Big Lifts and Core Training

femaledeadliftYo Mike! Coach Poliquin (and others) have noted that you only need squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, etc. to build core strength.

What do you think?

This is an age-old question, and hopefully I can do it justice in one post.

Let me begin by saying I have the utmost respect for Coach Poliquin and everything he’s accomplished in his career.

And in large part, I think he’s right.

If someone has balanced core, trunk and pelvic stability from front-to-back and side-to-side, maintaining that balance through the big lifts is probably all one needs to keep it in check.

But based off what I’ve seen assessing clients and athletes over the past 14 years, that’s a big if.

Consider this…

We know a large population of people who take up weight training these days want to get bigger and stronger.

We also know that a lot of them come in with a handful of postural issues that need to be addressed. If someone’s only source of stabilizing that PR squat, deadlift or overhead press is their lower back, that’s going to cause issues sooner or later.

Let’s do a quick primer so we’re all on the same page, and then we’ll progress from there.

At the very least, think of your core as a box with four sides, a top and bottom:

  • inner-coreAnterior Core (Rectus Abdominus, Internal/External Obliques, TVA),
  • Posterior Core (Low Back: Spinal Erectors, Multifidi),
  • Lateral Core (Internal/External Obliques, Quadratus Lumborum),
  • Superior Core (Diaphragm), and
  • Inferior Core (Pelvic Floor).

If you are in appropriate position, and you have balance between all these areas (front-back, side-side, top-bottom, etc.), then the only thing you have to do is maintain balance. (Although I’d argue that this is easier said than done as well, but that’s another blog post).

But what if you don’t start in the right position? Or you lack structural balance?

That’s where you need remedial core development.

Here is a short list of exercises we’ll use to determine core function and balance:

  • Squat,
  • Lunge,
  • Single-Leg Stance,
  • Front Plank,
  • Side Plank,
  • Push-up,
  • Straight Leg Raise,
  • Respiration Patterns, and
  • Apical Expansion test (ala the Postural Restoration Institute).

You could easily argue that almost any test we use at IFAST is in some way, shape or form related to core function.

The goal here is to have balance between these various checks and balances. Doing so will not only improve performance, but decrease the likelihood of injury as well.

So let’s say someone can move heavy weight and looks super strong, but their solution to everything is throwing themselves into an anterior pelvic tilt (APT) and locking their lumbar spine in extension.

Two things immediately come to mind:

  1. This person is leaving pounds on the platform due to their inefficiency, and
  2. It’s only a matter of time until this person breaks down.

Now I’ve heard it time and again:

“But Mike, that’s how I lift and I’ve never had an injury…”

At which point, I feel compelled to finish their sentence for them:

“…yet.”

Look, I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, but locking yourself into an anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis isn’t super efficient, and it’s not going to add any years on your lifting career.

So let’s say this describes you – you’ve lived in APT since the Carter administration and you want to get your core fixed once and for all. Here are some quick and dirty takeaways that have always helped my clients and athletes.

#1 – Learn how to exhale.

When someone is locked in extension, they typically rely upon their hip flexors and parapsinals to help them take in a deep breath.

In PRI land, they would call this “hyperinflation.”

To combat this, you have to learn how to exhale. I’ve assessed hundreds of clients over the past couple of years, and it’s amazing to see how poorly people exhale.

Quite simply, they can’t get air out of their body.

And without getting too esoteric here (I’ll save that for another post!), it’s no wonder we see so many respiratory disorders.

You know how you get sick every time you fly on a plane? I think it’s due in large part to breathing recycled air for hours on end.

But what if you do that every single day?

ZOA1
Image used with permission from Postural Restoration Institute® © 2013, www.posturalrestoration.com

What if you simply can not get air out of your body, and you’ve got nasty, stale air hanging out in your lungs?

But I digress.

When you exhale and your ribs come down, you naturally improve the length-tension relationship of your abdominals compared to your spinal erectors and lats. If the abdominals are constantly stretched and long, there’s no way they’ll be able to counteract or offset the strength of the lower back.

#2 – Get serious about the anterior core.

So you’ve got that air out – nice work!

But that’s just the first step.

The next goal is to get that anterior core strong, and chances are you’re going to have to take a few steps back in order to start moving forward again.

I’m sure you love those “1,001 New Ab Exercise” articles, with each progression being more ridiculous than the first, but I still love the basics executed with pristine technique.

plankFront planks.

Push-ups.

Dead bugs.

Leg lowering drills.

Hell, even some of your old standbys could be a struggle at first.

Oh, you’re use to used to crushing ab wheel rollouts for sets of 10? Try doing them after a strong exhale and focus on keeping the ribs down to make this basic exercises even more brutal.

#3 – Use smart progressions and load to return.

One of the biggest issues we have when training is our previous personal records (PR’s).

We always have these numbers in the back of our mind that we use as a gauge, or litmus test for what “strong” means to us.

Unfortunately, that can get us into serious trouble when our goal is to rebuild our foundation.

In an effort to get back ASAP into big lifts like squats and deadlifts, going too heavy too soon will invariably force you back into your old, inefficient patterns.

