"I'm fifty years ahead of my time" ~Joseph Pilates
In exercise/fitness circles the term "core" is thrown around a lot. Its almost overused in the sense that no one seems to know quite what the definition is anymore. Or, put another way, there are as many variety of notions as to what the "core" is as personal trainers, methodologies, and exercise physiologists.
As a climber the concept of core is a vital one. Its the powerhouse for all that I do to get up a route. Certainly balance, flexibility and strength are essential, but like rays of the sun, they emanate from a center. A central "generator" that allows power output to the appendages, when most needed.
Eastern wisdom, as demonstrated through the martial arts, has placed great emphasis on the core for thousands of years. It is said that every sparring movement has power if the center has power. This power source is termed "Hara" by the Japanese or the "T'an Tien" by the Chinese. Eastern philosophy states that the location of this power source is located approximately 3 finger-widths below the navel. In addition, women are said to have a second power source: the uterus. In Taoist alchemy this is said to give women great power, in that they are able to gestate and birth life.
Exercises have been honed throughout time to strengthen the core. From various yoga asanas (postures) to T'ai Chi and Chi Gong practices.
However, throughout the ages, modern voices have reminded us of the importance of the core. Two such pioneers are Joseph Pilates and Coach Greg Glassman.
This blog is a joint venture. Brought to you by two trainers from two backgrounds. I'm honored to co-blog this month with top "NIKE" Pilates trainer, Christine Binnendyk, author of "Ageless Pilates" http://agelesspilates.wordpress.com/about/
Christine Binnendyk, "NIKE" Pilates Instructor
As a certified fitness trainer, and avid student of "CrossFit," I'll share with you some "CrossFit" inspired exercises to strengthen your core.
Almine Barton, Licensed Acupuncturist, Certified Fitness Trainer
It is Christine's and my hope that the combined wisdom and knowledge that we share with you will inspire you to get in touch with this "central switchboard" of the body, so that it may serve you in all your athletic endeavors.
Something to make note of: "CrossFit" and "Pilates" are both very powerful. It is the wish of both Christine and I that you find a highly qualified trainer/coach to work with you with these exercises. This is particularly the case if you're recovering from any type of back, abdominal, pelvic or hernia injury and/or surgery.
Women have often heard that "Kegel Exercises" are important for OB/GYN health pre and post partum. Yes, we agree with this. But to target your "unsung heroes" (which we'll get to in a minute) will benefit you even more, because of their wide-spread influence upon not only the pelvic floor, but also the supporting muscles in your back (which can take a beating during pregnancy and childbirth).
When Christine and I sat down to talk about this blog we decided we wanted to put a spotlight on some "unsung heroes." What does that imply? That implies the intrinsic or supporting muscles of the core (not the main ones, such as the Rectus Abdominis, etc.). These intrinsic or "minor" muscles of the trunk are like black keys on the piano. Just as vital as the white keys, but less understood.
The other thing that should be pointed out, before we explore these amazing muscles is the difference in methodology between "CrossFit" and "Pilates." Both target the same muscles in different ways. Our advice is to do both. Why? Because in the spirit of balance, fast, anaerobic workouts are just as important to health as slow and controlled movements. You could think of them as yin/yang of one another. To train the body in a variety of capacities and modal domains is best. In the words of Coach Glassman "Train for the unknown." The "unknown" contains in life both qualities of controlled and slow, and fast and furious. You never know what you're going to get. Therefore, keep your body on "its toes" by mixing it up, & introducing new ways and speeds for it to move. If you train this way, you will rarely get injured. Your body will be prepared for the unknown, and have the ability to adapt to any given situation put before it. Whether its carrying someone in an emergency situation, treading water, or holding a static posture for a long period of time, you will be ready.
Which Muscles Are The "Unsung Heroes?"
