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Working Core Training in 360 Degrees

The notion of core training has been around for years and years.  As far back as I can remember, people have been doing crunches, sit-ups, weighted side bends, and more.  You could walk into any gym in the world and probably see someone doing some sort of “core” exercise.

core training sit ups

Photo credit

Even today, there are still people performing sit-ups or some other variation in their training program.  But as we continue to learn more about the spine, these traditional core exercises may actually be disadvantageous.  According to Dr. Stuart McGill, a noted spine biomechanist from the University of Waterloo:

“The spine may be more prone to injury when they are in a fully flexed posture.”

Last time I checked, when someone is performing a sit-up, they are in a great deal of flexion.  

Many other studies by McGill and other researchers have been published on the increased risk of high repetition and/or loaded lumbar spine motion.  Since this research has been published, there has been a pendulum swing towards performing more neutral spine movements such as planks.

core training plank

In another study by Cholewicki and McGill in Clinical Biomechanics:

“One important mechanical function of the lumbar spine is to support the upper body by transmitting compressive and shearing forces to the lower body during the performance of everyday activities. To enable the successful transmission of these forces, mechanical stability of the spinal system must be assured.”

By performing some type of plank or neutral spine exercise, this can potentially train the core to transmit force from the upper body to the lower body or vice versa without compromising the spine.

Performing plank variations is great, but as humans, we move in multiple planes of motion.  Therefore, we need to train the core to function in all planes of motion.

 

Core Musculature

360 degree core trainingThere are many muscles that contribute to the functioning of a stable core position.  These muscles include:

 

  • Rectus Abdominis
  • Internal Obliques
  • External Obliques
  • Transverse Abdominis
  • Multifidi
  • Quadratus Lumborum
  • Diaphragm
  • Pelvic Floor
  • Latissimus Dorsi

There have been studies performed over the years saying that transverse abdominis or multifidi are the main stabilizers of the lumbar spine.  Study after study, many by McGill, have refuted that 1 or 2 muscles are the primary stabilizers of the spine.  McGill et al. in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology found that:

“The collection of works synthesized here point to the notion that stability results from highly coordinated muscle activation patterns involving many muscles, and that the recruitment patterns must continually change, depending on the task.”

Therefore, when we are training or treating our clients, we should not be attempting to isolate one muscle we performing lifting tasks.  Some muscles may be more active than others in one task as compared to another.  Instead, we should be working to maintain a neutral spine position and to resist motion through the lumbar spine.

The McGill Big 3

McGill came up with a series of 3 exercises, entitled “The Big 3” to help teach and re-educate patients or clients returning from a low back injury on how to properly stabilize their spine.

They include:

McGill Curl-Up

Key Points:

  • Place finger tips under low back.
  • Maintain a neutral spine position at low back and neck.
  • Slightly lift shoulders off ground while maintaining spine position.

Bird Dog

Key Points:

  • Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Imagine you have a drink on your low back. Don’t let it spill

Side Plank

Key Points:

  • Start on your side in a hip hinged position (hips slightly flexed).
  • Bring hips forward, not up.

These exercises are great implements to add into the beginning of a strength and conditioning program or during a rehab program for someone returning from a low back injury.  But, these exercises are a foundation for movement.  If we are going to build core stability throughout, thence need to have a solid foundation as well as solid “walls and a roof.”

 

Core Training Progression

There are typically two functions of the core:

  1. Transmit force from the lower body to the upper body or vice versa.  
  2. Resist motion.  

For example, if you are a baseball player and are throwing or swinging a bat, you want to have some motion through your lumbar spine, but predominantly through the hips and thoracic spine.  If we try to stop motion at the lumbar spine, your effectiveness as an athlete will be subpar.

Don’t forget…  the spine needs to move.  This is something Mike has covered in his article Are We Missing the Boat on Core Training?

Regarding the other aspect of resisting motion, if you are going to pick something heavy up off the ground, you want to maintain a neutral spine posture so that your core can transmit force from your legs and into your arms as you lift to the implement.