Instead, either choose exercises that you know you won’t have a tendency to overload, or simply choose more self-limiting exercises.

TGUHere are a handful that will help you re-build your core, while maintaining strength to boot:

  • Front squats,
  • Turkish get-ups,
  • Single-arm bench presses,
  • Offset anything.

Choosing exercises that put a premium on core strength and stability will get you back to (and exceeding) your old PR’s with a quickness.

#4 – Realize it’s a total-body fix.

I won’t harp too much on this point because I’ve said it time and again, but don’t think of the core as it’s own little island.

The core, as defined by Bill Hartman, is everything from the neck to the feet. It’s all connected, it influences (and is influenced by) other regions, and it’s all important.

If your goal is to get a brutally strong core, your entire program needs to built around eliminating your weaknesses.

Summary

If you have a strong and balanced core, congratulations! You’re in the minority, and all you have to do is maintain that balance going forward.

However, if you’re like most of us out there and need some refining work, follow the tips I’ve outlined above.

Not only will you be healthier in the long-term, but stronger and more powerful to boot.

Stay strong

MR

P.S. – If you’d like to learn more about the anatomy, assessment, and core training exercises and progressions I use, be sure to check out Complete Core Fitness.

28 Comments

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  1. Man, I wish this site was around in my younger years! I’m 44 and this is TOTALLY me:

    “but their solution to everything is throwing themselves into an anterior pelvic tilt (APT) and locking their lumbar spine in extension.”

    Now I have excessive lordosis and lower back pain once I start going heavy on squats or DL (go figure right:), so I’m stopping all of that and working on my core and trying to remedy my APT. I read some of your other articles dealing with APT (great stuff.) One thing I can’t find searching your site, is an article on how to properly breath – when sitting, standing, exercising. I can guarantee I’m doing it wrong and would love to know the basics on what I’m supposed to be doing to breath efficiently for developing my core. You mention it often, but can’t find the resources and instruction on how to properly achieve what your mentioning? Thanks again for all the information you provide!

    • Rick –

      Unfortunately, I just haven’t had time to write a really big article on breathing. I will (soon) but right now I’m trying to wrap up the Bulletproof Athlete product so it’s down on the list just a bit.

      Trust me, though – as soon as I have time I will write this up. It’s something I’m very passionate about and want to help people with.

      Thanks!
      MR

  2. Man, I wish this site was around in my younger years! I’m 44 and this is TOTALLY me:

    “but their solution to everything is throwing themselves into an anterior pelvic tilt (APT) and locking their lumbar spine in extension.”

    Now I have excessive lordosis and lower back pain once I start going heavy on squats or DL (go figure right:), so I’m stopping all of that and working on my core and trying to remedy my APT. I read some of your other articles dealing with APT (great stuff.) One thing I can’t find searching your site, is an article on how to properly breath – when sitting, standing, exercising. I can guarantee I’m doing it wrong and would love to know the basics on what I’m supposed to be doing to breath efficiently for developing my core. You mention it often, but can’t find the resources and instruction on how to properly achieve what your mentioning? Thanks again for all the information you provide!

    • Rick –

      Unfortunately, I just haven’t had time to write a really big article on breathing. I will (soon) but right now I’m trying to wrap up the Bulletproof Athlete product so it’s down on the list just a bit.

      Trust me, though – as soon as I have time I will write this up. It’s something I’m very passionate about and want to help people with.

      Thanks!
      MR

  3. Mike,

    As you know, getting rid of extension is all the rage these days. I’m wondering in your experience have you ever actually seen it go away? Like for good? And is that even the goal? Are there degrees of extension that you worry about less than full out “resting-on-your-spine-extension”? For example, maybe a person is in a bit of extension but they still have muscular control of that position as opposed to resting on passive restraints. Would you still aggressively program to eliminate this position?

    From the perspective of someone who’s goals lie purely in getting stronger on barbell lifts, I’m wondering if extension is something to be controlled rather than removed? I think about some of the core exercises you listed and even some other more “hardcore” anterior core exercises and wonder how those will ever even begin to stack up against the load that weekly squatting and deadlifting places on the posterior core. As someone who’s lifted seriously for quite a while, it would seem to me that extension isn’t going anywhere. (but still must be kept in check)

    Obviously the person’s goals will largely persuade how much or how little attention is given to adding weight to big lifts. I’d be curious as to how you think you would have utilized this knowledge in the height of your powerlifting days. Just some thoughts I’ve been thinking about lately…would appreciate your feedback.

    You the man,

    Meadows

    • Andrew –

      Great questions! I love how you’re always thinking.

      There are lots of questions in here, but I’ll do my best to answer all of them…

      – I have absolutely seen huge changes in people’s ability to resist extension, as well as improve their posture.

      – It’s only “for good” if they stick with their programming. You can’t fix it “once” and then assume it will be gone forever.
      – Yes, this is definitely a continuum – some people worry me more due to how they move, the weights they move, their injury history, my intuition, etc.
      – I think you’re right in the second paragraph – it’s not so much about removing it entirely, but rather controlling it or being able to “check” it. Extension isn’t bad – it helps you run fast, jump high, etc. However never being able to shut that off, or not being able to control it, will get most of us into trouble at some point down the line.

