The impact of your core on performance and longevity
A strong and functional core can be the difference between your next record beating performance and simply living longer.
The core musculature is utilized in every aspect of human movement. The significance it has on the integrity of the entire human structure is crucial. It is constantly providing your spine with stability and protection against gravity and other shear forces caused by movement and loading. This is why training for strength and functionality is king.
The core is much more than the abdominals, it is a multidimensional area that incorporates muscles of the shoulder and hip complexes as well. It is imperative that training have transferability to how all aspects of the core function together as an entire structural mechanism. Meaning, in order to truly achieve a strong, functional, gravity fighting core, exercises must be performed that challenge the entire spectrum of dynamic stability and dynamic movement. This means doing so much more than your typical sit up or crunch!!
Yes, spinal flexion exercises (situps, crunches, V-ups, Etc.) target your rectus abdominis muscles (the 6 pack) and are great tools to use if this area is lagging in tone. However, spinal flexion is only ONE function of the core. Excessive spinal flexion training can shorten your rectus abdominis and ultimately lead to back pain or injury due to something I like to call “Core Locked” Syndrome.
Constant stabilization of the spine is required from gravity and other forces, the intrinsic core stabilizers (transverse abdominis, transverse obliques, diaphragm, pelvic floor) are the true “strength” of the core musculature. The ability to create intra-abdominal pressure or a rigid “Pillar” with the trunk, shoulder, and hip complexes is what separates a strong core from a core that might just be visually appealing.
Athletes that have a difficult time achieving this intra abdominal pressure usually have a difficult time achieving optimal efficiency in other movements such as the squat, hinge, push up, and even pulling movements due to the lack of spinal stability needed to carry out the movement. If an athlete is “core locked”, when placed under load their core will function the best way it knows how… by crunching and/or shortening the rectus abdominis to provide stability to the spine.
Your abdominals are antagonist muscles to your posterior trunk muscles, so this type of “bracing” usually causes a degree of spinal flexion or a rounded back. This is why it is important to brace out and not down when performing spinal loading movements. In other words, you want your six pack long, strong, and capable of expanding under tension.
Great. . . so how do you do that?
Try this: Put your hand on your stomach, try to fill your belly up with as much air as possible so that your hand moves outward and your stomach looks extremely bloated. Try and contract as hard as possible with the entire trunk. If you do this right, you should be feeling a lot of internal pressure in your stomach area. This should be done BEFORE adding the load.
Being able to brace out is essential for getting stronger and must be trained. If you are like the most, when learning how to “brace out”, your chest may have raised up and outwards due to the majority of the air entering the lungs. Your lungs should receive some air but the majority of the inhaled air should be pushed down into the belly. This can be a difficult because this is ultimately a function of the diaphragm, an intrinsic stabilizer that most people have difficulty recruiting. . . at first. The diaphragm has more functions than just inducing serious hiccups!!
Diaphragmatic breathing is a concept my fellow coaches and I have talked about before in previous blogs so I won’t elaborate on the issue, just know that it takes practice and blowing balloons up in different body positions may help reset your ability to recruit this muscle.
Maintaining rigidity in the trunk throughout a movement is key for building lasting strength. Exercises that solely focus on pillar strength are transferable accessory tools that will boost your intra-abdominal pressure and assist in your performance. Most Crossfit classes incorporate plenty of sit ups, lemon squeezers, toes to bar, and other spinal flexion movements so it is up to you to incorporate other core exercises outside of class to not only increase functionality but to also prevent injury.
The list of exercises below focus on pillar strength and internal pressure. Take advantage of these, and you will see the gains! For more advanced variations or questions on the listed exercises, please ask your coach!
– Palloff variations
– Plank variations
– Hollow rocks/holds
– Ab wheel rollouts
– Loaded Carry/ Offset Carry
– Standing twists
– Barbell rack holds
– Suitcase Deadlifts
You can create a routine/program out of these exercises as long as you use a progressive trend that challenges your ability.
- A) Barbell Rack holds 4×10 sec w/ 105% of back squat
B) Front plank 3×40 sec
C) Anti-rotational Palloff Holds 3×20 sec ea side
- A) Suitcase Deadlifts 4×5
B) Loaded carrys 3x50m
C) Standing Twists 3×30
- A) Ab wheel rollouts 4×8-10
B) Hollow hold 3×20 sec
C) Side Plank 3×30 sec
Each week you can intensify the stimulus by either adding Load, Time under tension(TUT), or number of Reps/Sets. However do not do all progressions at once. For a more practical progression scheme use TUT first, Reps/sets second, and Load for your last progression.