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Core Training: When Less is More


Once upon a time, fitness professionals were taught that strengthening the abs was the cure-all for every problem involving the core.

Want to cure back pain? Strength the abs. Need a six pack for the beach? Knock out a few crunches. And so the story goes...

Take a look at these two photos of a client performing a push-up:

client performing push-up with neutral spinal posture client performing push-up with xcessive lordosis (arching) of low back
Neutral spinal posture Excessive lordosis (arching) of low back

One thing you will notice in the second photo is the marked lordosis or arching of the lower back. In my experience, this posture is often the outcome of overly committed and frequent core training—namely overly active global muscles.

When the muscles of the client’s outer core (erector spinae, rectus abdominis, obliques, glutes, etc.) have been excessively engaged in activities such as strength training and direct abdominal work for months on end, what we are essentially telling the body is that these muscles require a level of activity and tension that far exceeds the norm (Kelly, 2011).

Interestingly, we often find overactivity in these same muscles in individuals experiencing back, neck and shoulder pain as the body’s temporary solution to provide stability in the presence of pain. While this may work in the short term, problems — such as a chronic stiffness, poor breathing and an increased risk of injury — begin to occur when our larger global muscles continue to assume the stabilization function of inner core musculature after pain has subsided (Weingroff, 2011).

What we often fail to consider with this issue is that the type of training we employ and the strategies we adopt for movement can easily initiate the same process—with or without pain.

For example, though we often teach our clients to “brace” the abdominals to provide stability during high load tasks such as exercise and carrying heavy objects, this strategy comes with the cost of higher compressive loading of the joints, restricted mobility, inhibited respiratory patterns, challenged continence and higher intra-abdominal pressure.

Because around 85% of daily activities involve low-loading tasks that require only around 10-15% muscular contraction to maintain stability, repetitively training a high-threshold strategy for all situations presents the danger of creating an overreliance on global musculature for stability (Lee, 2011, p. 77).

With this in mind, the key to foregoing this problem is recognizing the telltale signs and symptoms of imbalance while adopting training strategies to maintain a balance between these two systems.

Finding Wiggle Room

Whether performing rehabilitation or simply training for optimal function and aesthetic appearance, effective core training promotes both control and stability along with fluidity of movement.

A clear sign of trouble with your approach is a loss of mobility in key areas of the core along with altered breathing patterns. When engaging in a new training program or altering your current approach, this means it is important to watch for excessive activity in the superficial muscle system and connected myofascial sling systems, as this will reduce rib cage mobility, lateral costal expansion, spinal mobility and hip mobility (Lee, 2011, p. 357).

With this in mind, an approach advocated by Canadian Physiotherapist Diane Lee is to monitor specific “checkpoints” on the body for excessive rigidity. The following are a few simple tests to perform on yourself or your client:

Rib Cage Wiggle

Rib Cage Wiggle Photo 1 Rib Cage Wiggle Photo 2 Rib Cage Wiggle Photo 3
Starting position Left lateral translation Right lateral translation

Breathing Pattern

Breath Test Photo 1 Breath Test Photo 2
Chest rising Rib cage lateral expansion

Hip Internal/External Rotation

Hip Rotation Test Photo 1 Hip Rotation Test Photo 2 Hip Rotation Test Photo 3
Starting position External rotation Internal rotation

Getting on the Ball

After determining whether restrictions exist in the system, the next step is to adopt specific self-release techniques and training solutions to suppress global activity and improve range of motion.

The first step in this process is adopting regular self-release and stretching strategies for the affected areas. Because deep breathing has been shown to be an effective means of decreasing global tone, combining this practice with self-release for the following areas is advised:

Abdominal Release

Abdominal Release Photo 1 Abdominal Release Photo 2 Abdominal Release Photo 3 Abdominal Release Photo 4
Starting position Self-release Abdominal stretch Supported stretch

After performing self-release, lay over a gym ball extending the arms over head while continuing to breath deep for 1-2 minutes. If balance is an issue, place the ball between a wall and a chair (Lee, 2011, p. 312).

Erector Spinae Release

Erector Spinae Release Photo 1 Erector Spinae Release Photo 2 Erector Spinae Release Photo 3 Erector Spinae Release Photo 4
Starting position Self-release position 1 Self-release position 2 Erector spinae stretch

From here, the client can perform slow oscillations by rocking forward and backward across the peanut as if performing a mini-crunch. Perform 5-10 oscillations and then move the peanut to the next segment.  Work from the thoracolumbar junction up to the beginning of the cervical spine. Stay out of the cervical and lumbar areas; these are not areas that need mobility work.

