performing any single-leg exercise (lunges, step-ups, or Bulgarian squats), focus on staying tall, keeping the core tight throughout, and pushing through the heel to activate those glutes. Trust me, once you figure out how to do these movements correctly you'll realize what you were missing out on!
If the single-leg exercises aren't quite challenging enough, try this variation I learned from Mike Hope and Joe DeFranco. Adding chains to the bar will greatly increase the stabilization properties of the core.
Finally, just focus on "bracing" hard on every movement you perform – it doesn't have to be an "ab dominant" exercise to train your core musculature. Focus on staying tight no matter what exercise you're performing.
This isn't meant to be an all-encompassing list of exercises; rather, it's enough food for thought so that you can see how certain exercises force you to stabilize in various planes of motion.
Phase 3 – Taking optimal positioning to complex exercises
At this point in time, you should have improved mobility around the hips and thoracic spine, improved stiffness in the rectus abdominus and external obliques, and those glutes should be firing like nobody's business. Now the only thing left to do is get back under the iron and re-groove your squat and deadlift patterns!
Now, if I may give a word of caution here: please don't jump right back into maximal loading! Your body has changed! You've fixed it for the better, and movements that used to be old hat are going to look and feel different. Start off with a moderate-to-light weight and work on re-grooving the movement. Chances are, even if you haven't performed these movements for quite some time, they're going to feel really, really good!
Here's a good example: I've been following this exact style of program myself for the last two months, and hadn't squatted or deadlifted for that entire time. The first time I squatted I ended up doing speed work with a weight that I would've normally used as a work set. And the pulls? The following week I worked up to a raw PR with a ton left in the tank. Not only did it feel like I had rockets in my ass coming off the floor, but the lockout was smooth as silk to boot. I think there might be something to all this...
I hope you can see that there's a lot more to training the core than we once thought, and it can be a hell of a lot more fun than what you've been doing up to this point. The days of banging out a few crunches have come and gone. Use the ideas and examples I've included here and reap the benefits!