      Last but not least, I think there are numerous ways to challenge the anterior core relative to the posterior core – keep in mind, it’s not JUST core training. It’s a total body fix.

      Hope that helps a bit 🙂

      MR

  4. Great post, Mike! I would say the majority of the athletes I see at Force Fitness live in that hyperinflated state. I’ve taken some tips from you guys over this past year and have added in some breathing drills during rest periods and pre-workout and have seen some great results. “Turning Down” the sagittal plane with some 3-D expansion and learning that deep exhale/core contraction has been a game-changer for some of our guys and girls. Thanks for the insight!

    • Rod – this is great to hear, and your athletes are lucky to have you!

      I think you can make a huge difference especially with young athletes, as they’re more malleable.

      Again, great stuff – keep it up!

  5. Great post. Two questions.

    First, do you ever recommend crunches (in addition to breathing and other core exercises) for someone who needs to strengthen their anterior core AND pull their ribcage down? I could see this being contraindicated for people who sit all day and are excessively kyphotic, but what about athletes who live in extension?

    Second, is the goal to exhale completely on each and every breath to get rid of the stale air in our lungs? I mean, it’s fairly easy to do when focusing on your breathing, but what about the other 19,975 breaths throughout the day? Or, should we simply exhale completely when we are actually thinking about breathing? If the latter is the case, is the goal then to simply minimize the amount of stale air in your lungs given that a complete exhale when you’re not focusing on your breathing is pretty much impossible?

    Thanks!
    Ryan

    • Ryan –

      #1 – I don’t like crunches because they still put compression through the lumbar spine.

      #2 – It’s not to exhale that hard on every breath, but to have the capacity to be able to do it when you want to. Hope that makes sense!

  6. Great post. Two questions.

    First, do you ever recommend crunches (in addition to breathing and other core exercises) for someone who needs to strengthen their anterior core AND pull their ribcage down? I could see this being contraindicated for people who sit all day and are excessively kyphotic, but what about athletes who live in extension?

    Second, is the goal to exhale completely on each and every breath to get rid of the stale air in our lungs? I mean, it’s fairly easy to do when focusing on your breathing, but what about the other 19,975 breaths throughout the day? Or, should we simply exhale completely when we are actually thinking about breathing? If the latter is the case, is the goal then to simply minimize the amount of stale air in your lungs given that a complete exhale when you’re not focusing on your breathing is pretty much impossible?

    Thanks!
    Ryan

    • Ryan –

      #1 – I don’t like crunches because they still put compression through the lumbar spine.

      #2 – It’s not to exhale that hard on every breath, but to have the capacity to be able to do it when you want to. Hope that makes sense!

  7. Home run!

    This is exactly what I’m doing now with SQs, front and back. Dropping the load way down and re-grooving with excruciatingly slow reps, controlling every inch of the movement with a neutral spine. Yes there is an urge to crank the lumbar midway down. I believe this is at least partially due to the body not feeling secure at the glute level, particularly superior glutes.

    Something else that occurs to me: As the bar descends, the hips must push back (flex). In order to flex the hips while keeping the load centered, it is very tempting to use the lumbar spine to flex the hip from the top, while turning the pelvis over, APT style.

    This is the old cue, “Arch the low back!”, and under lower loads, it does feel secure, and gets the hips out of the way to let the bar descend on a line. However, it breaks the interconnected spinal erectors off at a few segments. (Yes, I read my Kelly Starrett! ) And when you start loading this position up over time…ahhh, you already covered that.

    I’m learning to use my psoas to actively flex the hips, like a hanging leg raise, while (hopefully) keeping the L-spine in neutral. And this requires great abdominal force to check both the psoas and the lumbar erectors.

    How’s that for a nerdy comment?!

  8. Outstanding stuff!!! As you know, you guys have done a great job working on this with my weightlifters and their performance proves it. Thanks a lot!!

  9. Outstanding stuff!!! As you know, you guys have done a great job working on this with my weightlifters and their performance proves it. Thanks a lot!!

    • That’s my goal man. I’m not even thinking about “blogging” as I used to back in the day – I want everything I put out there to be article worthy 🙂

      Thanks!

  10. Thank you so much for this , I have severe lordosis ( the type that has had physiotherapists stop me in the street, no kidding) and actually hired my coach and got into lifting to fix it (I thought!). Hit a plateau in my deadlifts because core is shot so I’m now doing some ‘core work’ in between sets. Clearly, I need to ignore my programming and step back a bit for a while

    • Forever – Sounds like a plan my friend. Sometimes taking one step back is the surest way to take 3-4 steps forward!

  11. Does Cressey and Reinold’s Functional stability core program cover these assessments and solutions you mention in more detail? Also, bummed that the PRI Pelvis Restoration in Atlanta has a waiting list now. Thanks for being such a positive force and influential role model in our industry!

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