Understanding Core Training: Maximizing Results With Minimal Risk

Understanding Core Training: Maximizing Results With Minimal Risk
Save your spine some wear and tear and strengthen your abs and lower back by working with these four primary functions of your core musculature.

If you've spent any appreciable amount of time in a commercial gym, I'm sure you've seen plenty of guys hitting countless sit-ups and rope crunches.

However, what if I told you that everything you knew about core training was wrong? What if I told you that you could actually be creating injuries for yourself with those specific exercises rather than bulletproofing your spine?

It sounds contrary to popular belief but Dr. Stu McGill has put out quite a bit of research correlating repeated bouts of spinal flexion and extension with disc bulges and herniations (see HERE and HERE.)

If you got lost in the biomechanics terminology, just consider this analogy for a second - think of your vertebrae and intervertebral discs as jelly filled donuts.

The cake portions of the donut resemble the bony portions of your vertebrae and the jelly is akin to your intervertebral discs.

So what happens if you push directly into the center of the donut?

Well if you apply enough pressure, the jelly will eventually squirt out one of the sides. It's seems a little strange but that's essentially a very simplistic explanation of a disc herniation.

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Understanding the Core

When I say "core training", what's the first thing that pops into your head? Russian twists? Crunches? P90X ab ripper x? Most people probably envision something along these lines:

Everybody wants that coveted 6 pack but they forget that their core isn't just confined to the musculature in the front of the body. Instead, you actually have to take into account your transverse abdominis (TA), internal and external obliques, and rectus abdominis (the "6 pack muscle").

Related: Concrete Core - 4 Core Workouts for Stronger Abs

Your core musculature is primarily designed to resist motion, not create it. Whether you're squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, carrying, lunging, or sprinting, you must maintain spinal integrity. Isometric contractile strength is much more important than flexion or extension based movements.

As such, there are 4 main movements that should be included within your training repertoire:

  1. Anti-Flexion
  2. Anti-Extension
  3. Anti-Lateral Flexion
  4. Anti-Rotation

Dymatize athlete doing planks from pushup position

My Back Hurts...

I won't lie, I cringe every time I watch athletes crushing GHD sit ups in the CrossFit games. Yes, your spine was made to flex but not under load. Going back to my donut analogy, your spinal discs have a "jelly-like" core known as the nucleus pulposus filled with a viscous fluid. If you load the spine and then conduct repeated cycles of flexion and extension, you're just asking for a disc issue.

Most of the time when folks come to me with back issues, it's not due to weakness in their spinal erectors. Instead, it's mainly due to poor pelvic positioning and core stability. Many strength athletes are extremely extension dominant, meaning that their pelvic girdle is anteriorly tipped and their lumbar spine is arched excessively hard.

Good and bad posture

It may not seem like a big deal to some, but this is actually a huge problem as it results in dysfunctional breathing patterns, poor glute activation, tight hip flexors, chronically lengthened hamstrings which feel "tight", and increased potential of a spondylolysis. Remember how we discussed the TA and obliques as part of the core musculature?

Well, these muscles are especially important regarding back pain and abdominal function due to the their insertion and origins.

Core anatomy - obliques

As you can see, each attaches to the iliac crest of your hip and the rib cage. This musculature plays a crucial role in assisting in posterior pelvic tilt and spinal neutrality.

Often times, those with low back pain will lack strength and activation is all or some of these muscles and thus their spine will receive the brunt of the dysfunction. Remember, low back pain is often only a symptom of the problem, not the origin of the issue.

Minimal Risk for Maximum Results

Alright, so now you know what not to do, but what should you replace it with? Squatting and deadlifting will cover all of your anti-flexion needs but yet they fail to address the other 3 important pieces of the puzzle.

Well, here are 4 exercises I use with a wide variety of athletes and clientele to train the core in a holistic fashion.

1. Half Kneeling Pallof Press

This is a personal favorite of mine as it's rather simplistic but does an excellent job of training the internal and external obliques. Make sure that you incorporate the half kneeling piece, as that is crucial for preventing anterior pelvic tilt. When you disassociate the legs by placing one in flexion and one in extension, it becomes rather tough to arch into excessive lordosis.

Coaching cues:

  • Squeeze the glute on the trailing leg and keep your front shin vertical.
  • Ensure that the knee in flexion doesn't flare to the side or dive in.
  • Ribcage down.
  • Press straight out, resist the rotation, pause, and return to the start.

Sets & Reps: 4 sets with 5-8 per side. Switch legs when you rotate.

2. KB Crossover Walk

If you're pressed for time, this one should be your go to. We know that spinal positioning can alter the endurance characteristics of the core musculature as evidenced by Dr. McGill's work. As such, this exercise really forces the trainee to resist lateral flexion along with extension while the bottoms up KB enhances shoulder stability.

Coaching cues:

  • Think: "Tall spine, ribcage down."
  • Don't load the arm by your side too aggressively as we don't want to pull the shoulder into excessive scapular depression.
  • Don't hold your breath, take slow methodical steps, and refrain from leaning to one side.
  • Keep your elbow pointed straight ahead and in line with your shoulder.

Sets & Reps: Make 2-3 trips, switch arms when your change directions, and focus on increasing time each week.

3. RKC Plank

I'm sure you've heard many people talk about being able to hold a plank for 3, 5, or maybe even 7 minutes, right? Well, if that's the case, you're either hanging out on your lumbar spine or you're putting in the least amount of effort possible. A plank should be focused on one simple concept: full body tension.

As you can see in the video, once I get into position, I squeeze every muscle possible and the shaking ensues.

Coaching cues:

  • Squeeze your legs together while simultaneously firing your glutes and quads.
  • Make a fist and squeeze as hard as possible - this will increase a phenomenon known as irradiation.
  • Think: "Pull your elbows to your toes".

Sets & Reps: 3-4 sets of 15-25 seconds.

Ideally, a set won't last longer than 25, maybe 35 seconds tops. Remember, this is about tension, not time.

4. Side Plank w/Row

I'm all about efficiency and simplicity. If you've got an hour in the gym, then you need to maximize every minute you've got once you step through the door. Most folks need more upper back work along with core stabilization, so why not combine the two?

This one combines 3 movements in 1: resistance to extension from the lats, resistance to rotation from the band, and resistance to lateral flexion from gravity.

Coaching cues:

  • Shoulders back and hips forward.
  • Squeeze your glutes and keep your ribcage down.
  • Row until your elbow is just past your body.
  • Keep the neck pack and don't allow it to jut forward as you pull.

Related: 4 Week Beginner Core Strength Trainer

Sets & Reps: 3-4 sets of 8-10 per side. 

Can also implement timed isometrics instead of repetitions in which the trainee maintains the row and braces for an allotted period.

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Putting it All Together

Seems like way too much information to take in and process?

Well, just keep it simple: pick one movement for each day you train. If you're doing a metabolic circuit or intervals, pick two movements and sprinkle them in.

I think you'll be presently surprised at how tough some of them are, not to mention the functional benefits that you'll receive.