We need to appreciate these two different situations as we program for our clients.

The three planes of movement that the core musculature works in is the:

  • Sagittal Plane
  • Frontal Plane
  • Transverse Plane

The sagittal plane is lumbar spine flexion and extension. The frontal plane is lateral flexion or sidebending.  The transverse plane is rotation to the right or left.

The following progressions are a big part of Mike Reinold and Eric Cressey’s Functional Stability Training For the Core program.

 

Anti-Extension Core Training

Anti-extension core training consists of the body’s ability to resist movement into lumbar spine extension or to slow down motion from a flexed position to neutral, or from neutral to extension.

Exercises that focus on anti-extension stability are:

RKC Plank

Key Points:

  • Pull your elbows toward your toes.
  • Squeeze your glutes as hard as you can.
  • Maintain a neutral spine.

TRX Fallouts

Key Points:

  • Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Tuck tailbone/bring belt towards chin.
  • Slide arms out while keeping neutral spine.

Farmer’s Carries

Key Points:

  • Hold relatively heavy weight in each hand.
  • Ribs down/neutral spine.
  • Walk.  Don’t lose neutral spine posture as you walk.

Dead Bugs

Key Points:

  • Flatten low back to ground so that spine is neutral.
  • Bring right arm overhead and left leg out away from body.
  • Do not lose neutral spine position.  Return to starting position.
  • Repeat on other arm/leg.

Tall Kneeling Anti-Extension Press

Key Points:

  • Setup cable at head height when in tall kneeling.
  • Maintain a neutral spine and press cable overhead.
  • Cable will try to pull you into extension.  Don’t let it.
  • The only thing moving should be your arms.

Anti-Lateral Flexion Core Training

Anti-lateral flexion core training consists of the body’s ability to resist movement into lumbar spine lateral flexion to the right or left or to slow down motion from a flexed position to neutral, or from neutral to the opposite laterally flexed position.

Exercises that focus on anti-lateral flexion core stability are:

Suitcase Carries

Key Points:

  • Hold weight in one hand.
  • Do not let weight pull you out of a tall, neutral posture.
  • Don’t overcompensate to and flex to the opposite side.
  • Walk.

Side Planks

Key Points:

  • Start on your side in a neutral spine, slightly hips flexed position.
  • Maintain neutral spine and bring hips forward.
  • Maintain a straight line from your head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and ankles.

Racked Carries

Key Points:

  • Maintain a tall posture similar to the suitcase carries.
  • Walk.

Anti-Rotation Core Training

Anti-rotation core training consists of the body’s ability to resist movement into lumbar spine rotation to the right or left or to slow down motion from a rotated position to neutral, or from neutral to a rotated position.

Exercises that focus on anti-rotation core stability are:

Anti-Rotation Press

Key Points:

  • Start behind cable arm.
  • When you press your hands away, don’t let the machine rotate you.  Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Perform facing both directions.

1/2 Kneeling Chops

Key Points:

  • Leg closest to the machine should be up.
  • Bring arms down and across your body to you far side hip.
  • Only move head and arms.
  • Perform on both sides.

1/2 Kneeling Lifts

Key Points:

  • Leg closest to machine should be down.
  • Same cues as chops, but bring cable to far side shoulder.

TRX Anti-Rotation Press

Key Points:

  • Feet should be in tandem.
  • Maintain a neutral spine position.
  • Don’t let your body rotate or sidebend during press.
  • Perform on both sides.

 

Multi-Planar Movements and Rotational Sport Athletes

Once the body has mastered the basic core progressions and anti-movement-based drills, it is important to incorporate multi-planar and rotational movements.  These movements work on incorporating movement through the hips and thoracic spine versus some of the movements before where basically no movement was occurring.

As mentioned before, these exercises will help the athlete and client to control themselves going from one position to another.  As a rotational sport athlete, we don’t want to completely limit any spine motion.  We want the body to be able to control and decelerate the body using the musculature versus passive restraints (ie. bone, ligament, etc.) at end range.  These can also be used by non-rotational sport athletes as well.

