Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I hate the word core!
What is your core?
I define it as anything covered by a corset and sexy underwear.
Core strength is about ensuring the spine doesn't deviate from its neutral position. The stronger you get the less the spine will deviate or more importantly the more you can move. Now, if the trunk/spine does deviate the supporting muscles should be able to pick up the slack and keep you protected. Trunk strength means, that no matter what movement you try, Long Slow Distance (LSD, and not the kind that drop on to your tongue), short duration high intensity, lifting heavy things fast or slow, your spine will be protected.

If I gave you a grand piano and then took the body or the box of the piano, and had you play it would the sound travel well?

If I replaced the box with a floppy sheet, would the sound travel well?


The trunk is the box. The stronger the trunk the more energy can be transferred through the body to the appendages. The more strength that is transferred the better the performance.

If we look at the body as a car, the hips are the engine the trunk is the transmission and the appendages are the wheels. If you have a great engine and a crappy transmission you are not going anywhere very quickly. If you have a decent engine and an awesome transmission you will transfer power well and be able to get places much more quickly than the above and if they do beat you they will hurt themselves. They wont be able to maintain that level of performance. They/the car will fall apart.

So what is not your core?
Your 6 pack muscles. Those are designed for a little bit of trunk flexion (pulling the chest toward the thighs) and to keep your guts in place. So, those sit ups, Swiss ball crunches, abdominal machines and the like, are actually detrimental. They don't teach your body how to use your trunk in a functional way.

What does it mean to use your trunk in a functional way?
It means to protect the spine as you take yourself through any ROM that you need. If you are trying to push a canoe overhead, carry a heavy backpack, carry an infant, pick up that giant TV up off the ground, if you were 8 months pregnant, or in a fist fight, do you have the trunk stability through all of those ROM's the entire time.
If your back is sore than no you didn't. All the sit ups in the world won't teach you to pick up a #300 pound object off the ground and move it.
About 2 months ago I was helping a friend move a #350 steel base plate and he was in my way so, when he put it down I just picked it up and carried it 15 feet to a van and gently put it into the van. Because of its shape I couldn't keep a neutral spine and hold it, so even with a spine that was not in an optimal position I not only didn't hurt myself I comfortably (as much as you lift comfortably lift a steel base plate) moved it. This is a strong "CORE" or trunk. I had to get to a full depth squat pick up one end lay it on my thighs and then pick up the other end. My trunk had to work and stabilize through my entire ROM.

If crunches and Swiss balls are not going to teach us how do we train out trunk?

If we watch a person from the side and they contract their "core" they should actually shrink all the way around circumferentially (another new word) and vertically. The spine shape should not change. It should remain in a neutral position. This compression locks everything into place. This does a number of things, it protects the spine, allows us to increase our intraabdominal pressure (we will talk about intraabdominal pressure later) and allows for more energy transfer.

I am not saying that it should stay this locked down for an entire movement. It is supposed to be fluid and dynamic, and it should contract and release in gradients. It isn't binary, on or off, it is fluid. However, if you are trying to do something super heavy or super strong then you need the maximum amount of contraction possible.

Deviation. The spine should remain as neutral as possible. The more neutral the more balanced we can be. Now, it will deviate, rotationally, flexionally ( I just made up that word and I am proud of it so back off), both laterally and front to back. The key is that it is protected during movement and would have only the amount of deviation that is absolutely necessary. An example, is a burpee(jumping squat thrust). Why do people jump back into the push up position and let their hips fall, and why do they jump forward and let their sacrum and lumbar spine tuck under?
Some will say it is because they are weak and need to get stronger and while that is true it is most often because humans are goal oriented and lazy. The problem with the goal orientation is that they want to get those reps done instead of getting them done at maximum intensity while keeping the spine stable. They are lazy because it is more difficult to keep the spine stable and fight gravity and or a load than it is to let it fall apart/collapse. They instead let the non-movable portion of the tissue (spine and connective tissue, now yes connective tissue has stretch but very little, if you stretch connective tissue by 4% you lose joint stability) take up the slack. The problem is that the muscles that support the spine remain weak and the person training will injure themselves. By letting your spine deviate more than it needs to, you trunk will under a play load (skiing, running), under work load (moving TVs, hot water heaters, changing your tire), or under stress load (fighting, driving all day, sitting behind a computer writing on a blog) will not be able to maintain integrity.

People do all of that training and have a weak trunk because they are lazy and have the wrong goals.

