We often hear the question in CrossFit of “What do you guys do for abs/core work?” Truth be told, we do everything with the core in mind. As athletes and people striving to be fitter, faster, stronger and healthier, we train to develop using core strength as the source of our physical capacity and strength. What most people think of as core based exercises are hardly so.

Sit ups and leg raises are not actually “core” exercises. They are abdominal exercises and abs are only a small part of the musculature that makes up the “core”. Having tight, washboard abs and a weak low back is not a strong core. What people think of as core exercises are hardly that, in that they work only a small part of the midsection. So what really works the “core”?

How about some overhead squats? Try locking out a heavy load overhead and attempting not to start noodling around underneath it. That massive contraction you have to put forth to lock in the lower back, thoracic spine, shoulder girdle and abdominal cavity is a major kick to the core crotch. Or how about squats? How do you think you maintain a lordotic arch in the lower back at the bottom of the squat and what is it that helps generate and transmit power as you drive up out of the hole at the bottom. Have you ever noticed that your obliques can be pretty damn sore the day after heavy front squats or cleans? When the load is shifted forward of the spine and the lever arm on the lower back is thereby increased, and you fight to stay upright in the torso, the only thing keeping you from resembling a human pretzel is your “core”. Heavy presses hit home pretty good too. Again they hit the spinal erectors, obliques and serratus muscles.

All the crazy barbell exercises that are typically shunned by the “experts” are actually incredible for developing core strength. Even more beneficial, dependent upon the movements, are dumbells. Now you have a unilateral load that really makes you fight for stabilization in almost every plane of movement. Where does the primary strength to balance that instability come from? The midsection. Don’t be afraid of picking up a barbell to develop midsection strength. The massive involvement of so many muscles working in unison under serious muscular strain to maintain form and stability creates incredible strength.

For a real treat, there are Kettlebells. Anterior and posterior core muscles get a serious working over with KB Swings. Maintaining form, while creating momentum and drive on an external weight, making sure you stay tight at the top of the movement, and really lock everything in place at the bottom of the swing as you prepare for reversal of the KB momentum. Yup, all major midsection work.

The “experts” would have you doing crunches and movements on Swiss balls. Crunches are realtively worthless in that they are an incomplete movement creating little if any new motor recruitment patterns and motor units, which means they contribute nothing to you in an athletic sense. They generate muscle activation from only a small portion of the abdominals and due to their incompleteness, they serve no real purpose other than to “feel the burn”.

Swiss balls have a place in rehab as they can help people with severe injuries overcome movement and balance problems, but in a training environment they do nothing for us. There is almost no complete ROM that can be done on a Swiss ball that I can think of. Lousy ROM means lousy adaptation and fitness. Doing weighted movements on a Swiss ball is not a great idea either. Sure there is a balance component, but then there’s the “ball popping under heavy weight and I break my arm while doing DB presses” component – just ask the Sacramento Kings basketball team… dumb….

Additionally, while balance and stability is all great, it lends no realism to what we really do in daily life. Very little, and I mean VERY little, of what we do involves lying, standing, or doing anything on an incrediby unstable surface. Sure it’s great for the “what if” factor, but so is buying arms on the black market and starting my own militia…just in case…

If you have a Swiss ball, do yourself a favor and fill it with water. Then try carrying it around. This will, 1) be a great use for a Swiss ball, and 2) be hell on your core as you try to stabilize and walk around with a ball of heavy Jello. No kidding, this is a great training tool and a hard task.

Planks and other static holds are also great for developing this type of excellent midline strength. An isometric contraction (locking muscles in to hold a static position) is tremendously powerful for creating strength and motor unit creation and recruitment. Take a look at gymnasts for an example of this concept. A lot of isometric holds and they have a tremendous strength to weight ratio. Some superman planks held for as long as possible for several sets will hammer the midsection, front and back, and leave you shaking like a dog trying to pass a peach pit. 

Sit ups, leg raises, back extensions and the like serve a purpose, as long as they are full ROM and are used in conjunction with other exercises that supplement the core work. Combine them with overhead movements and BB/DB work and you can be bullet proof. Mix them up in variations like Russian twists, medball throw/chases, partner drills, etc. Also, realize that a lot of people who are usually doing “core” work all the time with their trainers at the local globo gym are also suffering from all kinds of back pain and tweaks. Why is this? Because of strength imbalances and subsequent felxibility issues created by overused, overtrained, and overcompensating muscles – abs being the primary culprit here.

