Core Training: When Less is More

02.18.2011 | by:

Once upon a time, we (personal trainers, therapists and other 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.

But while I have long since wised up in in the way I approach these issues afflicting my clients, I must admit (as a typical guy) the strategy above still dominates my own training.

My tools may be different– rollouts, plank circuits, pikes, etc– but (as much as it pains me to admit I have a problem) the outcome cannot be denied.

Before elaborating on my issue, I submit as evidence two pictures of me from six months ago versus a recent photoshoot:

RFE Push up 2 Bad push up example

Six months ago vs Two weeks ago

One thing you will notice in the most recent version is the marked lordosis or arching of my lower back. Somewhat ironically, this shot was taken after a set of heavy ab wheel rollouts and perfectly illustrates the outcome of overly committed core training.

While the muscles of the front side of my body—namely my hips and abdominals—are super tight due to over use, the muscles which run along the backside the spine (erector spinae) are pulled forward by tightness in front—causing an accentuated arching in my low back.

Sometimes called “lower crossed syndrome”, this issue is common to both sexes and results from activities which chronically tighten the hips such as sitting for long periods and too many crunches.

The difference I have observed with most males (myself included) versus females is that both the abdominals and glutes are strong and over worked. As discussed in last week’s column, while women often need more stability and strength work to bring up poor posture, men are almost always the victims of poor mobility.

This means that solution most often lies in flexibility work for affected areas. But if you are still saying to yourself “this couldnt happen to me” take this test: lay on your stomach with a tennis or lacrosse ball placed just below the sternum.

Lay over the ball and let it sink in to your stomach noting any tight or sore spots. Work your way from the sternum down to below the belly button on both sides of the stomach.

If at any point your belly feels as if it has just been punctured by a needle, you are likely the victim of the problem described above. Though the simple solution would be to stop performing core training, I will not force you to part with your beloved sit up and crunches.

Instead, read on to learn a strategy for continuing to make core training gains while getting your posture back on track.

Getting on the ball:

One of the concepts illustrated by the pictures above is that the muscles down the front, back and outside of our bodies are connected in a chain. This means that an issue such as tightness in the hips will have implications on the areas above and below.

For someone with ripped abs for example, we can tell by the muscle tone in the front of the stomach that these muscles are extremely well developed due to frequent use.

Based upon this fact, it is also likely that the muscles of the chest and hips are frequently called in to action to perform torture on the stomach. When these two areas become tight and flexed forward, the net effect of this strategy is a more hunchback posture which looks as if the body has been placed in a permanent crunch.

In order to keep the torso upright, the muscles of the backside of the body must stiffen up and work harder to act as a counter balance—with the net result being an overarching of the low back.

The key to balancing out this equation is to attack the hips and abdominals (areas which are tight and overworked) to relieve stress on the backside of the body. Once this is done, we can reestablish a normal spinal curve while improving proper positioning of the hips.

Though this may sound like a lot to do, it can be accomplished in three simple moves demonstrated in our first video.

Abdominal deload:

The most thing to understand in developing the stomach is that the core possesses two sets of muscles with two very different roles. To achieve ultimate core development (without jacking up the spine), we must strike a balance between these muscles.

Beginning deep inside our bodies, the muscles of the inner core (transverse abdominus, diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidus) are located close to our joints and activate to stabilize and prevent excess movement.

If these muscles do not fire correctly during activities such as bending over or reaching overhead, small micro-traumas in affected areas occurs with each task.

Interestingly, individuals with chronic back, neck and shoulder pain have often been shown to possess a delay in the activation of these muscles.

In order to compensate for this problem, this also means that muscles of the outer core (rectus abdominus, internal/external oblique, etc) whose job it is to produce movement such as crunches, torso twists, etc must also act as stabilizers to pick up the slack.

Often, this situation is either created or worsened by chronic overuse of these outer core muscles. If we do not address this situation sooner rather than later, an overarching of the low back will inhibit abdominal development, create back pain and cause the stomach to stick out—not exactly the ticket for beach season.

With this in mind, the key to balancing the body is to incorporate a 7-10 day de-load period every four weeks in which we replace heavy abdominal strength training in favor of stability based exercises (such as planks, side planks and bridging).

In conjunction with daily mobility/flexibility work, this “postural deload” will maintain the muscles of the inner core while allowing the body to regain structural balance.

In our second video, we offer a core stability circuit to perform after stretching to do just that.

Wrap up:

While stretching may not be billed as an activity for improved appearance, I have learned it has everything to do with improved long term muscle tone.

By incorporating a simple de-load routine to my training, I have already experienced improved posture and reduced stiffness. Though I will never give up my beloved heavy lifting, there is nothing wrong with a bit of elbow grease now and then.

Sample de-load workout 
Step 1- Self Massage- 1 x 2-3 minutes (Stomach, Front of Legs, Side of Legs)
Step 2- Stretch- 1 x 60-90 seconds (Hip Flexor, Prayer)
Step 3- Stability training- 3 x three 10 sec holds (Plank, Side Plank, Glute Bridge)