Sledgehammer Hits

Key Points:

  • Bring the sledgehammer up over one shoulder.  Don’t let it bring you into lumbar extension.
  • Hit the tire while maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Alternate per side.

Medicine Ball Overhead Slams

Key Points:

  • Raise the medicine ball overhead.
  • Avoid going into lumbar extension.
  • Slam the ball to the ground while maintaining a neutral spine.

Medicine Ball Overhead Rotational Slams

Key Points:

  • Bring the ball up overhead.  Don’t let it bring you into lumbar extension.
  • Throw while maintaining a neutral spine.

Medicine Ball Scoop Toss

Key Points:

  • Load your back leg with your weight.
  • Transfer weight quickly from back to front leg.
  • Majority of the motion should be coming from the thoracic spine and hips.
  • Perform on both sides.

Medicine Ball Shotput Toss

Key Points:

  • Load medicine ball at shoulder height.
  • Load back hip/leg.
  • Quickly drive off back leg and twist through hips/thoracic spine.
  • Perform on both sides.

 

Breathing and Core Training

Implementing breathing with core training is very important.  If we are constantly holding our breath while performing core exercises, then we are compensating using the valsalva maneuver versus training the musculature to have to stabilize throughout the exercise.

Related Articles:

*Disclaimer*: if you have heavy weight in your hands or on your back in the cases of a deadlift or squat, then I am a proponent of using the breath to brace the core and spine.  When it comes to core exercises as mentioned above, remember to breath.  

With the said, here are a couple of exercises where implementing the breath adds another component to the movement.

Anti-Rotation Press with Full Exhale

Key Points:

  • Same as before with Anti-rotation Press.
  • Complete full exhale when hands are out in front of your body.
  • Maintain proper form during exhale and inhale.

Prone Plank with Full Exhale

Key Points:

  • Same as before with Plank.
  • Complete full inhale and exhale without losing form.

 

Strength Training and Core Stability

Lastly, we can’t go through an entire article and not discuss the use of core stability and strength training.  I am a firm believer that just performing squats and deadlifts are not enough to improve core and trunk stability.  Adding some of the movements mentioned above can add another component to create a well-rounded training program.

When it comes to performing squats, deadlifts, etc., maintaining a neutral spine during the lifts is extremely important.  Yes, there are some elite level lifters out there who can sway away from a neutral position in one direction or the other.   For the vast majority of people performing strength movements such as these, a neutral spine should be maintained.

There you have it.  By incorporating core stability exercises throughout all planes of motion, it will allow your clients and/or athletes to reduce their risk for injuries as well as improve their performance.

 

Learn More About Core Training

If you want to learn even more about functional core training, check out Mike Reinold and Eric Cressey’s Functional Stability Training for the Core.  The program goes over many of these progressions and a whole lot more to help you completely understand the true role of the core and how to incorporate functional core training into your rehab and strength training programs:

 

About the Author

andrew_millettAndrew Millett is a Boston-based physical therapist in the field of orthopedic and sports medicine physical therapy.  He helps to bridge the gap between physical therapy and strength and conditioning.  Visit his website at AndrewMillettPT.com.

 

 

 

 

A Simple and Easy Hip Mobility Drill for Low Back Pain

Low back pain continues to be one of the most common health complaints that limit people, especially as we age.  Rehabilitation of low back pain has transition from simply focusing on reducing the local pain to emphasizing a biomechanical approach of how other areas of the body, such as the hips, impact low back pain.

Essentially we have done a great job moving away from simply treating the symptoms and working towards finding the movement impairment leading to the low back pain.  Sure, using something like a TENS device may have a role to neuromodulate pain, but it is now common knowledge that the improvements seen are transient at best and not addressing the real dysfunction.

One area that has received a lot of attention, and rightfully so, is looking at limitations in hip mobility as a cause of low back pain.  Much of the research to date has focused on looking at the loss of hip external rotation and internal rotation mobility.  In fact, I have an older article on the correlation between hip mobility and low back pain.