Rotation. The rotation is here for a few reasons:
  1. Assisting the hips with power transfer
  2. Transfer and dissapation of force applied to the body (if you get moved by an outside force can your body transfer that energy and keep your spine protected and if it cant transfer it can it dissapate it?)
  3. To keep you safe so you can look behind you
  4. So you can smack your kids in the backseat. (not really, if you don't do that from the hips you will injure your shoulder.)

The body should be able to turn and produce rotational power but not from the lumbar spine. In truth rotational power should come from the hips (remember the engine) and the upper body rotation assists in power transfer from the hips.

The hips have two major types of power generation
  1. linear, back to front as in a kettlebell swing or a broad jump, and front to back as in pulling closed a garage door
  2. rotational, throwing a punch/ball or hitting a tennis ball
Many people think the rotational movement is one of two things:
  1. as in tennis or punching, the arm is the prime mover and the force generator
  2. an excessive spinal rotation
If the arm is used or trained as the primary force generator the shoulder and elbow will fall apart. Then the neck will also become compromised. The way it should work is the hips go through their movement and force is generated from that movement. The force travels through the trunk (this can be for linear or rotation but for this example we will use rotation) and the trunk is abruptly stopped. The stopping of the trunk forces the energy out of an appendage. If it is a throwing motion the force will continue out of the arm.
Think of keys on a long key chain, if you swing them in a circle there is a great deal of power coming out the end of the keys and it is being generated from where?
The wrist, not the keys.
If you abruptly stop the swing, the keys will speed up for a small amount of time. This is the same with throwing something. There is a rotational speed from the hips and then a sudden stop and the arm or leg (kick) moves out faster and everything remains mechanically safe. If I try to generate the same amount of power with just the arm the joints will fail.
Excessive spinal rotation, will damage the spine. If you look at a good baseball swing, punch etc. the hips open up meaning the hips lead a rotation and the trunk quickly follows, but the shoulders will have less of a turn then when people look behind them. Sit in a chair and look directly behind you. Your spine just rotated more than a professional boxer, tennis player, even discus thrower.

There are a bunch of people that try to increase their rotational ability to something of an owl/contortionist. This is not something that will help in power production and will most likely cause injury. Especially if we try and create too much rotational movement in the lumbar spine. Excessive spinal rotation will compromise power transmission and spinal stability which is what the trunk is designed to do.

Linear hip drive can be used in strength or power. Strength is lifting something without worrying how fast it happens and power is lifting something as fast as possible. Sow the hip drive can be slow and grind or quick and explosive. Both of them require a stable trunk. Picking your child up and out of the back of the car while they are sleeping and then putting them in their bed, flipping a giant tire, or quickly pulling someone's giant mean dog off of your dog. These are all movements that require linear hip drive and a stable spine. If you try and of any of these with your arms your back and or shoulders will hurt. If you set your spine you will be able to use your hips and butt and hamstrings(back of the upper leg) to perform these movements. This is bare bones paragraph because I don't think that it needs that much more explanation.

Transmission of power is the what the trunk is designed to do as far as human movement is concerned. You can not transfer power if your spine is not protected. You will hurt your spine and you will not perform what you want the way that you want.
Okay intraabdominal pressure. This is increasing the amount of internal pressure in the trunk. The more internal abdominal pressure you can create the harder all the other muscles in the body can contract. Try a simple movement like curling a weight. Do one of them with a loose relaxed gut and then another with a tight trunk. Imagine someone is going to kick you in the ribs and tighten your pelvic floor, a kegel exercise. (Tighten your ass like you are going to prison.) The one with a tight trunk allows for the arm to curl more weight. If you do it correctly you will still be able to breathe while keeping that level of abdominal tension. However, don't try and roam around the world like that. It is what is supposed to happen when you decide to perform a movement and it doesn't have to be on at 100% all the time.
If you can learn to contract the trunk the power will transfer more efficiently, and this will lead to playing longer, harder, faster and with fewer injuries.

bracing/compressing versus hollowing /pilates c curve
There are two major schools of thought on proper trunk contraction which are the pilates c curve/ hollowing idea and the bracing/compressing idea.
I prefer the bracing hollowing because it feels more natural. If I surprise you and as you turn a corner try and kick you in the gut you will compress and brace (basically what we talked about in the intraabdominal section). When I watch a young kid pick up something heavy, like their kid brother, they brace. Pilates, is more of a hollowing and it is more of this idea of bringing the bellybutton to the spine and the anus up towards the belly button. When I try and lift something heavy I can always lift heavier when compressing rather than hollowing. The same applies in punching, sprinting etc.
The other issue I have with hollowing is I find it very hard to feel or use my transverse abdominus. It is a muscle that wraps around the body like a back brace that box stacker's have to wear. This muscle attaches to the spine by fascia (think saran wrap but thick) and then wraps around to the front of the body. When that muscle contracts it works like that back brace or a corset. It is KEY to keeping the spine neutral.

