When it comes to trends in the fitness industry, you know something has caught on when new clients recognize specific terminology during the first personal training session. And while kettlebells, myofascial release, and plyometrics are still foreign to many, virtually everyone knows about planks and how to hold one (that is, until they are told to do so for more than 10 seconds).
Despite the fact that this exercise is usually associated with core training, clients often ask trainers how the sensation felt in their shoulders, legs or low back is training the abs.
In truth, this lack of understanding by clients really illustrates the issue many trainers and fitness professionals face when prescribing exercises—such as planks and side planks—that are intended to train core stability. Though many clients know how to crunch their abs into submission, few actually possess an understanding of how to properly engage these muscles in daily life.
Much like a weight belt, the abdominals tighten around the spine to provide support during exercise or daily tasks such as bending over and rotating. Contracting the abs in this fashion is known as an abdominal brace. As opposed to “drawing in” the waist to the spine, bracing involves a simultaneous contraction of all abdominal muscles to provide additional stiffness and support to the spine. (McGill, 2004)
While this reaction happens automatically with healthy adults, a lack of conscious control during exercise is often related to a host of issues such as back pain and weakness of core muscles deep inside our bodies. (Libenson, 2008)
While the outer core consists of the visible stomach muscles (rectus abdominis and obliques), the muscles of the inner core are located close to our joints (multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor and transverse abdominis). The function of these muscles is to contract isometrically before movement occurs to stabilize the joints.
The most important thing to understand about this idea is that these muscles must fire before any movement takes place in order to create stability. Interestingly, a timing delay in this reaction has been found to exist in clients with chronic back pain—illustrating the fact that the presence of chronic or acute pain can throw off the way our inner core fires and stabilizes the body. (Page, 2010)
By contrast, the muscles of the outer core are responsible for moving or preventing motion of the extremities and trunk after the inner core muscles have fired. (Cook, 2010)
A common error made in training programs for clients who are deconditioned or returning from injury, is an over abundance of outer core training without re-establishing control of these inner core muscles.
But in order to do so, we must first establish whether or not these muscles are working correctly as well as whether the client is able to active engage an abdominal brace. For this purpose, we can rely on several key tests. (Ward, 2009; Cook, 2010):
Core Test Descriptions
- Breathing Test. This test indicates whether the client is able to breathe deeply through the diaphragm. The client is instructed to place one hand on the stomach and one hand on the chest. They are then asked to take a deep breath, hold for 3-5 seconds, and release. Repeat several times and watch the position of each hand to note whether the upper chest is rising or the stomach is expanding outward. If the top hand rises, it is likely the client has impaired breathing patterns.
- Plank Test. This test is conducted to assess muscular endurance and abdominal bracing. Beginning on all fours, the client is asked to raise the legs off the ground and hold in a plank position with the back flat for 30-60 seconds. Watch for arching or dipping of the pelvis while asking the client where they “feel” this exercise. Improper pelvic position indicates poor muscular endurance, while pain or sensation in regions other than the abs indicates an inability to consciously brace.
- Active Straight Leg Raise Test. This test is utilized to test pelvic stability. The client begins in supine (lying on the back) with both legs straight. The client is then asked to raise one leg off the ground while keeping the other straight. Repeat 3-5 times and watch to see whether the pelvis arches or the down leg turns out. Either of these indicates poor pelvic stability and/or abdominal bracing.
Core Restore Progression
Once we have established our criteria for core training, the goal of our program becomes bringing these muscles back to function while teaching conscious control of the abdominals.
In this article, we will lay out a simple five-step process for bringing the core up to snuff for abdominal training and daily life alike.
Step #1: Gaining the Client’s Trust
The first order of business in working with new clients is the need to establish a clear and open line of communication. Because your client likely associates core training with sit-ups and crunches, this type of training represents a marked departure from what is considered the norm.
This means it is important to clearly explain the need for this program and how it will benefit the client going forward. With this in mind, you may wan tto develop “selling points” which help to explain the basic concepts in simple terms with clear benefits.
- Practicing deep breathing to relieve stress and improve quality of sleep
- Practicing daily abdominal contractions gives the client the ability to firm up the stomach while sitting at their desk!
- Stretching daily takes no more than five minutes and will improve back pain, help you sleep and allow for the development of hard to hit (or flabby) areas of the body
Because these activities must be done on a daily basis or as often as possible, underline the benefits and minimal daily time investment. (They should take no more than 10 minutes per day and can be divided in to multiple 1-3 minute segments.)
Because many of our clients are busy and live their lives by their calendar, one suggestion I utilize is to “pencil” in time for stretching or corrective exercise. Just like any meeting or event, they will often comply reactively if they know it is on the schedule in advance.
Step #2: Regaining Mobility
One of the more important concepts in fitness and/or rehabilitation is mobility before stability. If a joint does not possess the ability to move correctly, it can only stabilize through its limited range of motion.