I can say that my own ability to help people with low back pain has greatly improved as I’ve learned to focus on hip mobility over the years.

 

hip extension mobility low back painHip Mobility and Low Back Pain

A new study was recently published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy that adds to our understanding of the influence of hip mobility on low back pain.  In the current study, the authors evaluated hip external rotation, internal rotation, and extension mobility in two groups of individuals, those with and without nonspecific low back pain.

While using a Thomas test to assess hip extension, the authors found the follow:

  • Hip extension in those with low back pain = -4.16 degrees
  • Hip extension in those without low back pain = 6.78 degrees

That’s a total loss of 10 degrees of hip extension in those with low back pain.

 

A Loss of Hip Extension Correlates to Low Back Pain

So now in addition to rotational loss of hip rotational mobility, it has been shown that a loss of hip extension correlates to low back pain.  To me, this has always been something I have focused on and makes perfect sense, especially as we age.

The vast majority of our society sits for the majority of the day and becomes less and less active as they age.  Among many things, this results in tight hip flexors and an anterior pelvic tilt posture.

Putting recreational activities like sports and running aside, this anterior pelvic tilt posture with tight hip flexors causes a loss of hip extension mobility and the low back tends to take the load but hyperextending.  This happens while simply walking and in a standing posture.

Think about the results above, people with low back pain have negative hip extension, meaning they can’t even extend to neutral!

As we all know, the human body is amazing and will compensate.  Hips don’t extend?  No problem, we’ll extend our spine more.

So a pretty easy step to take to reduce back pain is to work on hip extension mobility.

One drill that almost everyone that trains at Champion PT and Performance gets is what I named the “True Hip Flexor Stretch.”  I’ve talked about it at length in past articles, but I am a believer that most of our hip flexor stretches commonly performed in the fitness world are disadvantageous and not actually stretching what we want to stretch.

The True Hip Flexor Stretch is a great place to start to work on hip extension mobility:

As you can see (and feel), this gets a great stretch on your hip flexors without causing any compensatory low back extension.  And by focusing on posterior pelvic tilt, we gear this towards those with a lot of anterior pelvic tilt.

 

I really believe that the “True Hip Flexor Stretch” is one of the most important stretches you should be performing.  [Click to Tweet]

 

Next, Focus on Reducing Anterior Pelvic Tilt in People with Low Back Pain

Updated Strategies on Anterior Pelvic TiltI’m not a big believer that static posture is the most important thing we should all be focusing on when outline our treatment and fitness programs, but it’s a start.  Someone in an anterior pelvic tilt static posture isn’t always evil, and can be the result of many things such as poor core control, poor mobility, and even excessive weight.  I tend to care more about how well people move.

But based on the current evidence, it’s a great place to start.

Once you’ve started to gain some hip mobility, there is a ton more work to do.  We also have to work on glute and core control, among other things.  If you’re interested in learning more, I have a hugely popular Inner Circle webinar on my treatment strategies for anterior pelvic tilt that goes into detail on what I recommend:

 

In summary, we now have a nice study that shows people with low back pain have 10 degrees less hip extension that those without.  This makes sense, and focusing on hip extension should be one of the key components of any low back pain program.

 

 

4 Ways to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

4 Ways to Improve Overhead Shoulder MobilityOne of the most common areas we attempt to improve in clients at Champion PT and Performance is overhead shoulder mobility.  If you really think about it, we don’t need full overhead shoulder mobility much during our daily lives.  So our bodies adapt and this seems to be an movement that is lost in many people over time if not nourished.

I’m often amazed at how many people have a significant loss of overhead mobility and really had no idea!

