Originally poste at www.figureathlete.com
Let’s be honest ladies, everyone reading this probably wants a sexy midsection. But are you going about it the right way?
Do you know if your core stability is up to snuff?
Do you really know the exercises you should, and more importantly, shouldn’t be performing?
Very few people understand core training. What’s worse, plenty of what’s out there is flat out wrong. Not only is it inefficient, but it could get you injured.
My goal is simple: to get you as strong and healthy as possible. The only way to do that is with efficient core training.
The Mythology of Core Training
With all the purported “information” out there, you’d think everyone would be strolling around with a six-pack. However, we all know that’s far from the case. Here are a few of the worst offenders when it comes to core training myths.
Myth #1: “I need to move — sit-ups and crunches are the best choices.”
No, they aren’t. Sorry, sweetie.
In fact, exercises that emphasize a ton of movement around the lumbar spine may be one of the worst things you can do. Noted spinal biomechanist Stuart McGill often cites that one of the surest ways to herniate a disc in your lower back is to repetitively flex and extend the lumbar spine.
What’s worse? If we look at the anatomy of your midsection, it’s a massive, cross-hatched web. Your rectus abdominus is actually broken up into several smaller segments, versus being one long muscle. Again, Dr. McGill notes that if your rectus abdominus was there only to perform trunk flexion movements like crunches, you’d have a long hamstring versus several smaller, individual sections of muscle!
If you’d like one more nail in the proverbial coffin, think about what excessive crunching and sit-up variations can do to your upper body posture. The rectus abdominus has a direct attachment to your rib cage. By repeatedly performing trunk flexion movements, you’re effectively shortening your rectus abdominus, which in turns pulls your chest down. This leads to poor posture, with slouched shoulders. Not only is this unattractive, but leads to a host of problems with regard to keeping our shoulders healthy.
Quite simply, it’s time to ditch the crunches and sit-ups for more intelligent exercises.
Myth #2: “Crunches make me lean.”
No dice here, either. Being lean makes you lean, not doing endless sets of crunching.
I work with a mixture of personal training clients and athletes — some of whom have never done ab exercises. But if they’re lean enough, they have a six-pack. So the correlation there is very weak. You can crunch until you’re blue in the face, but if you aren’t lean enough to display your abs, tough cookies.
Myth #3: “A strong core keeps my back healthy.”
I won’t argue with this one too much, because the appropriate exercises will keep your back healthy. However, crunches and sit-ups won’t help.
Instead, the focus should be on training core stability and improving what’s called your pelvic alignment. We’ll discuss this in more depth later, but most women are too weak in their anterior (front) core which leads to an excessive arch in the low back, and generally low back pain.
Smart core training will improve your pelvic alignment, taking stress off the low back and improving your lifting performance.
Getting Educated on Your Core
I bet you thought I was just going to give you a bunch of core exercises and let you go on your merry way, right?
Sorry, but I take pride in educatinÕ you along the way. I want you to know what to do, along with why you’re doing it.
When we look at the muscle and joint architecture of the core, it becomes obvious that we need more stability-based training. From a muscular perspective, we have several muscle groups, all of which are running in various directions. Rather than promoting movement in all of these directions, maybe the core is there to prevent movement in various planes?
But let’s take it a step further. When we examine the biomechanics of the spine, the thoracic spine (your mid-back) has anywhere from seven to nine degrees of rotation per segment. In contrast, the lumbar spine (your low back) has between zero and two degrees of rotation per segment! Makes you think twice about all those Rocky medicine ball twists you’re doing, eh?
Quite often, when our core is weak or underdeveloped, we fall into what’s called anterior pelvic tilt and/or excessive lordosis. No, these conditions aren’t dangerous like Stage IV cancer, but they can lead to nagging aches and pains that plague you for years. Essentially, you have too much “curve” in your lower back, which leads to excessive tension in the low back and a jamming of the lumbar facets. By properly strengthening our rectus abdominus and external obliques, we can pull our pelvis back to neutral and put the kibosh on that low back pain.