Let's explore what Christine has to say about these crucial muscles, and how, from the "Pilates" method one can train them:
"When people think of Pilates, they often think of 'core exercises,' but Pilates training can be so much more. I like to work several muscles that are often ignored, simply because many people don’t know what they do or how they can supplement your training. Try working these three 'unsung muscle heroes' and you’ll experience a stronger core and reduced likelihood of many sports injuries."
This muscle lies just a bit below your armpit, hugging your side. It holds your shoulder in its sweet spot, so that you can support your body weight with your arms in a push up position. By training your serratus, you’ll learn to keep your shoulders down away from your ears and you’ll work your shoulder muscles evenly, rather than overburdening some and leaving others to atrophy.
Work your serratus with "Forearm Plank". Get down on all fours, then lower down to your forearms, placing your elbows under your shoulders. Drop those shoulders away from your ears, then step your legs back, as if you were going to do a push up. Lengthen your spine and draw your navel in. Hold this position for up to 60 seconds. Not hard enough? Lift a leg off the ground for 30 seconds, then switch. Too hard? Come down to your knees or do this move leaning against a wall.
Christine demonstrating the "Plank"
Ask a friend to take a look at you while you perform Forearm Plank. If your shoulder blades are poking up, that’s a sign that you’ve chosen a position that is too difficult for you to perform perfectly. Practice an easier version for a couple weeks, then try the more challenging version again.
These tiny muscles lie in between each rib, connecting them together into a natural corset. Untrained intercostals can mean less stability in your torso. Trained intercostals give you a tighter core, better posture and a "v" shape for your torso. These muscles also support your diaphragm and assist in building your breath capacity.
Work your intercostals with "Criss-cross". Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows wide. Twist your torso to the right, peeling your left shoulder blade off the floor. Twist until you can peek at your right elbow, but leave your hips flat on the floor. Slowly roll down and repeat to the other side. Alternate twists -- moving slooooowly – until you’ve performed 15 to each side.
Christine demonstrating the "Criss Cross"
These large muscles attach your ribs to your hips on the sides of your torso. They help you rotate and/or side bend. Untrained obliques can cause you to fatigue earlier when you run, hike or walk. Trained obliques support the cross-body torque that happens in every step you take.
Work your obliques with Twisting Roll Backs. Sit upright on a mat with your knees bent and your feet flat. Float your arms in front of you at shoulder height and pull your navel inward. Pretend that you’re going to reach for something behind you. Slowly lean back and twist to the right --- at the same time, bend your right elbow behind you and turn your head to the right. Then slowly return to your upright and forward-facing position. Keep your lower body still and maintain a straight spine throughout the movement. Don’t slouch or round your spine. Perform 15 twists to each side. Too hard on your back? Keep your spine upright. Too easy for you? Hold a hand weight or pull on a cable. Listen to your low back, though --- if you feel tension here, it means that your obliques can’t handle the load.
As a certified fitness trainer, I too, over the years, have found a love of training these muscles. Not only have I personally seen enormous gains in my own athletic pursuits, but have seen substantial progress in both training clients and sports injury patients. I bring a background of training under top "NIKE" trainer, Jeff Spurgeon, and have trained and treated some of the world's most elite athletes in a variety of disciplines.
Some of my favorite exercises to target these muscle groups should be done at a fast, anaerobic pace (for time), or as many reps. as you can do in a given time.
The "GHD Sit-Up"
Me demonstrating a "GHD Sit-Up"
One of the reasons why the "GHD Sit-Up" is a paramount staple of "CrossFit" core exercises is the powerful way it recruits the trunk. This is done in 2 ways that are unmatched by a regular sit-up:
1) The trunk moves from hyper-extension to full flexion, with negligible load (no crunch or "regular" sit-up comes close to this range of motion)
2) The role that the abs play in this specific type of sit-up is primarily isometric (they stabilize the torso from undue extension), which engages the core powerfully.
Coach Glassman states that "the most powerful, functional, and developmental contractions of the trunk are isometric, not isokinetic." This is achieved through the need for the core or trunk to stabilize the outward appendages (arms and legs).