That’s not really the issue.  The problem occurs when we start to use overhead mobility again, especially when doing it during our workouts and training.  Exercises like a press, thruster, snatch, overhead squat, kipping pull up, toes to bar, handstand push up, wall ball, and many more all use the shoulder at end range of movement.  But here are the real issues:

  • Add using the shoulder to max end range of overhead mobility and we can run into trouble
  • Add loading during a resisted exercise and we can run into trouble
  • Add repetitions of this at end range and we can run into trouble
  • Add speed (and thus force) to the exercise and we can run into trouble

 

4 Ways to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

In this video I explain the 4 most common reasons why you lose overhead shoulder mobility and can work on to improve this movement:

  1. The shoulder
  2. The scapula
  3. The thoracic spine
  4. The lumbopelvic area

The first three are commonly address, but not so for the lumbopelvic area, which is often neglected.  I’m going to expand on this even more in this month’s Inner Circle webinar.  More info is below the video:

 

Assessing and Improving Overhead Shoulder Mobility

For those interested in learning more, I have a few Inner Circle webinars on how to assess and improve overhead shoulder mobility:

 

 

 

Updated Strategies for Anterior Pelvic Tilt

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on the Strategies for Anterior Pelvic Tilt is now available.

Updated Strategies for Anterior Pelvic Tilt

strategies for anterior pelvic tiltThis month’s Inner Circle webinar was on Strategies for Anterior Pelvic Tilt.  This is actually an update on one of my most popular webinars in the past.  I am doing a couple new things and wanted to assure everyone has my newest thoughts.  In this webinar I go through my system of how I integrate manual therapy, self-myofascial release, stretching, and correcting exercises.  To me, it’s all how you put the program together.  My system builds off each step to maximize the effectiveness of your programs.

Are We Missing the Boat on Core Training?

A lot of attention has been placed on core training over the last several years, both in the rehab and fitness industry.  I recently watched my friend Nick Tumminello’s latest product Core Training: Facts, Fallacies, and Top Techniques and it made me think.

We’ve made exceptional progress in our understanding of the core and have shifted away from isolated ab training to integrated core training.  My DVD with Eric Cressey on Functional Stability Training for the Core discussed this at length and showed a nice system to effectively train every aspect of the core.

However, the more I read on the internet the more I wonder if we are still missing the boat a little bit.  I’ll chalk this up as a another pendulum swing, but while we have progressed away from isolated abdominal exercises like sit ups, I wonder if we have swung too far to an extreme and started to focus only on isometric anti-movement exercises for the core.

 

Anti-Movement Core Exercises

Realistically the core helps stabilize the body and allow a transfer of energy.

Anti-movement exercises, such as planks for anti-extension, should be the foundation of the basic levels of core training.

Plank - core training

Once your baseline ability to maintain an isometric posture with the core is obtained, the next progression is to control limb movement with a stable core.  This involves combining upper body and lower body movements while maintain a stable core.  An example of this would be an anti-extension drill with TRX Rip Trainer.

However, the core does need to “move” during normal function.  It rotates, bends, flexes, extends, and all of these at once!  Should we train this?

 

Don’t Forget the Trunk is Designed to Move

I would say we should.  I think the difference here is to train these movements within a stable range of motion.  We should be training the body to work within it’s normal mobility, but to stabilize at end range of motion.

We get into problems with core movements, like rotation, when we depend on our static stabilizers, like the joints and ligaments, to control end range instead of our muscular dynamic stabilizers.

Perhaps the goals should be to train to control the core at end range of motion.

 

End Range Core Stability

These types of drills would include chops, lifts, push-pull movements on a cable or Keiser system, and medicine ball drills.  You are probably doing these already, right?

They all involve a transfer of energy from the limbs through the core.  The core needs to move during these exercises, but you are working in the mid ranges of motion and controlling end range.  These should also progress to include functional movements patterns like swings, throws, and kicks.

In the video above, I combine the act of throwing and decelerating in the half kneel position.  This takes the lower half out of it and requires the core to stabilize.

I guess the point is that we shouldn’t be afraid to move the core.  That is not beneficial to teach our patients, clients, and athletes.  Rather, train the core to move and stabilize at end range of motion to take stress off the structures of the spine.

 

 

Base of Support and Core Stability

I work with with a lot of youth athletes, especially baseball players.  I am often amazed at how some of our younger athletes have such poor movement skills.  Many are 6 inches away from touching their toes!  I’m sure this is a trend this is not going away as our society spends more and more time staring at our iPhones and less on long term athletic development.

