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Where People Go VERY Wrong With Core Training


My darling physical therapy wife (yes, that physical therapy title will be important) feels like I’m getting myself a reputation, like not in a good way. She thinks I’m really upsetting people because I’m asking one consistent question, “why?” You would think that such a simple question would fuel discussion, sharing, and so forth, but that is assuming someone really is familiar and comfortable with why they are doing what they are doing.

Believe it or not, my goal is NOT to upset people. As I’ve shared before, I come from a large family of teachers. When I would go to my Dad for help on my homework as a kid, I couldn’t just give him the answer. If I gave him an answer he would ask, “why do you think that is the answer?” I’ll admit, I didn’t love every moment of that, but in retrospect my Dad was trying to give me something special. That is the ability to think critically, he wanted me to learn HOW to think!

Why is this so important to fitness professionals? People come to us for help, if we don’t know why we do what we do, how can we really make the impact upon people that we all really want to achieve?! A great example has been taught to me the last few days when people decided to go after me for some social media posts I was making. They were questioning the validity of ideas like core stability and its ability to help low back pain. Instead of really getting defensive, I learned that a lot of people don’t really understand core training and that is where so much of our confusion and knowledge of how to help people gets stalled.

Core Stability vs. Core Strength

We ALL do this in fitness and I’ll give an example with core training in a moment. That “thing” we all do is in fitness we tend to try to solve with training strength and often strength of individual muscles. In the late ’90’s and early 2000’s it was all about “strengthening” the Transverse Abdominis (TVA) as research from Australia showed that people with low back pain often have a delayed activation of the TVA during locomotion. Instead of thinking about this being a motor control (timing and sequencing issue) we defaulted (I did it!) isolating and strengthening the TVA.

core training

Looking at the anatomy of the trunk, not sure how we ever thought we could isolate the TVA?!

We still tend to think core training is about core strengthening. At first, you may wonder, “how is it not?!” Stability and strength are not exactly the same thing. As spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill beautifully describes…

“Measuring stability is difficult but those few labs around the world that have measured core stability, or spine stability, have concluded that all muscles are necessary contributors. This is because the spine is a flexible rod yet it must be able to bear compressive loads. It will buckle without a very robust guy wire system formed by the many muscles. Furthermore, when all muscles contract together they create a “superstiffness” that is higher than the sum of the stiffnesses of the individual muscles. Consider the architecture of the abdominal wall. Stability comes from a symmetric stiffness developed by the muscles around the spine. Activating just one abdominal muscle would create just one source of stiffness but would also result in an interruption of the force linkage. Consider that the entire abdominal wall has its anterior connection to the rectus abdominis muscle. The forces in the oblique muscles are directed to the rectus and its sheath, and then transferred to the rib cage and pelvis to enhance torque production and stability. As the three layers of the abdominal wall contract, a superstiffness is created to enhance stability. Teaching activation of the entire abdominal wall to patients and to performance athletes alike, is important.”

What has occurred is that people either fall into extremes of the spine never moves, or the spine moves in extreme ranges of motion (our industry isn’t great on the middle). Part of the confusion begins with planks and the idea of “bracing” the core. Research shows that to do most every day activities, we only need about 10% of the force our core can create. That is much less than most people think about in training at the gym, but let me explain and how the plank plays a role.

Good Core Training Foundations

Planks are a big part of core training because they teach a few important principles…

-How to properly brace the core when you apply force into the ground.

-Full body tension for stability.

-How to resist extension of the trunk.

Where many people go wrong is they see one not moving in the plank and assume we never have the spine move. The plank is just a foundational drill to core training and once you can plank adequately, there is no reason to keep planking the same way. That is why most plank progressions actually focus more on resisting higher levels of movement. It is through learning how to resist unwanted movement while keeping the connections of the body that we achieve stability and better core stability. THIS is what is highly relevant to helping low back issues, not just making your “abs strong”.

A great example is our lateral drag that people get wrong ALL the time! The goal is to push into the ground and use the grip and specific positioning of the Ultimate Sandbag to make the diagonal connections that our core uses.

Yup bringing this image back again because I think it needs to be hammered home for our industry. 

DVRT coach, Travis Moyer does a great job of showing what way too many people do when they get overly focused on just moving the weight versus HOW we move the weight and the connections we make. 

DVRT Master, Cory Cripe does an outstanding job of breaking down the intent and technique that is suppose to come with this great core training drill! 

People often go wrong with lateral drags as a core stability exercise because they focus on just getting to a heavier weight. The RIGHT progression is going for longer time under tension. Meaning, most people just drag back and forth, but the goal is to work up to taking about 5-6 seconds to drag the Ultimate Sandbag from one side to the other. Most beginners can’t do that so they can go a bit faster. However, instead of doing more reps or more weight, the goal would be to SLOOOW it down.

Our recommendation is that when you can perform 5 repetitions (a rep is down and back) with a 5-6 second count the whole time, you can go to the next progression. However, the progression isn’t necessarily going heavier. While that could be possible, that goes back now into more core training that is about strength than stability. Instead, we like to manipulate the pattern. How so?

You can see physical therapist, Jessica Bento use more of a diagonal pattern that can also be translated into the plank position. This is a form of lifts/chops which is a great way to build your core training. 

We can change the leverage as DVRT Master, Joel Gunterman shows. However, see how he keeps the athlete in the proper position and alignment. Progressions CAN NOT put you in WORSE positions. 

We can also change our body position like DVRT Master, Ara Keshishian shows is actually from the beast position we can’t use structure or tension to the same level. That means we are bringing on more of our reactive core training which also has a huge correlation to stability!

The point is how we begin with something very static, but we increase our ability to resist unwanted forces as we allow for the movements we want. This is the foundation to good core training, but this isn’t where it stops. Often people think this means we never move our spines, but as I will break down in the second installment, that isn’t the case. However, we have to be VERY careful HOW and where we move from in our spine. There is a lot of bad information out there, we hope to be a reliable resource for you and being true solution to your training goals!

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