12 Mar Everything You’ve Been Told About Core Exercises is a Lie
Everything You’ve Been Told About Core Exercises is a Lie
Ok, maybe not everything you know about “core training” is a lie, but I needed a title that would get your attention and make you want to read this. Everyone should have the right to learn that a lot of what they’ve been sold about “core training,” at term that in and of itself is incorrect and misleading, is really “bad science.”
This may be a bit long and a little wordier than you’re used to from me, but we’re not doing this world or anyone in it a favor by not challenging the status quo and the current standard of knowledge and thought.
With everything from standing, to walking, to lifting weights, to sport, the human spine needs to be stabilized by the surrounding musculature because it is unstable by itself. The musculature charged with this task has traditionally been called the “core” or “core muscles.” When we use this term, we are referring to certain muscles from the trunk region that we label as the muscles specifically designed to stabilize.
Labeling and Strengthening Misconceptions
The problem in even labeling the “core muscles” is the assumption that these select group of muscles work independently of the global effort of all the trunk muscles in activity. Trunk referring in this case to everything besides your appendages (arms and legs).
While we can anatomically label these muscles, in actual movement, the ones that we’ve labeled as “core muscles” (the transverse abdominis gets lots of attention for example) contribute just as much as the remaining trunk musculature to stabilize and move. We need to think of global contraction rather than thinking of local contraction.
So even using the term “core muscles” has no significant meaning in novel, complex movement.
Further, to make the claim that one can simply activate, strengthen, or activate these muscles individually, is a theory and one that has not been proven either correct or false.
The idea that every strength and conditioning coach, researcher, exercise physiologist, and the like agree that all or traditional “core stabilization” exercises increase the strength of “core muscles” is also not entirely true.
Some recent research has even shown that up to 70% MVC (maximal voluntary contraction) of the abdominal muscles is needed to actually increase the strength of the musculature.
So let’s rethink this for a minute. To train these muscles adequately to actually increase strength, we would have to generate 70% of our maximum ability to create force.
Somebody please tell me how likely that many traditional “core stabilization” exercises and drills are creating that much tension in the musculature intended for and so, in truth, may be doing absolutely nothing.
While this analogy may not be right on — this thinking is like training your triceps with two pound pink jazzercise dumbbells, expecting it to make you stronger, and then thinking it will make you stronger in the bench press.
But instead available research has shown this to not in fact be the case and that to strengthen the trunk musculature, load must be used specific to fundamental movement and exercises that put you in extraordinary poor leverage positions need to be implemented.
Even more important to understand is that, while these exercises and drills that stress the mid-section sufficiently enough to elicit change may increase the potential, the strength and stability of the trunk is very specific to movement. This means that all the ab-rollouts in the world won’t help the intermediate lifter, who already knows how to brace his spine, lift any more weight or protect him more in the deadlift or feel any more stable when he jumps and lands.
Trunk stability is specific to individual movement, so just practice movement safely while challenging thresholds.
Quick Thoughts on The Look
We won’t go into this much because we’re more focused on performance and become complete humans more akin to ancient warriors over freshly waxed, t-shirt wearing douchebags lifting shirts up in a club.
Defined abs is a result of increased resting tension. Looking at this term, part of the word tone involves the tension in the muscle and you won’t get that without first increasing strength in the musculature.
So, although high rep ab-pump workouts do have their place at times, it’s wise to increase tension via increasing strength.
Let’s not even go into the role of diet in this. Let’s instead start talking about intelligent evidence-based ways to challenge the trunk.
TGU — Moving a Stable Spine Around Weight
The Turkish Get-up (TGU) teaches how to develop and maintain tension in the trunk musculature by teaching how to shift a stable spine around a load while position in challenged.
The point of the TGU can easily be missed and just labeled as another “ab exercise” to get you stronger. Stronger? Sure, but the context needs to be understood.
The TGU is to be performed with next to no spinal movement. The point is to create so much rigidity in the trunk musculature (posterior muscles that control the pelvis included), that the body moves as a single unit underneath and around the dumbbell, barbell, human being, you’re holding overhead.