This is a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow: The popular media has done a great job of brainwashing us on how important sit-ups and crunches are for core development. You may remember a few years ago when “rotation” was all the rage; you just had to include rotation in your core training.
The goal shouldn’t be moving around the lumbar spine. Instead, the goal should be to assume a basic low back position and maintaining it throughout the course of a set.
So if we want to start implementing intelligent core training exercises, what are some requirements?
* Focuses on setting the core and maintaining that position throughout the course of a set.
* Does not involve movement around the lumbar spine and low back.
* Trains the rectus abdominus and external obliques to help pull our pelvis backwards (i.e. to neutral).
But how do you know if need some remedial work? Chances are you do, but let’s take some quick tests to determine what needs some refinement.
Double-Leg Lowering Test
The leg lowering test is probably the single best test of lower abdominal and external oblique function when it comes to stability. Before outlining the test, let me mention that if you’re currently suffering from low back pain, don’t perform this test. If you’re relatively healthy, here’s what I want you to do:
Lie on the ground (ideally with your shoes off) and fold your arms in front of your body in the “genie” position. Flex the knees and hips to 90 degrees, and then roll your legs up in the air and straighten them (extend the knees) so your legs are perpendicular to your upper body.
Posteriorly tilt the pelvis and flatten your spine to the ground. While holding this posteriorly tilted position, slowly lower your legs with a tempo that allows them to reach the ground after ten seconds. If you feel any rounding whatsoever (your low back starts to arch or come off the ground), that’s the cutoff point of the test.
You may want to videotape it or have someone give you feedback to see the angle at which your back arches or comes off the ground. Simply put, if you can’t do this with your shoes off, you need to do some serious work! If you passed this version, try again with your shoes on and record your ending position.
If you fail here, try the single-leg lowering test that’s outlined next. If you pass that, you’ll need to follow one of the upcoming bilateral core progressions.
Single-Leg Lowering Test
If you failed the double-leg lowering test, we need to perform the single-leg lowering test to determine if you have a core asymmetry. Quite often, one side may be working fine and the opposite side needs additional work. This test will help us determine if that’s the case.
You’re going to start in the same position as before: arms folded genie style and legs straight up in the air. Posteriorly tilt the pelvis and flatten your spine to the ground. While holding this posteriorly tilted position, slowly lower one leg with a tempo that allows them to reach the ground after ten seconds. If you feel any rounding whatsoever (your low back starts to arch or come off the ground), that’s the cutoff point of the test.
Try to determine if one side is considerably harder than other; this is a little bit more subjective, but it’ll give us much needed feedback. Another thing to point out is that you may have some popping in your lower back when this happens. It’s most likely nothing to worry about, but generally that side is weaker and/or has ineffective stabilizing strategies, so I’d suggest following a unilateral core progression to begin with.
It’s finally go-time! At this point, you’ll be following one of two paths to get that core stability up to par:
* If you failed the double-leg lowering test only, follow one of the bilateral core progressions.
* If you failed the single-leg lowering test as well, use one of the unilateral core progressions.
Bilateral Core Progression #1: The Boyle Series
The first series was originally developed by strength coach Michael Boyle in his article The Anterior Core Progression. This is now the primary core progression I use with my clients and athletes. I really like this progression because not only is it simple and easily implemented, but brutally effective as well.
For what it’s worth, I prefer for the exercises to be performed in a slower fashion than what the videos depict. The key is on control and not allowing that low back to take over!
Begin in a kneeling position with a physioball on the ground in front of you. Place your elbows on the ball and think about getting your core “tight,” as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach.
From this position, slowly allow the ball to roll in front of you while allowing your torso to lower towards the ground. The key with all these exercises is maintaining your lower back position; you need to set your abs from the beginning and maintain that position throughout. If you feel any arching in the lower back, tighten up your core and roll back to the starting position.
Ab Dolly Rollout
The ab dolly rollout does a nice job of splitting the difference between the ball and ab wheel rollouts. If you tried to jump straight from one to the next, you’d probably kill yourself! In this version, you keep the loading on your elbows (i.e. a short lever) but it’s lower to the ground (i.e. you increase range of motion).
