When it comes to fitness-related topics, if you haven’t read an article on “core” training within the past two decades, then you must be living on the moon. It seems every time a fitness magazine is put to press there is at least one article dedicated to getting ripped abs, reducing the size of your waist, or highlighting the next big core exercise of the year. Heck, even your dear Aunt Sally knows it is good to work her core.
There are many good reasons for this popularity phenomenon. Developing a good base of core strength has been shown increase athletic prowess, help you attract the opposite sex and prevent many unwanted injuries from occurring. And let’s face it – a chiseled six-pack is what we all want at the end of the day, right!?
When sifting through reams of fitness articles and DVDs relating to core exercises there are a lot of good programs that have the potential to benefit many people. However these “flash in the pan”-style programs often fail to truly manifest the long-term desired results in reality. In some cases, they even have the potential to increase the risk of injury due to muscle imbalances and poor recruitment patterns.
Quality vs. Quantity
The problem with these program prescriptions, in most is cases, lies not in the content or order of exercises, but in the way these exercises are performed. Most people try to just blindly emulate what they see in the magazine, and the common instructional cueing for core training commonly includes drawing the stomach in towards the spine (or “hollowing”). This is often inappropriate cueing, and can leave the spine susceptible to injury in certain scenarios (McGill 2007). It has been shown in research that these techniques can reduce spinal stability and actually shut off involvement of other key muscles in the core including the obliques (McGill 2007).
What’s often taken for granted during core exercises is the foundation of how to recruit the core musculature. This is truly the key to execute any core exercise correctly and have it become applicable in the real world. In the case of training the core musculature, it is not about how many reps that you can do, but rather the quality of which you are performing them. In other words, it is not what you do – it is how you do it.
Learning the Basics
Before any core exercise can be performed properly, one must learn how to brace effectively. Whether you are doing a basic crunch, plank, stability ball work, multi-joint lifts or just out walking the dog, bracing must occur to do these exercises correctly and move healthfully.
Bracing, in a nutshell, keeps the axial skeleton in neutral alignment and effectively recruits all three layers of the abdominal wall (McGill 2007). It also creates a solid linkage between the shoulder and hip girdle while recruiting the obliques effectively (McGill 2007). Proper linkage allows movements to occur and translate more fluidly through the core and into the limbs during movements like running, biking and throwing. When braced, these movements are performed with less overall effort spent from your energy economy.
This all starts with training the abdominals to learn how to brace properly. Basic bracing skills will then progress into bracing with limb movements; and finally applying this to all your lifts and locomotion like running, biking, etc.
Before you can brace correctly, you must first address breathing style and patterns (Nelson 2012). While most people think breathing is an unconscious effort, there is actually a correct way and an incorrect way to breathe (particularly when it comes to performing core work correctly). The proper way to breathe is called Diaphragmatic (or “belly breathing”). This style of breathing should also be taken into consideration while relaxing, working, driving, and with any movements. Advanced breathing techniques beyond this foundation include biomechanical breathing and power breathing.
To breathe correctly, you must get in touch with your Diaphragm muscle, which lies deep within the core. It originates on your lumbar spine and inserts into your sternum, forming a dome shaped muscle inside the walls of the ribcage. The recent article Diaphragmatic Breathing: The foundation of core stability in the National Strength and Conditioning Journal explains the diaphragm as having a dual role as both a core stabilizer and a respiratory muscle.
According Dr. Stuart McGill, who is considered to be one of the leading authorities on back health; when the diaphragm muscle becomes challenged in both its functions it has shown to prioritize its breathing function over core stabilization. This applies to activities where the body is under a load with an elevated breathing rate like high rep squats, swings or running. This can leave you highly susceptible to a back injury while performing these modes of exercise. In order to do these activities safely you must learn to brace with the abs while maintaining breath control.
When you can brace your core and breathe simultaneously, that is known in the hard-style Kettlebell world as “breathing behind the shield” If you have ever watched a UFC fight. There is always one guy who is getting smoked in the late rounds. You will notice their gut start hang out and a loss of muscle tone in the midsection, which leaves their internal organs susceptible to a body blow. The guy that is in better condition is breathing just as hard but keeping his core tight and internal organs protected. He is doing what is known as “breathing behind the shield”.
Training the Diaphragm
The good news is the diaphragm muscle is capable of being conditioned just like any other muscles. You do curls to make your biceps stronger you can do breathing exercises to make your diaphragm stronger. Learning to diaphragmatic breathe can also have a positive impact on myriad of other disorders, including cardiac function, blood pressure, as well as posture (Hanna 1988). With a little further research you will find the list goes on and on. Here is a basic exercise that will train your diaphragm to be strong for the long haul.
