Rethinking Core Training

While the whiteboard may seem to be a random selection of exercises, there is a method to the madness. Exercise pairings and sequences are strategic, pairing opposite muscle actions and modulating internsities; an attempt at having you recovered for the more technical exercises and fatigued for ones that drive muscle growth. The stations typically pair a horizontal pressing and pulling motion or a quad exercises (Step-ups, Squats, Lunge) with a posterior chain exercise (Hamstring Curl, Glute Bridge, Good Mornings).

Because of this, my options are limited when it comes to some stations. That's why you see a Dumbbell or Bench Press frequently paired with Seated Cable Row. I could replace the latter with a Barbell Bent over Row but that exercise has a much higher technical demand (maintaining a proper hinge and bar path of the row).

So my thought process weighs the "pros" and "cons" of different variations. For example, why are we doing a Seated Cable Row instead of a Bird Dog Renegade Row.

Seated Cable Row

  • Very little attention has to be paid to positioning

  • Ability to be loaded more heavily and target the back musculature

Bird Dog Renegade Row

  • High demand on core position and stability

  • Not able to load as heavily and therefore unable to overload the back musculature to the same degree

Either point isn't necessarily a positive or negative but rather a piece of the puzzle of the entire workout. If the previous station had Assault Bike, Sleds, a hard bout on the Rowing Machine, etc. I may not give you a Bird Dog Renegade Row because the fatigue from the previous station will negatively impact your ability to maintain core stability and balance.

While this requires a post in of itself, below is my attempt at explaining how I approach core training. Russian twists, sit-ups, and other exercises that cause your abs to "burn" may have a place but as it relates to lower back pain and the ability to carry heavy objects, run injury-free, etc. your intent should be to resist motion.

Therefore, core work should train the "anti's". What exactly does this mean? You have exercises geared towards preventing rotation of the spine (anti-rotation), exercises aimed to prevent arching of the lower back (anti-extension), and exercises that challenge your ability to prevent bending (anti-lateral flexion). While they may not elicit the same "burn" effect of dozens of sit-ups, crunches, and twists, the carry-over to a healthy body is significantly greater.

Anti-Rotation: Exercise where the goal is to resist rotation at the lumbar spine (i.e. Pallof Press Variations)

Anti-Extension: Exercise where the purpose is to prevent extension at the spine (i.e. Deadbug variations, AbWheel Rollout, RKC Plank, Bodysaws)

Anti-Lateral Flexion: Exercise where the purpose is to resist bending sideways at the spine (Suitcase Carry, Farmer's Carry, Side Plank)

To better understand the anatomy and function of the core musculature, Dr. John Rusin provides a concise description:

Core Musculature.jpg

Rectus Abdominals – The rectus abdominis muscles, otherwise known as the abs, or six pack muscles, originate at the crest of the pubis and insert at the costal cartilage of ribs 5-7 and the xiphoid process. These muscles flex the lumbar spine.

External Oblique – The external oblique muscle is the superficial of the two oblique muscles. It originates at the 5^th-12^th ribs, and inserts at the iliac crest, pubic tubercle, and linea alba. This muscle increases intra-abdominal pressure, flexes the torso, side bends the torso, and rotates the torso to the opposite side.

Internal Oblique – The internal oblique muscle is located beneath the external oblique. It originates at the inguinal ligament, anterior iliac crest, and lumbodorsal fascia, and inserts at the linea alba, pectin pubis via the conjoint tendon, and the 10-12 ribs. This muscle provides support to the abdominal wall and assists in forced expiration, increases abdominal pressure, flexes and rotates the torso to the same side.

Transverse Abdominis – The transverse abdominis muscles originate at the iliac crest, inguinal ligament, thoracolumbar fascia, and costal cartilages 7-12, and insert at the xiphoid process, linea alba, pubic crest, and the pectin pubis via the conjoint tendon. This muscle protects the internal organs and increases abdominal pressure so that you’re able to lift more weight.

How can you apply this to your training?

With these thoughts in mind, hopefully you can begin to translate it to how you approach exercises during the workout. A Push-up has a very high anti-extension demand on the core. When your chest descends to the ground or the bench, are your hips moving at the same rate? Or does your push-up resemble someone trying to do the worm? This is not just an exercise for the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

Any "Carry" exercise is more than just an attempt to move a certain weight from point A to point B. When you're carrying a plate overhead, I'm watching to see how well you resist extension. Do you lean back with an excessive curve in your lower back and your ribcage flared? When you suitcase carry one kettlebell, are you leaning to the side or struggling to walk in a straight line? When we do a Plank with Kettlebell drag, are your hips rising and falling as you move from side to side? More weight is not the answer, more attention to positioning is.

As I write this with your perspective in mind, thinking of what questions it may raise; yes, it is my responsibility to get you into these correct positions. But while it is difficult to spew scientific jargon at you in the middle of a workout, I try to give other cues. For Deadbugs we try to fill up the space between the lower back and the ground (this is you resisting extension). When I try to get your base wider for a Kettlebell drag, this is to improve the likelihood that you can resist lateral-flexion. With Pallof Presses, I try to get your stance square and your arms straight because it is an exercise that relies on the position of your feet, hips, and abdominals to elicit the proper effect.

My responsibility will continue to be to put you in the correct positions to be successful but hopefully you'll be able to keep pieces of this post in mind as you navigate the workout.

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Brendan Aylwardknowledge