"Core" Training: The What/Why/How/When

It's hard to get excited about core training.  I always prefer to lift heavy things, post about it on Instagram, and then eat a ton of vegetables.

And if it's a Monday night, that's all followed by a healthy(?) dose of "The Bachelor."

Unlike Ben, I give out roses for properly executed front planks.

Unlike Ben, I give out roses for properly executed front planks.

But core training is valuable.  While no one has ever said the words "Brah, you just killed those dead bugs!!" it's about time we started thinking that way.  When performed correctly, proper core training will provide injury prevention, get us out of pain, maximize our strength, and optimize our performance.

My version of how to train the core is not necessarily traditional - no sit-ups or crunches allowed -  but it's deeply rooted in biomechanics.  For that reason, I'd like to explain it using (most) of the big 5 W's.

The What:

Despite our inner desire to have #abz4dayz like Channing Tatum, the core is much more than just our six pack abs.  It's everything between our shoulders and hips.  And it's function is to transfer force from limb(s) to limb(s) or resist forces (gravity).

It's easy to think that a baseball pitcher needs sit-ups or that a tennis player needs rotational core work like Russian Twists, since it mimics the mechanics of their sport.  But our core is never a pure generator of power or strength.  Evidence of my stance is supported by research showing that crunches and sit-ups - which treat our core as an isolated, generator of movement - is actually harmful to our spines.

So if you're buying what I'm selling, it's tempting to think that we get all of our core exercise if we just "use it" as we run, squat, deadlift, press, or row.  After all, we're using it to transfer force, right?  Unfortunately, we need a lot more.

The Why:

Ideally, we'd look like the three canisters on the left.  But since unicorns don't exist, we all resemble the open one on the right.

Ideally, we'd look like the three canisters on the left.  But since unicorns don't exist, we all resemble the open one on the right.

In a perfect world, the area between our ribs and pelvis would look exactly like a closed canister.  But everyone I've met looks more like an open canister, where the lid (thoracic diaphragm) and the base (pelvic diaphragm) are misaligned.  Some people are more extreme than others, but what results are the upper ribs being flared outward and someone's hips being tipped forward (aka dat bootay).

Our abs stink at doing their job when we resemble an open canister, and we end up using the muscles that are better positioned - the hip flexors and low back.  This pattern isn't sustainable over time and we'll start to break down depending on our modes of exercise and ways we compensate.  If we run a lot, it can affect our feet, knees and hips.  If we're into lifting heavy things, most often it's going to affect our backs, shoulders, and hips.

Ok, if you've made it this far you have to be picking up at least some of what I'm putting down.  Or you're just trying to get a return on the 3 minutes you've sunk into this post.  Either case, I'll take it!

The How:

To return our abs to their correct position and function we need learn how to exhale.  When we get a full exhale (think 6-8 second exhale), we're bringing our ribs in line with our pelvis.  If we can also add a reach onto any exercise, we'll be getting even more bang for our buck (more on this later).

First is a mainstay in all of my programming - dead bugs.  Even though I'm using too much accessory neck muscles for my own taste, get a full exhale, keep your back flat, and try to touch the ceiling as you perform it:

Don't worry if you don't have a towel or a cable machine.  You can do this one without either, making sure your back stays flat on the ground.  To make it harder, keep working on getting an even longer, fuller exhale and add some holds into the equation.  Any amount of time you spend on mastering dead bugs will pay off ten fold, because #science.

Another favorite of mine is one I stole from Mike Robertson, called "The Bear."  I like to think of this as a second step, after someone has advanced past the original dead bug.

As Mike mentioned above, we really want to get our obliques firing to get our pelvis in the correct position.  Taking this approach a step further, below is a video of myself in a smedium t-shirt performing the very succinctly named "Half Kneeling Anti-Rotation Exhale and Reach."

You can see I'm trying to get a full exhale before I extend my arms and reach.  Why do we want to reach? This is a really loaded topic that took me over a year to understand, so I'll be brief.

When we reach, we're putting our rib cage back over our pelvis and in a better position to keep us stable.  We're also turning off our erectors and back muscles, which are responsible for throwing us into the "dat bootay" position.  Lastly, it benefits our shoulders as we're providing more stability for our shoulder blades to do their job.

With this exercise, lighter weight is always better and focus on feeling abs and a stretch in our upper back.

The When:

I've (most likely) said a lot of contrary things to what you've traditionally heard, so why stop now?  Instead of doing core work at the end of a workout, I'm a big fan of doing it at the beginning.

Performing core work at the beginning is the most efficient way to prepare our bodies for movement.  For example, if we struggle to get our arms overhead without bending our elbows or flaring our ribs, it most likely means we're too much of an open canister.  And if we can bend over and palm the floor while keeping our knees straight?  Same thing, only a different form.

The purpose of core work is not to be the sexiest exercise we do in the gym - after all, deadlifts have that title - it's to get our body moving and functioning properly.  If we can turn our abs on and our backs off, we're going to be realigning our pelvis making everything else safer and more effective.   

And of course, we'll have the requisite social media posts to show for it. ;)