Core Exercises - there and back again

I'm not impressed with your 100 sit-ups every night, your 3 sets of 10 on the seated torso twist machine, or your 7-minute abs. Some of those yoga poses - yes I'm impressed, actually. But Pilates, not so much.

Have you seen this article which speaks wisely about the limited role of traditional core exercises (like the billion and one variations of sit-ups, planks, bird-dogs, leg flutters, physio balling, unstable surface teetering, on and on)? More emerging research indicates that basic free weight exercises which involve some loading activate the core muscles more than anything else.

Imagine that - squats, dead lifts, overhead presses, and lunge type movements cause all the muscles that stabilize the spine to work the most. The core works more during a set of squats than with flexing, twisting, extending the trunk, doing the ab lounge, or bicep curling 12 lbs while balancing on a BOSU ball.

It's one thing if you enjoy those type of activities. But effectiveness is another matter. If you want to be strong, fast, efficient, healthy, and have sharpness to your abs, you should attempt to progress in some variation of the big basic lifts. You may skip the traditional core work if you regularly lift heavy things off the floor and over head.
just looking at it "challenges" the balance of the core... x

Nothing else makes the core work harder or amps the entire nervous system. Nothing else fills you with muscle, core and all, literally tightens the skin from the inside to create the appearance of jacked.

Got it?

[Cue sound of all the ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, and their favorite pets stampeding out with gusto to start pumping some good old fashion iron.]

Rattle-rattle, clink-clink.    
[Weight plates being squatted.]

[Dead lifts crushing the floor.]


[No one hesitates, due to deep focus, effort, and acute awesomeness.]

[Places two fingers in mouth to do that obnoxiously loud whistle.]


Okay. Thanks. Now that I have your attention, stop. Please step away from the barbell. You in the corner - drop the kettle bell. While all people everywhere wrestling iron sounds beautiful, it's actually a recipe for disaster.

Many of you, the majority even, who dive into squats and dead lifts, presses, olympic lifts and such are going to strain something. You need to feel the rhythm of realistic progression. You need to do time under the iron, practice the skill before loading up. What you also need is, well...

...some traditional core exercises.

Ugh. I still think the far majority of them are useless, really. In physical therapy I use a pool of maybe 15 to 20 different core exercises that serve nicely as regressions of the big lifts. Like what?

Before you lift heavy...

-Maybe you need to get the feel of hip movement isolated from lower back movement while doing "pointer dogs" and "mountain climbers." Maybe you need to work on side-to-side and rotational stability through chops, cuts, and rotation resisted presses. You definitely need to OWN a good hip hinge without budging at the knees or spine.

-Maybe you need to achieve a higher degree of glute activation with bridging, side plank, and leg raise variations, and capture anterior core activation during plank, push up, and roll-out variations. Maybe you need to feel your mid- and lower back muscles bracing hard during a proper (very lightly loaded) squat. Not with your back sliding on the wall. Not with your hands clutching straps or bands. Not leaning against a smith - or other squat machine. Just...hip back, chest up, squats.

-Maybe your thoracic kyphosis precludes placing a bar across your shoulder blades or pressing any decent amount of weight over head. Maybe you have a touchy lower back on top of some postural issues, so you must avoid traditional dead lifts and focus on front squats or split squats. Or maybe you have structural hip impingement and so you dead lift plenty and avoid squats altogether.

Maybe rather than one of these core stability issues, your limiting factor is impaired leg or trunk mobility.

Whatever the case, working toward a few big lifts is almost always a worthwhile pursuit. No...sorry. You probably won't be a ripped powerhouse model quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in 3 weeks. It's going to take a minute.

But you will set the stage. And then some. And oh my, if you have the fortitude and patience, it's almost guaranteed, what's to come...



Bring Heavy Back In

Lifting heavy things is the most direct (and often only) route to strength and power and therefore awesomeness. Truly, the larger an individuals "strength bucket" from which to draw, the greater resources they have to apply toward pretty much any athletic skill set. [And 9 times out of 10, the better their metabolic furnace for healthy body composition - but that's another matter.]

Yet going heavy has had a...quirky...reputation for some time. Going heavy means meat head culture.

no thanks
Going heavy is thick necks and barrel chests as a prize for 40 minutes of bench press three days per week. It's angel-demon skull-and-wings print, cut sleeve T-shirts over barbed wire tattoos. It's mastodon sized loads flung through a 3-inch arc of movement with shut-yer-face form. Going heavy is I may get this rep or my spine may explode but I'll take my chances. It's inter-set protein shakes while applying knee wraps and head banging to the entirety of Vulgar Display of Power.

That's going heavy, and no baseball player or wrestler or cross country runner or diabetic firefighter or soccer mom wants any part of it. And so the alternatives rally.

no thanks
Thousands of people in popular fitness speak confidently of "toning and lengthening exercise." These trainers and writers believe this fallacy. They provide dire warning against thick blockiness as their frail appendages wave light resistance for high repetitions. Hi reps for toning? Long drawn out aerobic exercise for cardiovascular health? Whoever taught us to think it's so black and white? Take the extreme and awesome brutality known as 20 Rep Squats. Is that for toning or power or muscle building or improved cholesterol profile?
[Answer: all of the above!]

toneing? [yawn] no thank you.   


Many others, thousands and growing, imagine THE root of all awesomeness lies in the School of Infinite Circuits. This usually involves endless variations of push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, leg raises, and squats, each performed until you sweat blood and collapse of tedium. You rest 10 seconds, repeat the whole delirium four more times, and grind out similar workouts three or four additional days per week.

Some in the toning and circuit camps swear that great strength is indeed possible with their methods if only you would eat more, more, and more healthy foods. And so you sit on the toilet four times per day. You look at broccoli and shutter. I never said the School of Infinite Circuits was easy or without benefit. But for the majority of us, there are better ways.

This is a call to bring heavy back in style for every day folk, not just the Olympic- or Power lifters. Here's a nod to all the fruitful methods that fall to the right of the pink toning and circuit-kill but far to the left of the burly guy who can't reach his butt crack. Here's an encouragement to focus your effort to achieving the mobility, stability, and strength that is required to handle a lot of weight, not just for the sake of heavy lifting, but to add awesomeness and longevity to your passion outside of the gym. 

Going heavy should have a few basic qualifiers:

1. Screening tests you must pass before loading up
2. Technique coaching and gradual and realistic progressions
3. Form checks
4. Where needed, "pre-hab" corrective work
5. Reminders that heavy is indeed relative to every individual. [This point is not up for debate unless you have actually bench pressed over 300 lbs or dead lifted over 500 lbs in an official competition.]

THEN...it's time to pour yourself into adding weight to the bar. Calm down. Rest. Add a little more iron. Four or six weeks later you're going heavy. You're pulling up your body weight for reps and then some. And those circuits? A reasonable amount of them aren't so bad anymore because your limit strength is so far up.

So if you want to be strong or fast, jump high, hit far, or look like something different, do what it takes to go heavy. But it's smart. It's systematic and keeps training interesting. It's effective. There's truly no substitute for controlled loading.

Besides, all the cool kids are doing it!

- - - -- 


Everything is a thigh master - vids for work

The irony behind machines to work the hip adductors. And thigh gap. This is not meant to be a comprehensive report on disordered eating or body image ; )

Plankin! No bench press until you can do at least 20 standard push ups with perfect form.