So how do we train to brace.

Activators and exercises

We start with activators and then we introduce exercises.
Back compression crunches (also called a low back press) are an easy way to learn where all the muscles are. There is a difference between an activator and an exercise. An activator is a movement that trains the nervous system to turn on, it wont really make your muscles stronger. An exercise is something can always be made easier or more difficult and is designed to make you more fit. An activator wouldn't and shouldn't it is designed to retrain movement in a controlled environment and to ensure a person knows how to turn it on before adding it to exercise. A back compression crunch is just that, an activator to ensure you know what the primary muscles for trunk stability are and how to recruit them.
So, lay on your back and notice the lumbar curve, now imagine their is an egg under your back. Squish it. Let your chin and shoulders come off the ground a little but not like you are doing a crunch. Later you will do it without picking up your shoulders and head but now just let it be. Your back should be able to squish HARD. Begin to recruit your butt and pelvic floor. Practice 5 or 10 in a row 10 15 times a day until you can do it while laying flat and really squish the ground. Then try and remember the feeling while standing then apply it lifting something.

Kegels are the pelvic floor contractions that women are told to do. Everyone should do them. They make your whole body stronger, one reason is because it means you can get more intraabdominal pressure. When our stomach/contracts our organs will want to be squished out to the spot that is not applying the same amount of pressure as everywhere else. Think a tube of toothpaste. Lets not squeeze our guts out of the pelvic floor. Next, too much abdominal contraction with no pelvic floor can cause hemorrhoids.
A keagal is the act of squeezing your pelvic floor tight. I describe it to clients (and some don't like the image but they all understand it) "squeeze your ass like you are going to prison!" A kegel should be the whole pelvic floor but you should be able to contract your anus separate from your urethra. Think of it like being able to make a fist or tap your fingers. Learn to tap your fingers and it will give you better awareness of what is happening with your pelvic floor.

FROM loaded
This is the idea that many people can stabilize while standing or lying down or through a symmetrical ROM. But true CORE strength is being able to stabilize through your entire ROM and do so under a symmetrical or an asymmetrical load. If you are carrying a child on one hip all the time does your spine deviate laterally or front to back?
If you are doing a body weight Overhead squat, pushing a canoe onto the top of your car, pulling the Christmas decoration box down off the shelf, moving a hot water heater will your spine deviate. You have to train the entire ROM of your body under load. A Swiss ball crunch does not fit this idea therefore it will not help your trunk stability.

The stronger the core the less the spine deviates or the more load it takes to deviate the spine.

Some good exercises to learn
Dead lift, single and double leg
Squats, front, back and overhead
Turkish getups
power lifts
Olympic lifts
Kettlebell swings


  1. I am 53 and a little hunch backed, have been for years. Is there a way to correct that and how much does that effect my core?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Yes it is correctable and the corrections are simple. Not easy but simple
    First just start with the back compression crunch and a bodyweight squat. I will do a post about squats soon. Once you can get your trunk to fire start with dead lifts then a front squats. This cycle will be about 6 weeks and then we can discuss the rest. (or take a powerlifting class)

    The second part about whether or not it effects your core and the answer is yes. The spine is being pulled at an angle and some muscles are shorter than others and many are moving in to atrophy so we want to try and balance those out, lengthen the short ones and strengthen all of them. If the spine is not in a natural shape the transmission of force generated from the hips is compromised. This means that you will have a compromised "core". However, by using it properly it can balance itself out.

    Lastly there are some soft tissue mobilization stuff you can do with some tennis balls taped together, a firm but squishy ball the size of a small cantaloupe and a foam roller. However I will need to do a post on that also.