Belly Breathing: Lay on your back with your knees up and feet flat on the ground. Interlace your fingers and place them over your belly button. Let the arms relax. Pull air in though your nose and imagine pulling it all the way down into your belly button. You now want to feel your hands rise and fall upon each breath cycle. This indicates that you are using your diaphragm muscle correctly to breathe. If you feel your shoulders rise towards your ears or upper back press into the floor, then you are breathing incorrectly. Do 3-5 minutes, once or twice a daily to enhance diaphragmatic breathing capabilities.
Once you get in touch with diaphragmatic breathing you are now ready to learn how to brace and finally achieve truly strong core. Please be patient at first, as learning to brace often takes a lot of trial and error, especially if you are unconditioned and lack kinesthetic awareness in this area.
Start off on the floor by doing small abdominal compressions, which is a lot like doing a small crunch. As far as exercises go this is not the most exciting or glamorous, but if practiced regularly it is highly effective. If you get in touch with this foundational exercise, you will be able to yield the results you always wanted.
Before you begin, place one of your hands under your lower back and take note of how much space is between your lower back and the floor. This is known as your lumbar curve. The greater the space the harder it will be to brace and neutralize your spine adequately. An excessive curvature of this area is called a lordosis and can be greatly managed by following these exercise recommendations.
For the beginner, bracing should start off fairly simple and be uncoordinated at first, but with practice the proper form will become clear. Simply act as if you were going to take a punch in the midsection!
Start from the same position as the belly breathing exercise. Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms relaxed and extended at the sides of the torso. Exhale through pursed lips as you brace. This will eventually neutralize the curve in your lower back and put the spine in a neutral position. Hold this position for a two second count then inhale upon release. That equals one rep.
Abdominal Compressions: 3 sets of 10-20 reps at 3-5 times per week.
Feedback and Measurements
To get feedback and awareness of how efficiently the abdominals are working is critical to learning to do this effectively and progress beyond. Use a standard blood pressure cuff to gain the empirical data. A slightly inflated blood pressure cuff will fit nicely into the natural lumbar curve while lying supine with the knees bent. The cuff also serves to maintain and teach a healthy lumbar curve and prevent hyper-flexion of the spine from occurring during the exercise.
Pump some air into the cuff to inflate slightly (approximately 3-5 pumps) and close off the valve. Now place the cuff between your lower back and the floor. Place it so it is centered on your lumbar spine. You want feel equal air pressure on both sides of your lower back. As you brace and neutralize your lumbar curve the displacement of the air will give you direct feedback of how well you are bracing. Brace like you are going to take a punch and the neutralization of the spine will press the lumbar into the blood pressure cuff. Hold for two seconds while at the top of your exhale.
For feedback, the numbers are like letter grades. Typically 60 is just passing and a 100 plus is outstanding. Hold the pressure gauge so you or your partner can see your results each rep. Shoot for progress over time by increasing the numbers until you can reach and maintain roughly 100 on the gauge.
Progressing to Movements
The next challenge is to perform alternating arms and legs (Dead bugs) while supine and keeping static tension on the blood pressure cuff through bracing. This movement will exaggerate the natural gait cycle during walking and running. This movement will also educate your limbs to generate movement from the core while maintaining bracing and breathing behind the shield.
Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms relaxed and extended at the sides of the torso. Establish bracing by putting pressure into the cuff. Inhale and slide your right leg to full extension and extend your left arm over head to try and make contact with the floor. Keep the arms straight throughout the movement. Extend your opposing limbs as far as you can go while maintaining bracing and the initial pressure that was placed on the cuff.
Next apply extra bracing and exhale as you slide your heel back and pull the arm back to the starting position. Alternate sides and repeat. Overtime, try to reach full extension of your opposing limbs while maintaining a high level of bracing against the BP cuff.
Alternating arms and legs aka Dead bugs: 3 sets 10-20 reps at 3-5 times per week.
Application of the bracing technique can now be applied to more advanced exercises to achieve safe and effective results. For example when doing a basic ball crunch act as if someone has dropped a medicine ball on your abs with each repetition. When planking, brace as if someone may come and kick you in the midsection, ditto for the overhead press, squat, deadlift and swing exercise. For activities of daily living, it is essential to use this skill to perform healthfully.
- Hanna, Thomas. Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health. New York: Perseus Books, 56-58, 1988.
- McGill S. Low back disorders: Evidence based prevention and rehabilitation (2nd). Human Kinetics, 172-176, 2007
- McGill S, Sharratt M, and Seguin J. Loads on spinal tissues during simultaneous lifting and ventilatory challenge. Ergonomics 38: 1772-1792, 1995
- Nelson N. Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Foundation of Core Stability. Strength and Conditioning journal 34: 34-40, 2012