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The Truth About Training Your Core

My mind was blown a little over year ago when I was introduced to Dr. Stuart McGill and his work on treating back pain. Since then I have studied anything and everything he puts out. I am here to give you guys that exact same experience. Unfortunately, the health coaching industry is all over the place when it comes to "Rule of thumbs" and "training the core". Everyone just goes off of what the next person taught them. But what about the science? Is building core stability a matter of strength or endurance? What is the "best way" to train the core? The answers to these questions have been supported for decades by the work of Dr. Stuart McGill and his colleagues! I'm pumped to give you a fresh perspective on building a bullet proof core.

Prepare yourself...this isn't going to be about leg raises and reverse hyperextensions.

We all know the importance of your core. It's not just your abs but also your entire trunk surrounding the midline of the body. Without it we would be walking around like a drunk Gumby. What a lot of us lack is the knowledge needed to actually train the core in a way that will fend off back pain whether acute or chronic and keep you lifting more and more weight the right way. Whether it is squatting, benching or dead lifting- the power starts in the hips and core. Without these two being at the top of their game your numbers will always suffer, your recovery will be crap and the risk of injury will be high!

Strength Vs Endurance

A common myth with core training says that if I train my core for more strength then I will be able to lift heavier and have less of a risk for injury, when in reality it's actually the opposite. The key to lifting safe and being injury free is the ability to create stiffness in the core and maintain that stiffness throughout the activity. Any break in core stability during a lift and you can expect a direct energy loss, which will result in missed reps or injury. In order to harness this energy the core needs to have the endurance to remain stiff and rigid. It only takes one split second where you lose stiffness during a rep and relax your core to throw your back out or have a similar injury.

When it comes to training your core for ultimate performance, stability and low back pain prevention, you must think endurance. Studies show that time training for core ENDURANCE yielded better protection for the spine and overall lasting performance more than traditional core strength training protocol (Luoto, S., et al 1995). If you think about it, it makes complete sense. Everything we do in life isn't limited to reps and sets. The average fit individual sees about 4+ hours a week of gym time. What about the rest of the time? We stoop, we twist, we bend and we reach multiple times a day. Then you get into the gym trying to hit personal records in squats and dead lifts and you struggle.

It's not just about the abs though. Often times we think, "getting tight" before a lift means flexing the stomach as if you are about to get punched. This is true but the core is so much more than that. It involves the entire circumference of your midsection including your lower back. This is where a lot of lifters go wrong. They hit the anterior portion of their core and typically neglect everything else they don't see in the mirror. In fact, a study done by Dr. McGill shows that the individuals with any kind of back pain appear to have a different flexion- to -extension endurance ratio, with the extensors having less endurance and the flexors having more endurance (McGill et al., 2003). This extensor neglect directly affects your core's performance and simply thinking heavier dead lifts are the solution is wrong!

How to Build Endurance:

The basics...

"Typically endurance is built first with repeated sets of relatively short holds" (McGill et al., 2003). Short relaxation of the muscle restores oxygen. Building endurance is achieved by building up repetitions rather than increasing the time of each hold. When training for endurance, holds shouldn't last more than 6-8 seconds (McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders: Human Kinetics, 2007. pg 182). Russian performance athletes have used this technique for years. It's crazy to think about though, right? We are taught in order to build endurance you need to run longer, add more reps or hold it longer. In some cases, this may be true but to build un-wavering core endurance it isn't about gritting it out and holding on by the skin of your teeth just to finish. It's a complete and controlled contraction that is like a vice grip from beginning to end.

To build this vice takes time. The key is not to be strong in the core just for lifts but to be strong in the core for life. For walking up the stairs, carrying boxes, lifting your child etc. We are so intentional about form and technique in the gym but we lose all sense of that once we step out side and into the real world. This is why a stiff core that is open for business 24/7 has to be built one brick at a time.

Great example is what is called the McGill Crunch (I go over this more in a video below).

Sets for a "McGill Crunch"

1. 5 reps with a 6-8 second hold for each one

2. Rest for 20 seconds

3. 4 reps with 6-8 second hold for each one

4. Rest for 20 seconds

5. 3 Reps with a 6-8 second hold for each one

6. Rest

7. 2 Reps with a 6-8 second hold for each one

8. Finished

3 Exercises that need to be added to your daily warm up that don't involve flexion: McGill Big 3

A great habit to start is incorporating these three exercises into your daily warm up. Either after a short morning walk or before you hit the gym. Either way, just get them done. I promise you will notice a big difference in your core stability as soon as you start using them. These exercises are proven to provide instant core stiffness not only for your workout but cumulative stability for hours after.

Check out these three videos explaining how to do the McGill Big 3

McGill Crunch

Rolling Side Bridge

Bird Dog

That's not all though, you need to find ways to incorporate more of what I call "pre-recovery training” into your program. These are exercises that will build strength, endurance and core stability all at the same time. Pre-recovery training is the stuff you do before you get injured and realize your core is the equivalent to an ell dente' noodle. These exercises help build onto your basic foundation and should be a staple in your training protocol.

Unilateral Training: This is huge if you’re dealing with a low back injury. Exercises like pistol squats, single leg reverse lunges, and single arm farmer’s carries also know as uneven carries.

These exercises do two things:

  1. They reduce the amount of load on the spine allowing more room for recovery and less abuse on what could be an already inflamed joint.

  1. You’re forced to work against the weight. Single arm farmer carries teach you core stability like none other. As the weight is pulling you to one side, your core has to work double time to keep you erect and standing tall. When starting out or in a recovery cycle, start light and DO NOT work till exhaustion. It's hard to refrain but most injuries happen when people try to work through exhaustion. Instead of hanging it up and saving that last bit of juice for the next set they put all their cards on the table and end up losing.

Since I started incorporating these basic fundamentals of core training to my program, my pain management has dramatically changed for the better. I was diagnosed with an L5-S1 rupture years ago and I am convinced if it wasn't for changing my outlook on what I thought to be a healthy, strong body I would be two surgeries into a lifetime of pain killers and regret.

Thanks for reading!


Reference: McGill, Stuart. (2007) Low Back Disorders. Waterloo, Canada: Human Kinetics

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