  4. first, excuse all of the grammatical errors just gonna kick this out!

    this is a great blog with awesome information. but as we've discussed, there are points on which i don't quite agree and would like to continue further conversation.

    while i agree that circumferential compression is a major aspect of spinal (or trunk) stabilization i disagree on the functionality of utilizing vertical compression in all activities. while vertical compression makes sense during heavy lifting, closed chain activity i believe it is not functional for upper quadrant open chain, large range, minimally loaded movement. granted you did mention gradients of use so perhaps it is my misunderstanding of what exactly that entails. (you can enlighten me on that during a session)

    as i see it, to vertically compress would mean a decrease in trunk mobility - - this makes sense during closed-chain, upper quadrant activities such as lifting heavy objects, tumbling etc. But for movement that calls upon MOBILITY of the spine (trunk) as a premium and that is open chain and not upper quadrant loaded, vertical compression appears less functional.

    also, we both agree that the rectus (abdominus) is NOT a key spinal stabilizer nor is it for that matter even very effective in spinal flexion. my question is how can it not be key if vertical compression is elevated to the status that you've given it?? in order for vertical compression to be affected, the rectus MUST act as a key player anteriorly and WOULD therefore be considered a major player in spinal stabilization.

    instead, i support the idea that the rectus acts largely as armour for the body - - a flexible, mobile armour. it also acts like a strong cable approximating the, otherwise, floating ribs to the pelvis. unlike you i believe it is the transversus that is the major supporting muscle in containing the organs and other contents of the abdominal and pelvic cavities anteriorly. because of it's tranverse or cross wise span, wrapping around the lower abdomen, it not only contains the contents but provides MOBILE stabilization. similar to an abdominal binder that is placed on patients after abdominal surgery - - it allows for movement but supports the structure. we also see this in the case of ace wraps for joints. when we apply VERTICAL support it's intent is IMMOBILIZATION of the area - - as in the use of splints.

    SO, i contend that circumferential compression of the spine has a premium during unloaded upper quadrant open chain activities with lots of spinal movement while vertical compression is most effective for upper quadrant closed-chain, heavy loaded activities where spinal movement is kept to a minimum.

    the idea of scoop and hollow that people speak of in pilates is simply a tool used to get people in touch with & to sense the activation of the transversus and multifidi and get "in touch" with the action of circumferential compression. i think it is a useful tool - - especially for women. but in the last year i have also found the necessary use and validity of hip drive and vertical compression.

    so, in sum, my thought is that there is application for most of what we do as human beings navigating the physical, emotional and spiritual space in which we exist and nothing should ever totally be discounted AND a discerning mind and body be developed so that in our most optimal state we can inhabit the full range of our functionality with eloquence, grace and strength thereby creating depth of spirit and character. (Hah!! okay, Ticknor... bring it on! ;-)

  5. Ok
    Why do we want to vertically compress the spine.
    First lets discuss some basics and she did bring it up so lets define them, and these definitions are on the more simple side. Realize during functional movement that these lines blur rapidly.
    The idea is to try and describe whether or not something that is being moved is going to stay in a fixed position or not. If it does it is closed chain, think dead lift where the feet stay firmly planted and are not going to move. If it doesn't it is an open chain movement, like a back handspring. Remember this is a generic explination mostly because Functional exercise, not rehab but exercise makes this line blurry. A turkish get up has both a open and closed chain aspect to it, a dead lift doesnt but a clean and jerk can. Enough of that.
    The next important thing to realize is miko is coming from a dance background and she is trying to come to movement with a certain aesthetic (or ascetic depending on how you view dance)

    There are three big reasons that I believe vertical compression would actually help a dancer.
    First is center of gravity and the second is hip mobility, and lastly is intraabdominal pressure.

    If the diaphragm is pulled down and the pelvic floor is tightened up the organs are stabilized and easier to hold in place. It makes the middle of you more dense and when something is more dense it is easier to stabilize.
    If you lengthen your spine you scoot your center of gravity up. When you do this the balance point is higher up the body. This will create an issue with balance, especially on one foot. The lower the center of gravity the easier to control.

    Circumfirential compression allows for some intraabdominal pressure but you are making more volume in the same amount of space. Meaning less pressure. The more pressure in the cavity means the harder all your muscles can contract. This translates into being able to lift a leg higher or jump higher, or continue to contract the calf while on point shoes.
    Now I have never been on point shoes but I am a climber where I have had to balance on the tiniest of things while pulling myself through a long range of motion. It takes balance, power, strength and grace. Sometimes you are reaching with everything to try and grab a specific hold and if you lose trunk stability you will not be able to use that hold once you get it.
    Now technical info about this.
    The diaphragm actually has fibers that tie into or weave into the transverse abdominous or the corset looking muscles in the body, it also attaches to the thoracic spine, and some of the abdominal organs (like the liver). The transverse abd. work like a belly band.
    The cura muscles are the muscles that contract to pull the diaphragm down to let the lungs bring in oxygen. The cura also connects to and intertwines into the psoas and illiacus.