The first order of business knowing the above is getting your client to stretch and foam roll which directly act upon the pelvis and are often tight and restricted. These include the outer hip, hip flexor/quad, IT band, and lat exercises, which are shown in the images below:
After foam rolling, the client can then perform stretches in order to lengthen the muscles for improved movement. Examples of some appropriate stretches are shown in the images below. As opposed to static stretches which are held for 30-60 seconds, each stretch should involve a slow and relaxed movement to the end range of motion and a hold of 1-2 seconds. Repeat this process ten times for each muscle and move on to the next stretch. (Verstegen, 2009).
Once the client is familiar with this sequence, it can be performed as daily homework and before each session.
Step #3: Just Breathing
After foam rolling and stretching, the session begins with a simple drill to teach the client to re-establish deep breathing. This exercise can be seen as a “bang for your buck” movement because we are training the diaphragm while relieving stress and tension—getting the client in to the right frame of mind to exercise.
This drill can be performed by asking the client to inhale deeply through the nose while expanding the stomach, hold the breath for a slow three count and release through the mouth. At the same time, watch the position of the chest to ensure this area is not rising.
While it will likely take several sessions for the client to gain an understanding of this method of breathing, practicing this drill both in your warm-up and as homework will improve conscious control of this breathing pattern until it becomes unconscious habit. (Ward, 2009)
Step #4: Acing the Brace
Once the client has gained a working understanding of breathing, our next order of business is to re-establish conscious abdominal control. This can be done by teaching them to actively “brace” or contract their abs.
A brace involves tightening the abs as if to avoid being poked in the stomach. This drill can be practiced by placing one hand on the stomach and one hand slightly above the small of the low back.
Apply pressure by pushing in to stomach while tightening your abs to resist. You will feel your back extensor and abdominal muscles simultaneously tighten. Beginners should hold each brace for 5-10 seconds and releasing several times to become familiar with this action. As this becomes easier, the length of each hold increases while the client breathes normally.
Dead Bug March
The ultimate goal of bracing is to consciously tighten the abs to stabilize the trunk against movement of the extremities. With this in mind, our final bracing progression incorporates leg movement while breathing and bracing normally—the dead bug march, shown in the images below
Perform 5-10 dead bug marches on each side at slow and controlled while attempting to maintaining a slight arch in the back and an abdominal contraction (do not flatten excessively in to the floor). (Liebenson, 2008)
Step #5: Progressing to Planks
Following the re-establishment of breathing patterns and the ability to actively brace the abdominals in supine, we can then progress into more advanced exercises such as planks.
The key to this progression is first finding a neutral spine position while remaining on all fours. This can be accomplished via an exercise known as the Cat-Camel. This exercise is performed by moving the back through the full range of flexion and extension for five to ten reps, finally settling on a neutral position with a slight arch in the back (see images below). (Liebenson, 2008)
From here, we raise in to a plank position while maintaining our brace and neutral spine position.
After several sessions of working on establishing positioning, this exercise can be progressed to a full plank position. Once trust has been established between client and trainer, a dowel rod or broom stick can be placed on the client’s back to teach the back to stay in position.
Alternatively, we could also utilize objects such as water bottles and/or smaller implements if the broomstick proves uncomfortable for the client. At the same time, the stomach can poked at various angles to ensure the client is maintaining the abdominal brace.
This exercise can be held from 10-60 seconds and progressed in to a full elbow plank (Tuminello, 2009).
While this article has covered a progressive approach to improving abdominal function, the question becomes how to get this into a 30- to 60-minute training session.
For the majority of clients, this can be easily accomplished by incorporating these exercises into various components of the session such as the warm-up and strength training.
Some suggestions include:
- Perform foam rolling and stretching drills as standard pre-workout sequence.
- Perform breathing and bracing practice for 3-5 breaths as part of warm up activation sequence.
- Perform dead bug marching for one set of ten reps after breathing and bracing.
- Perform frontal plank as part of standing strength circuit.
- Assign flexibility routine and breathing and bracing drills as off-day homework for clients.
Performed regularly, these simple drills will have a profound impact on the client’s movement and training outlook. With this in mind, it is recommended to re-test frequently and progress the client in some way with each session.
- Cook, G. (2010). Movement. 1st ed. Santa Cruz, CA: On Target.
- Liebenson, C. (2008). A Modern Approach To Abdominal Training Part 3- Putting It All Together. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy. 12.: 21-36.
- McGill, S. (2004). Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. 4th Ed. OPTP.
- Page, P. (2010). Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance. Chicago, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Tuminello, N. (May 14, 2009) Plank Progressions for Killer Abs. (Online), August 25, 2010. Wannabebig.com.
- Verstegen, M. (2009). Core Performance Women. 1st Ed. New York, NY: Avery.
- Ward, P. (2009). Breathing Patterns Part 2: Assessments. (Online), August 25, 2010. Optimum Sports Performance.