Core Training: Revised and Revisited
By John Taylor Weglicki, PT, DPT
Every gym rat and personal trainer has a different outlook on how to train the core musculature. There are countless gadgets and gimmicks on how to get six pack abs. 6 Minute Abs, Ab Rollers, those freaky looking ab chairs, all of them have selling points, and virtually all of them are useless for the strength athlete. Luckily, this article is not going to focus on those. As strength athletes, form follows function, and a six pack is useless if it can’t support heavy weight in such sports. This article spawned out of a need to seek the truth, so to speak: to find the diamond in the rough. There are articles everywhere on what works and what doesn’t, but very little of it has any scientific support.
Recently, I was lucky enough to speak with Benjamin Lee, a gentleman who works with Dr. Stuart McGill, whom many of you will recognize as the “spine guy.” McGill practically wrote the book on the biomechanics of the spine, and his work is very highly regarded in the field of physical therapy and rehabilitation in general. Lee has done some groundbreaking work of his own with comparisons of results of core strengthening protocols in training and non-training subjects, and the results have proven useful not only in my own training, but in that of many of my training partners and clients as well. But before we get into the good stuff, I feel like it’s a good idea to review the anatomy first.
Anatomy and Potential
With regards to the trunk musculature commonly referred to as “abs” and ignoring those muscles of the low back for now (that’s a whole different article), we see 4 primary muscle groups: Rectus Abdominus, External Oblique, Internal Oblique, Transverse Abdominus. The rectus is those muscles you typically see in the fabled “six pack”. Their function primarily is trunk flexion. The external obliques perform lateral flexion. The internal obliques and transverse abdominus primarily perform rotation and lateral flexion. All four groups are paramount in bracing the trunk when performing heavy movements under load. As such, training these groups as “anti- movers” is a significantly better use of training time for the strength athlete.
To address all those who may be wondering, I have nothing against training the abdominal region with various crunches and movements. However, training those muscles strictly for hypertrophy does not necessarily equal stronger muscles. For instance, if you train the abs exclusively with crunch movements, how then will you respond under a heavy squat when you attempt to maximally engage those muscles? If all you’ve trained them for is flexion, I imagine you’ll likely be folded up under that squat. Not exactly the success for which we are looking. So what’s a lifter to do you may ask? That’s where Lee’s work comes in to play.
Gains, Gains, Gains
Lee saw great potential in the use of isometric movements to brace the core musculature, and subsequently strengthen the area to respond better to the pressures of protecting the spine under load. Per his research:
- “Traditionally, dynamic movements such as flexion, lateral bending and twisting core exercise maneuvers are used in training programs; an approach consistent with training the distal limbs where muscular effort is mostly devoted to creating motion. However, knowledge of the functional anatomy of core musculature and spine injury mechanisms questions the use of these types of exercises. Alternative core exercises make use of isometric postures and static bracing to create muscular activation while minimizing spine loads and injury mechanisms linked with movement.” (Lee, 2014)
And as such, Lee posed the following questions in regards to “typical” core training:
- Isometric core exercises are reported to help some people who have low back pain. Is there a short lasting ‘enhanced stiffness’ after performing these exercises?
- Core training regimens use Isometric and Dynamic core exercises to enhance core bracing properties. Is one method superior to the other in terms of enhancing core stiffness?
- If adaptations to core stiffness can be achieved with core exercise, do these adaptations differ between beginners and trained individuals? (Lee, 2014)
What Does It All Mean?
While investigating these questions, Lee discovered some surprising information regarding the use of isometrics in training core musculature, particularly through exercises such as planks, side bridges, and bird dogs.
“Enhancements in core stiffness are thought to subsequently enhance traits such as load bearing ability, pain management and athletic function. The results of short term training give insight into how a short training session performed prior to a load bearing task can make the task safer and easier to perform. The results of long term training show that Isometric training performed over a long duration may induce more permanent enhancements to stiffness and core function.” (Lee, 2014)
Despite some variance secondary to smaller sample sizes and individual response to the training, I think the results speak for themselves: short duration isometrics can be useful prior to sessions (as part of a lifter’s warm up) to establish stiffness in preparation for heavy loads. You can also perform the isometrics as part of a more long term core strengthening program to facilitate more permanent carryover to trunk stiffness and stability, and thus, a healthier spine.
Lay It All Out There
So, this entire discovery is great; now let’s turn it into results:
*Note: all exercises performed in similar fashion, flexing abs and active glute(s) as HARD AS POSSIBLE for entire duration of each rep*
2-3 Rounds, choose Bird Dog, or Plank: 10 seconds on/5 seconds off
Long Term Plan (choose ONE per training day)
- 10s on/5s off Planks, perform 2-3 rounds of 10 reps. Rest 1-2 minutes between rounds.
- 10s on/ 5s off Bird Dogs, 2-3 rounds of 10 reps. Rest 1-2 minutes between rounds.
- 10s on/5s off Side Bridges. Start from knees if too difficult with legs extended. 2 rounds of 10 on each side.
- Russian Death Protocol (if you hate yourself) 10s/5s for the following: 10 reps, 9 reps, 8 reps… all the way to 1 rep. 1-2 mins rest between number rounds. I recommend only using this one in the offseason, and even then, sparingly. It will hurt.
Now go forth, lift heavy, and destroy PR’s.
Taylor Weglicki, PT, DPT