    The psoas is a hip flexor that allows you to lift your knee above 90degrees. When a hollowing happens or if the diaphragm is pulled up as in spinal extension the illopsoas is lengthened which will decrease the ability to flex the hip, and will cause a pelvic rotation that you have to try and counter.

    So in short (actually long but eh) If you dont vertically compress the spine during movement you lose the ability to open up the hips as much, say to turn out, or to lift the leg above 90 degrees, say in developpee. You will lose the ability to jump out of the bottom of a movement.

    I will leave it at that for now because I think that this is going to go into a second round of discussion.
    Have fun

  6. hmmm, okay, first off i'm not a movement ascetic!!! hahahah!!! the fact that i have begun to integrate the work that you do into my own regimen attests to that - - thank you very much!! THAT being said i LOVE movement and believe there is NOTHING more primal to us as human beings than the moving body! thought, language, emotion ALL are secondary developments and find their roots in our physical manifestation! hahahah! okay... maybe i am a movement ascetic!!!

    back to the matter at hand!! i can see some of what you are saying theoretically and will investigate it over the next few months incorporating it into my body - - then i'll give you my thoughts.

    i get what you are saying about torso stabilization in order to achieve freedom of the legs in the pelvis that is obviously a major concern for the wester trained dancer... i'm just not sure compression is the way to go. we shall see.

    but let me ask a question... in a headstand the same logic applies? compress and pull the legs down into the pelvis?? if yes, at least you are consistent and if no why different??

    talk to you in august... by then i will have been able to put it to the test!!!

  7. Fascinating .. and now I want to see Tamiko dance and show us all this in physical form. How does this fit into the flow of dance is what I'm wondering? Can a dancer hold compression while moving through her "full range of motion" artistry - ?

    So much of dance is controlled letting go - using effort to look effortless - but then a lot of it is literal letting go passionately. Is there room for actual total looseness here?

    I don't know all the technical terms like you guys do but I know what it feels like to do functional fitness and dance. The strength impacts my dancing a LOT. Just wondering if there are transcendent moments as a dancer where you really have to let it all go and just be. Maybe my questions are all too feeling based.

    When you say "There are a bunch of people that try to increase their rotational ability to something of an owl/contortionist" is that your diplomatic way of referring to a four letter word that starts with Y and ends with A?

    Thanks for the post, really great. Good discus throwing video too.

    What is a one legged deadlift? Seriously, on one leg?

  8. Amely, I don't think what you're saying is "too feeling based" at all! (and it's still valid so even if some say it is, so what!!) and if Adam doesn't mind the volley i'll give my 2 cents and hope i make a bit of sense!!! ;-)

    i am not, nor ever will, be an amazing dancer. i was 17 and in college when i took my first modern class and if i were to be sentimental i'd say i'd found my lifelong lover and KNEW it without a doubt! but i'm a very practical person and realized that i was overweight (for a dancer), lacked the training, did not have the body of a dancer and was starting "late". if i wanted it i'd have to rely on my strengths - - desire, tenacity and a sharp, open mind, while turning down the volume on my weaknesses - - fear!! (good luck! hahahahah)

    training for me has always meant developing the strength to bear the release of the soul. i want a body that can do as much as possible and bear it all while remaining intact and whole. i worked with a now friend and choreographer named Ralph Lemon and in the process he talked a great deal about conjuring... that's what i feel a commited artist does. whether you are an artist as a profession or not! (meaning to say we are all artists but in our society only "artists" are given the permission to live that way... screwed up, i think!)

    at 40 i am still in love with my chosen lover!! i've found that this journey that has seemed to take place on a physical level is ultimately a spiritual one because they are never truly separate. YES, there are moments where in i am able to let it all go and just be! and they are moments of divine grace... i call upon them, i conjure them and they don't always come to me but the SEEKING is always there!...

    you say that dance is controlled letting go. i see it differently... very much so! we train and seek to control our bodies so that when the soul takes over, when that "conjuring" comes to fruition we can avail!! so the process of training and learning to control while doing is really about learning to LET GO and prepare for and equipt ourselves with the strength to handle those moments!! (we all know how easy that is!!! hahahahaha!)

    being less metaphorical, my curiosity in this information stems from that! (and an aging dancer trying to keep it together for a few more years to do the thing she loves!!! dammit that's sad but true!!!!!)

    okay, not re-reading so i hope this made a bit of sense. tried not to be too touchy-feely bout it! yeah, that worked!