Start on your knees with your elbows placed on the dolly. Set your core (get tight!), and then slowly glide out to a point just before you lose your low back position. Tighten up and return to the starting position.
Ab Wheel Rollout
The ab wheel rollout is the final step in our progression. The change here is simple: With the roller in our hands (versus on our elbows), we lengthen the lever and make the exercise much more difficult.
Setup is identical to the previous exercise. Start on the knees with the roller in front of the body, elbows straight, and hands on the roller. Maintaining that “tight” position, slowly roll forward while maintaining that initial low back position. Once you feel as though you’re going to lose it, return to the starting position.
If you get to the point where the ab wheel is too easy, feel free to replace it with a loaded barbell. This progression should be more than enough to keep you busy for a while, though!
Bilateral Core Progression #2: The Reverse Crunch Series
Before I started using coach Boyle’s progression, I used the reverse crunch series to get the rectus abdominus, and especially the external obliques, up to snuff. While it’s not “stability” training in the purest sense of the word, it’ll do the trick.
Lie either on the floor next to a power rack or on the end of a bench. You’re going to reach overhead and grab the rack or bench with both hands. Flex your hips to 90 degrees and tuck your heels in tight to your buttocks.
From this position, think about using the rectus abdominus and external obliques to “pull” your knees to your face. Once there, slowly lower under control to the starting position. Make sure to keep your heels tight to your butt throughout.
If you find this version too simple, try holding on to a weight plate or medicine ball instead of a bench. This won’t give you as much counter balance, and you’ll have to work that much harder to produce the movement.
Decline Reverse Crunch
If you’re not interested in the medicine ball version, try performing the reverse crunch on a decline bench. Setup and performance are the same: grab the top supports, keep the heels in tight throughout, and lower slowly and under control. The steeper the decline, the more challenging this exercise becomes.
Regardless, you should be feeling quite good after all this!
Unilateral Core Progression #1: The Dead Bug Series
I use the unilateral core progression when someone has a core asymmetry that I’m trying to clean up. Quite often, one side is either more developed or has “cleaner” stabilization patterns, so this helps iron out those side-to-side discrepancies.
The first exercise is the dead bug. There are four variations, but I’m only going to describe the first one. Once you figure that out, the pictures below should explain the subtle variations that follow.
To perform the dead bug, start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Instead of simply hollowing the stomach, think about posteriorly tilting your pelvis by activating the lower rectus abdominus and external obliques. It may help to place your fingertips on your obliques to get them to fire.
While maintaining the flat back and posterior tilt position, extend one leg out until it hovers just above the ground, then return to the starting position. Alternate legs for the necessary number of reps, and do an extra set on the weaker side.
Now, believe it or not, some of you won’t even be able to perform this first movement correctly! If so, follow the same steps, but instead of taking your leg down toward the ground, just lower the foot to the point where you feel like your back is going to come off the ground, then return to the starting position. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to improve your range of motion (ROM).
Dead bug 1
Dead bug 2 (arm movement with legs)
Dead bug 4 (same as 3, arms move with legs)
Unilateral Core Progression #2: The Leg Lowering Series
Single-Leg Lowering (Opposite Foot on Floor)
This exercise is tougher than the original dead bug, but not by too much. Start in the same position (supine with hips and knees flexed and feet flat on the floor). Extend one leg so it’s straight up and perpendicular to the body. Then posterior tilt and lower the leg all the way to the ground. Again, be sure to include an extra set for the weaker side until you iron out that asymmetry.
Single-Leg Lowering (Opposite Foot in Air)
This exercise is performed exactly the same as the previous version. However, in this variation the opposite leg is held in the air throughout the course of the set.
While I’m typically not a fan of training simply to beat the test, this is a pretty good exception because it’s functional and hard!
All you’re going to do is set up just like you’re taking the double-leg lowering test and perform repetitions, maintaining that posterior tilt for as far down as you can go. I’d start off with low rep sets (three to five) until you get those abs up to par!
Follow the tests and progressions and you’ll be well on your way to a sexy and functional core. So start planning that beach trip to show ’em off!