Check out this video to see what I’m talking about:
Walk-Outs — Loading Up To Learn Rigidity
While we’re on the topic of tensing under loads, walk-outs should be mentioned. If you’re unfamiliar with them, walk-outs involve loading a barbell with ridiculously heavy weight (recommendations of 120% of 1RM are common), un-racking it, and stepping back to just stand there in your best squat stance for about 5-10 seconds all the while squeezing the crap out of your abs and glutes.
The key is to make sure you are fully braced and tight (this includes breathing which is beyond what we’re going to discuss in this post). The musculature surrounding the spine and pelvis has to work very hard to stabilize against a crushing load and prevent any movement to hold you upright safely and effectively.
This is no doubt specific and requires enough tension to make a change provided it is done safely.
Voluntary Tension Drills
Another one of my preferred methods to address spinal stability is what I like to call voluntary tension drills. Don’t know if I’m the only coach who calls it these but I’d like to think so. It’s really not even that clever of a name for it but we’ll leave that alone for now.
Breathing paused squats were something I’d hear about in dark, unholy, corners of powerlifting meets but didn’t try until Greg Nuckols wrote about it.
Check out the entire article if you have time here .
To summarize, exhale at the bottom of the squat to purposely remove intra-abdominal pressure. Stay at the bottom position of the squat and breathe deeply and exhale forcefully 3-5 times. Then breath in one last time, brace and stand up and rack the bar.
ALWAYS start with very, very light weight and progress this at a snail’s pace. Don’t ever try to push the limits. Even with progressing ridiculously slowly, the trunk musculature will grow stronger because it has to work that much harder.
Planks with perfect position where the entire body is contracting maximally against itself can be included in this list as well although they should never be relied on to create stability specific to movements that involve standing and moving with loads.
Exercises that limit leverage is the last method of challenging the trunk musculature that we’ll go over.
The reason some of us can do countless sit-ups is because we’ve learned to maximize leverage in doing it. But this also means that we aren’t creating enough tension in the musculature to do…anything. The “burn” means nothing in this case.
But, if we can put ourselves in a limiting position to make it harder, the trunk musculature will have to work that much harder which will lead to an actual increase in strength and function.
Such exercises that do this include Janda sit-ups, and dragon-flags (think Rocky 4 training montage).
Janda sit-ups take advantage of something called reciprocal inhibition. Basically, get ready for a normal sit-up with bent legs but have someone pull on your legs right above your ankles. They try to pull your knees straight and you resist them and keep them bent, while keeping your heels on the ground. To do so you’ll have to flex your hamstrings and this is where reciprocal inhibition comes into play.
When you create tension in a certain muscle groups (think the hamstrings), the opposite or reciprocal muscle groups (think hip flexors) become muted. So, the Janda sit-up makes you perform a sit-up without the major aid of certain hip flexors. This makes it brutally hard for the remaining muscles involved.
Don’t be surprised if you can’t even do one. You may have to use a band to help you up until you’re strong enough to do a couple by yourself, and that’s all you need — a couple.
Rather than trying to describe them, here’s a video explaining the dragon-flags:
While these exercise can be fun, remember that to be stronger and more stable when carrying heavy stuff or lifting something off the floor to over your head, in the weight room and outside, it’s much better to do just that and practice the specific skill always challenging your thresholds in a safe intelligent manner.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the ways to increase spinal stability and the strength of the surrounding musculature but just an explanation on what is utterly useless and some new ideas for you to consider trying. Loaded carries and the like are definitely another great way to accomplish just this and one among many methods that I left out.
Just remember that learning how to brace, get tight, and create tension from trunk to periphery in every complex movement you make is true trunk stability training.
Traditional “core” drills and exercises do not stress the trunk musculature, in healthy individuals, enough to reset timing of the trunk synergists and increase strength.
Now before I get accused of being an inconsistent phony, I’m going to give you, whoever you are a preemptive middle finger to the face and admit that I’ve used the term “core” in the past in conversation and even in my published writing.
To paraphrase Mike Boyle: I reserve the right to change my mind about something as new information presents itself and as I learn and grow.
My ideas of how to maximize performance from trunk stability haven’t changed but my thoughts on being careful on how to label this has.
That is all.
Lederman, E., Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (2010) 14, 84e98
Any questions about this? Arguments? Points of discussion? Let me know in the comments.
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