The body is great at compensating and finding the path of least resistance.  Here is a quick tip that you can apply to many different exercises to enhance core stability.

 

Base of Support

When the core and entire lumbopelvic region has poor motor control and stability, especially in the transverse and frontal planes, a way the body likes to compensate is by widening the base of support.  Here is an example of a young athlete performing a medicine ball chest pass.  Notice his base of support in the first photo.  This was his natural set up position.

Base of Support

 

By widening his base of support, he can likely generate more power during the exercise by making it more stable in general.  However, in a training environment, I want to assure that we develop both power and control.

By narrowing his base of support, as you can see in the second photo, he has to stabilize his core during the exercise and work on developing power while controlling the force of the ball.  This is going to have a more functional carry over into his sport.

Building athletes isn’t always just about strength and power, it’s also about movement quality and control.  Watch for compensations at the base of support for signs of poor lumbopelvic and core stability.

 

 

A New Exercise for Shoulder, Scapula, and Core Control

Today’s post in a guest post from my friend Tad Sayce, who is a strength coach in the Boston area that specializes in swimmers.  Tad shares a great exercise video that works shoulder, scapula, and core control.  I’m a big fan of “big bang for your buck” exercises that promote strength and stability in one exercise, which is something we talk a lot about in Functional Stability Training.  Tad came up with one that I am going start trying with my athletes.

Band Resisted Horizontal Abduction with a Press

As a former competitive swimmer, I can closely relate to the overhead athlete and the complications that can arise at the shoulder. As a strength and conditioning coach working predominately with swimmers, I am constantly looking to improve the durability of the shoulder. It is widely accepted that the shoulder operates at maximum efficiency in the presence of a stable base at the core. While I am a believer in the use of isolated exercises, today’s focus will be that of a more integrated effort. The video below demonstrates an exercise that facilitates shoulder, scapular and core activation: Band Resisted Horizontal Abduction with a Press. 

As the name implies, the exercise combines resisted horizontal abduction with an anti-rotation press. It is encouraged to first master each exercise in isolation before attempting to combine them. This exercise is great for educating athletes about proper scapular movement, and also demonstrating the ability to maintain position in the presence of increasing tension. I particularly like this exercise because it incorporates both dynamic and static efforts. I typically program this exercise for sets of 5 holding for 5 seconds, or sets of 8 holding for 2 seconds.

About Tad Sayce

tad-sayceTad Sayce, Head Coach and Owner of Sayco Performance Athletics, located in Waltham, MA. Tad is a Strength and Conditioning specialist with a strong interest in the sport of swimming. Formerly, Tad was a competitive swimmer in the Big 10 Conference and Olympic Trials qualifier, as well as a USA Swimming club coach.

Cueing the Core to Enhance Shoulder Elevation

cueing the core during shoulder elevationFor today’s post, I wanted to show a video of a correction I performed on a recent patient during his shoulder program exercises to engage his core and improve his ability to elevate his arms. Many people are hyperlordotic. Combine this with stiffness in some of the glenohumeral muscles (like the teres major) and the thoracic spine, and you often see people compensate during arm elevation by hyperextending the lumbar spine.

Here is a quick video showing how someone may hyperextend the spine with simple arm elevation exercises, such as a full can exercises, and how cueing them to engage their core corrects the movement.  By cueing the core, this will allow the shoulders and scapulae to full engage and begin to upwardly rotate, instead of just elevating and letting the lumbar spine allow the rest of movement.

Look for this in your impingement patients too, as this may be part of the faulty movement pattern that is associated with their superior humeral head migration.

Many people will want to perform an abdominal crunch, but there should be no lumbar spine flexion. Rather, simply engage the core and not allow lumbar extension from it’s neutral starting position.  Needless to say, you will have to follow up on this with some ant-extension exercises in general, but this is a great cue to integrate into your shoulder exercises.

 

 

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