It is important, when implementing GHD sit-ups in one's workout regime, that you initially have a spotter. This is to ensure that you safely come down to parallel without collapsing the core (developing sloppy intrinsic muscle engagement) from the get-go. A certified "CrossFit" coach is the best person for the job.
Many elite athletes cannot perform a proper GHD sit-up. Coach Glassman shares a story of how a Stanford University coach (who made a huge point of focus on core training with a "Swiss Ball") couldn't do one GHD sit-up: "When we got him on the GHD, he fell back off of the horizon, and couldn't get up. He had to be deadlifted back to horizontal, so weak was his intrinsic trunk muscles."
If one's core is weak, or recovering from injury, beginning with an "AbMat" and introducing the GHD later is advised, once more rudimentary strength has been increased.
An "L-Sit" On Gymnastic Rings
The amount of core stabilization this exercise provides is un-matched. The picture speaks for itself. Within seconds your "unsung muscle heroes" will begin to burn in earnest. This exercise takes time to work up to, but is worth the effort. You may need to utilize a resistance band to "scale" up to working without one. This takes dedication, so be patient with yourself. The rings provide an unstable apparatus that provides the core extra work to stabilize the arms and legs.
Top "Black Diamond" boulderer, Christopher Schulte, told me that the only other thing he uses to cross-train for bouldering is gymnastic rings. They work every part of the body, but particularly focus on the trunk and its ability to stabilize the rest of the body. This is of the utmost importance when performing what's known in bouldering as "dynos," or dynamic
"Black Diamond" Athlete, Christopher Schulte
The "Overhead Squat"
Me demonstrating an "Overhead Squat"
The "Overhead Squat" is such a powerful movement. Not only is it a "burner" for the arms and legs, but the amount of intrinsic trunk muscle recruitment is amazing. Your core, when done properly, will begin to engage within seconds, and in this exercise too, you will "feel the burn" almost immediately.
Holding the weight overhead creates mandatory need for your trunk to recruit. It feels almost impossible to do a "sloppy job" of trunk stabilization here, because you have an awareness that you are holding weight above your head, and that this would be a bad idea.
Believe it or not, because of the "powerhouse" nature of this exercise, you are escorted to the final result through a 7-step process. This is how complicated a good Overhead Squat can be. You begin using a PVC pipe or a dowel (broomstick). The Overhead Squat is then broken down into steps or stages to be perfected. A certified "CrossFit" coach is of the utmost importance in learning a good Overhead Squat. You need a "mirror," or someone to watch your form, as you begin to feel in your body, and become accustomed to what proper form feels like. Then you will know when you're doing it properly, and when you're not.
Over time, you will work from a PVC pipe/dowel to a weight bar, with weight added to it, as you grow stronger. This is very rewarding to experience, because the day-to-day implications of what a good Overhead Squat can do for you is enormous. From putting luggage into an overhead compartment (that used to feel heavy, but no longer does because you've been doing your O.H. Squats) to proper posture, you will notice too many benefits to count.
As Coach Glassman says "Once developed, the Overhead Squat is a thing of beauty-a masterpiece of expression in control, stability, balance efficient power, and utility."
Christine and I hope this blog post has inspired you to begin exploring your "unsung heroes." The benefits will unfold in your life through avenues that you can't imagine. Remember to utilize a variety of methods, at varying speeds, across various modal training domains. This will ensure success. So what are you waiting for? Its time to hit the gym! :)
"We train our athletes to think of every exercise as an ab exercise, but in the lifts its absolutely essential to do so. Its easy to see when an athlete is not sufficiently engaging the abs in an overhead press-the body arches so as to push the hips, pelvis, and stomach ahead of the bar. Constant vigilance is required of every lifter to prevent and correct this postural deformation. The benefits are endless if this is achieved." ~Coach Greg Glassman
2 weeks ago