After completing self-release, the client is instructed to lay prone over a gym ball while practicing deep breathing. Instruct the client to “send their breath” while relaxing for 1-2 minutes (Lee, 2011, p. 306).

Hip Internal/External Rotation Release

Hip Release Photo 1 Hip Release Photo 2 Hip Release Photo 3 Hip Release Photo 4
Starting position Self-release Pigeon stretch Modified stretch

After release has been performed, the client should come to hands and knees on the floor. From here, bring the right knee between the hands and rest on the right hip. If the right buttocks cannot comfortably rest on the floor, place a blanket or pillow underneath the right buttocks. It is important that the client's right side is supported and resting on the floor or a pillow. Then straighten the left leg out behind and hold in this position for 1-2 minutes while performing deep breathing (Weingroff).

Striking a Balance

In programming core training for either yourself or your client, the most important thing to understand is that the core possesses two sets of muscles with two very different roles. To achieve optimal development (without jacking up the spine), we must strike a balance between these muscles.

Beginning deep inside our bodies, we possess inner core muscles (transverse abdominis, diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidus) which are located close to our joints and activate before movement occurs to provide segmental muscle stiffness and control. These muscles also play a role in the control of respiration and continence.

By contrast, the outer core muscles (internal/external obliques, erector spinae, rectus abdominis, gluteal muscles) cross multiple joints and act to control and resist movement, as well as provide postural stability.

While the outer core muscles respond to high load stimuli such as excessive bracing during lifting weights and direct abdominal work, the inner core is recruited by low threshold contractions of no more than 10-15% voluntary effort (Lee, 2011, p. 339).

Because our goal with training is to promote fluidity of movement with optimal control, a balance between these systems must be struck in training.

With this in mind, we have found success in programming a “stability” circuit in which basic outer core stability exercises such as planks, side planks and bridges are performed with deep breathing to encourage co-contraction between the two systems (Kelly).

Performed in conjunction with the self-release and stretching drills described above, this circuit of exercises acts to integrate and re-establish the relationship between the two systems.

Plank

Plank Photo 1 Plank Photo 2
Starting position Plank position

Side Plank

Side Plank Photo 1 Side Plank Photo 2
Starting position Bent leg side plank position

Bridge

Bridge Photo 1 Bridge Photo 2 Bridge Photo 3
Starting position Bridge position (Good) Bridge position
(Bad, with back off ground)

Encourage the client to initiate a SLOW abdominal contraction with maintaining deep breathing during each movement. This process should feel nearly effort and involve a minimal (10-15%) contraction. Hold for ten seconds and instruct the client to return to the floor. Repeat this process five to ten times (Lee, 2011, p. 334).

Deloading Protocols

By incorporating the drills above into our regular training routine, we can provide a far more effective training and enjoyable effect for clients of all kinds (as well as for ourselves).

Put in to practice, the two sections above are combined as a circuit which is performed on both off-days as well as during deloading periods. Performed in interval fashion, this begins with self massage drills, followed by stretching and finally stability training. In total, the routine takes around 12-15 minutes.

At the end of every four week cycle, we will incorporate a deload period in which we perform this circuit three times per week for up to two weeks while omitting direct abdominal work from our programming for at least seven to ten days (Kelly, 2011).

Performed in interval fashion, this begins with self-massage drills, followed by stretching and finally stability training. In total, the routine takes around 12-15 minutes.

Throughout each cycle, utilize the “checkpoints” for rigidity described above as a guide to monitor the effect of training volume as well as the introduction of new exercises (Lee, 2011, p. 357).

Sample Deload Workout

Step 1:
Self Massage 1 x 2-3 minutes
Step 2:
Stretch 1 x 60-90 seconds
Step 3:
Stability training  3 x 5-10 seconds
Ball (Stomach) Stability Ball Extension Plank
Ball (Posterior Hip) Pigeon Pose Side Plank
Peanut (Thoracic Spine) Stability ball flexion Glute bridge

References

  1. Boyle, M. (2007, Oct. 25). The Essential Eight – Eight Mobility Drills Everyone Should Do. Strength Coach. Retrieved from http://www.strengthcoach.com/public/1298.cfm.
  2. Kelly, C. & Chewning, J. (Directors). (2011). Complete the Core [DVD]. United States: Fitness Learning Systems.
  3. Lee, D. (Producer), & Lee, D. (Director). (2004). An Integrated Approach to the Assessment and Treatment of The Lumbopelvic-Hip Region [DVD]. Canada: Physiotherapist Corp.
  4. Lee, D. (2011). The Pelvic Girdle. Fourth Edition. Toronto, Canada: Churchill Livingstone.
  5. Weingroff, C. & Draper, L. (Directors). (2011). Training = Rehab, Rehab = Training [DVD]. United States: Vivendi.