Lets first start off with what core stability is…
At Force Barbell, we describe core stability as the ability to resist certain movements such as extension, flexion, lateral flexion, and rotation. We are primarily talking about movements of the spine/rib cage in relation to the pelvis. To give you a better picture, think about bending your spine in all sorts of directions without really moving your hips at all. Yeah, that is what we are trying to resist when we are talking core stability. We also like to think of core stability in terms of postural positions or postural stability. Our goal is to attain optimal postural alignments, mainly positions people are super weak and never actually live in, and resist movement within this optimal alignment.
For the sake of this article, let’s not talk about the muscles of the core, but rather positions. Positions are more important because they will dictate muscle function, not so much the other way around. Abs are cool and all but how well do you perform as an athlete?
Why is resisting movement better for training the core than creating movement?
It is important to be able to move through all ranges and planes of motion, but when talking about core stability we are talking about just that, stability. Most of the time we find that people don’t actually lack movement in planes of motion, but they actually significantly lack stability. It may seem like a mobility issue, but it is really a stability and strength issue. For example, most people that have sat in a desk for many years without really doing anything most likely don’t have a mobility issue. Structurally their body hasn’t changed much at all, but their nervous system is so used to one pattern of movement (sitting), that it doesn’t allow the person to move through a full range of motion because it is a survival mechanism. Your brain tells your body that a certain movement is so new that it doesn’t allow for full range of motion in a specific movement because it thinks it is dangerous. Now, after consistent repetition in certain movements your nervous system realizes that there is no danger and allows for a full range of motion, because you have built consistent stability and strength in that specific movement and it is now a “safe” place to move.
The main point I am trying to get at is to optimally train the core you need to focus on positions, and stability in those positions, rather than developing more movement. Most of the time we see that once stability is gained through the core by resisting movement, there is mobility picked up some place else. If one can learn how to properly stabilize the pelvis in a plank, for example, that can relate to more mobility in a squat because your nervous system labels it “safe” because you have built up a stable pelvis that can handle the increased movement demands. Your brain basically trusts and allows you to move through greater ranges of motion because you have built a stable foundation in which movement can occur. You have created a more stable base for your limbs to move a bit more freely. Imagine driving a car with loose wheels. That is what it is like trying to sprint without a stable core.
The largest bridges and buildings have the most stable foundations.
Let’s move on with what exercises we can introduce to challenge and build up the strength and positions of the core.
Examples of Anti-Movement Core Stability
An example of an anti-extension core stability exercise would be as simple as the “Plank,” as seen below.
When we think of anti-extension core stability we want to think about resisting movement in the sagittal plane. What that means is to resist motion forward and back, or up and down. When talking anti-extension, we are specifically talking about resisting motion from behind or down. Example, if I came up from behind you and tried to push your lower back in front of your hips or the bottom of your rib cage to the backside or your pelvis. Your ability to resist this would be an example of anti-extension stability. Simply put, we are trying to resist an excessive arch in our lower back. As you can see in the video, a plank is an exercise that accomplishes this very well, and is one of our go-to’s at Force Barbell.
The goal of the plank is to keep a neutral pelvis, nice flat lower back, and a long lengthened body. At Force, we will even coach people to be in a more flexed position (or curved) in the lower back at first, because this is often a position people have a really hard time getting into and makes the plank that much more challenging.
Some cues: “tailbone underneath the lower back,” “tuck your pelvis,” “belly-button through your spine,” “reach your nose out in front of your hands,” etc. These cues are trying to get the athlete into a more flexed, or posterior pelvic tilt position.
Muscles usually felt when done correctly: abs, abs, abs, abs….and some shoulders/upper back.
An example of an anti-flexion core stability exercise would be the “Chinese Plank.”
Much like anti-extension, anti-flexion means resisting movement in the sagitall plane as well. Where as anti-extension was resisting movement from the back to front, anti-flexion is resisting movement from the front to the back. Using the same example as above, but now imagine if I came in front of you and tried to push your stomach behind your hips and the bottom of your rib cage to the front of your pelvis. In this scenario, we are trying to resist an excessive curve (C-shape) in the lower back, where as above we were trying to resist an arch (S-shape).
In this video, the “Chinese Plank” is a great variation that increases the demands of anti-flexion. When thinking about some of these exercises mentioned or that will be mentioned, it is important to think about the force of gravity in relation to the body. Gravity is a force that we are constantly resisting so when we change movement, positions, or shape as individuals, gravity will have a huge influence as to how our body reacts to the environment. In this case, gravity would be applying force to the body in the same way as I mentioned above, “pushing your stomach and rib cage behind your hips.” Therefore, in the position of a Chinese Plank, we are resisting flexion, making this an anti-flexion exercise.
Cues to think about: “hips up, ribs down,” (this is golden), “pelvis up,” “rib cage down,” “unlock the knees” (to keep a neutral pelvis, and stay out of excessive lumbar extension), etc. Much like the plank, we are mainly focusing on keeping the pelvis in a neutral position and staying out of lumbar hyperextension, much like all of our core stability exercises.
Muscles felt when done correctly: “ow, my hamstrings,” glutes, abs, and more hamstrings!
What better exercise for anti-rotational stability than the “Paloff-Press!” I’ve also heard it called Pavlov-Press. I don’t which is right, but I also don’t really care because it provides no relevance to the actual thing that is taking place.
While anti-extension and anti-flexion exercises are resisting movement in the sagittal plane, anti-rotation means to resist movement occurring in the transverse plane. This simply means to not let your body get rotated. Using the same sort of example, imagine if I came up to the front of you and tried to twist your shoulders and rib cage around in a circle while you didn’t move your feet. This is essentially the movement we are trying to resist.
As shown above in the Paloff-Hold or Paloff-Press, the force exerted by the band is trying to turn the body inward and it is our job to demonstrate the ability to resist this motion.
There are some subtle nuances when training anti-rotational stability because it can appear that many things are happening at once. The hips might be turning but the shoulders aren’t, the athlete might be demonstrating the ability to resist the tension of the band but have their butt sticking out, or their low back might be excessively arched. It goes beyond whether or not the athlete can hold the band within their center, because you want the athlete in optimal positions all the time.
So, some things to think about when it comes to performing the exercise above or any additional anti-rotational exercises…
-Keep neutral pelvis
-Hips underneath and in line with the shoulders (think about your hips and shoulders being the 4 corners of a box)
-Rib cage down
-Relax the arms/upper body. We want tension in the right places and many athletes make the mistake of holding tension in their arms and upper traps, and therefore creating inefficient movement habits.
-Unlock the knees if the athlete needs to. This will help keep a neutral pelvis.
-A lot of times the far side hip of the athlete that is away from the band has a tendency to shift back. The athlete needs to make sure that far side hip is square and inline with the shoulder and the opposite hip.
I won’t go over cues for the simple reason that I just explained a lot of what you will see and some things that need to be coached.
Muscles felt when done correctly: abs, but more so obliques, and glutes.
And the last but certainly not least movement we are forced to resist in terms of properly training the core is lateral flexion, or anti-lateral flexion. The only plane of motion we haven’t yet discussed is the frontal plane, which is where lateral flexion occurs. If you have ever carried a super heavy suitcase and felt like it was dragging you down to the side, that is the movement of lateral flexion. And what better exercise to train anti-lateral flexion of the core than the suitcase carry! Yes, you can literally get some good core training in walking through the mall to your flight if you are in good positions!
The suitcase hold or the suitcase carry is another “go-to” at Force Barbell when we are trying to specifically resist movement occurring in the frontal plane. As you can see, or feel when carrying a suitcase, the object is trying to pull one side of our body down, and it is our job to resist this movement and stay in correct posture.
Out of all the core exercises implemented at Force this is the one I have found people have the toughest time feeling their abs working. I believe this is because people are naturally in a super extended position and want to hold tension through their shoulders and traps, and primarily have a hard time shutting that stuff off. So, when we coach this exercise we usually have people bend their knees and tuck their pelvis underneath them (posterior pelvic tilt as opposed to anterior pelvic tilt). Bending the knees helps relax the hamstrings to create a more posterior tilt in the pelvis, and this usually helps clients and athletes feel their abs more.
The cues are much like the other exercises I have mentioned because we are focused on keeping the same optimal positions and posture.
Cues to think about: “unlock the knees,” “hips underneath you,” “ribs down,” “relax the arms,” “push your low back out,” “tuck your pelvis to your rib cage,” “walk slow, don’t be in a hurry,” etc.
Muscles felt when done correctly: abs, obliques, glutes, shoulders (this is fine as long as it’s not the only thing–you’re still holding on to an implement).
Some Final Thoughts
To function at the highest level physically it is best to train the core by resisting movements with a focus on what positions are being held. If all you want is a 6-pack then doing all the sit-ups might work for you, but you should consider that might not be the best thing for your back or overall movement quality.
No movements or positions are bad, but ideally you want to train the positions you are weakest in because that is what is going to make you the most balanced individual and most sustainable. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
To optimally train the core and to be the best athlete possible it is important to train through and resist movement in all three planes of motion (frontal, sagittal, and transverse).
After reading the article, I hope it is pretty clear how this type of training would be critical for an athlete and you can see its implications in relation to sports.
Lastly, no matter what movement you are doing you are always slightly moving or resisting movement in all three planes of motion. We live in 3-dimensional space so it would unrealistic to think only one plane of motion is strictly taking place. If I stand straight up I am slightly resisting movement forward and back, side-to-side, and rotationally, and there are subtle nuances that your bones might slightly be rotated or tilted in all 3 planes of motion. Humans are not symmetrical creatures.
If you have any questions with understanding or if you have any disagreements about this article, I would love to talk. You can email me at Justin@ForceBarbell.com