 So in closing, “Core” work is more than just the simple looking stuff we always think it to be. Instead, it is all encompassing and is created and maintained by a myriad of exercises. Don’t limit yourself and always remember, the midline is what makes us powerful and athletic. We create power at the “core” and transfer it out to it’s destination. Hence the reason CrossFit focuses on these “core to extremity” movements. Without proper development and strength of these core muscles, we limit our growth and ability to become fitter, faster, stronger and healthier.

Truly “hardcore”.

Form & Function

All too often we fall into the trap of “routine”. The same pattern of actions can create a feeling of simplicity and subsequent complacency. I occasionally  find this in my own personal training and have to snap myself out of it. Every once in a while clients will get lax with the movements as well before the skill coaching sessions take place. The warm up is one of those places where, if left unchecked, form can deteriorate since the movement is “routine”.

At CFC most warm ups are conducted by folks on their own accord as the gym is readied, numbers are calculated, and questions are answered by the trainers. We move around the floor as people conduct a thorough warm up, correcting form faults and resetting movement patterns. I appreciate the fact people have the self initiative to take it upon themselves and move through multi-planar warm up skills and DROM stretching before the WOD. Sure it is my place as a trainer to make sure people are doing exactly what they are supposed, and I do, but from time to time we can’t be everywhere at once if we aren’t doing a group warm up that day. However, now people need to remember to maintain the initiative to maintain perfect form in the warm up, not just in the workout or skill sessions.

The warm up is the place where we ingrain movement patterns in an environment where the weight is light and muscles and brain are fresh. Most often we use PVC to warm up. PVC has advantages in that everyone can use it, it’s inexpensive, good for all kinds of movements and stretches. Yet, it weighs almost nothing so often times it is hard to get the bar into correct placement on the body – front rack positions are notoriously hard with PVC – and due to it’s light weight it can be difficult to establish a nice path of travel since weight displacement is negligible and unlike steel, can be easily corrected and brought back in line with no major problems.

However, PVC does offer a tremendous opportunity to develop a very strong proprioceptive response in proper bar movement and bar path, IF you really put the effort into thinking about each rep being extraordinarily perfect. If you can perfect a movement or skill with a piece of PVC, the foundations for a smooth pathway with a weighted bar have been laid and there is less correction or chance of error needing to be made when more external loading is added.

Each time you warm up, the emphasis should be on clear and distinctly precise and correct movement patterns. Don’t let it become “routine” and slop a PVC bar around in a pressing-like motion. Actually mentally make that piece of PVC weigh 400 Lbs and push it, pull it, squat it correctly. This will do some amazing things to create beautiful movement, lessen chances of injury, and create better athleticism.

The press, squat and deadlift are foundational movements in the fact they are inextricably linked to many daily movement patterns we repeat in the process of life, and in the athletic and fitness arena, they allow for maximum adaptation and fitness in a myriad of ways. As such, they must be done correctly or all else fails, literally. Each movement is the basis for a subsequently more complex and/or difficult movement. More complexity/technicality/difficulty means more good stuff to happen in your body’s adaptive response and subsequent fitness. But, you can’t build up to proper adaptation with crappy form at a simpler movement. You can, but you will just be wasting your time and asking for something bad to happen. Instead, the focus of “virtuousity” of the fundamental movements must be stressed each time you run through them as a workout or warm up skill.

The front squat, overhead squat, push press, jerks, sumo deadlift, cleans and God knows what other variations of the 3 basic movements cannot be met and created properly if the foundational movement is funky. For example, in the push press the bar has to go from shoulder to overhead in a particular manner exactly the same way as it does in the press. The only difference being that we are involving some drive into the bar via the legs. But if your press is always out front, herky jerky, too far back overhead and not locked out, the push press is not going to happen and if it does, it ain’t gonna be pretty!

We are sticklers for form and function of any movement, however, we place a lot of emphasis on proper squatting, pressing and lifting mechanics and with good reason. We want our clients to understand proper mechanics and movement, see proper movement, execute proper movement, and correct improper movement. So it stands to reason that you should always focus on a solid, controlled, perfect squat be it in a warm up or a workout. Create a nearly vertical bar path from shoulder to overhead, or from ground to hip with all the mechanisms of such in place each time you do them. Think about them, don’t make them “routine” movements. I assure you, if you master the 3 basic movements, their bastard step children will be much nicer to you. And in the long run, so will your trainers!

Keep up the great work and ALWAYS strive for excellence! — Ian

Getting Strong

Since we are coming into the winter months, we are adding more strength work to the mix. Almost everyone I have spoken with likes the ME and MetCon split routines we are programming here. I do still get the occassional question as to why we need to bench, squat, deadlift, etc. So allow me to explain.

First of all, strength work will not hurt you and it is not dangerous. If you are coached and spotted in your workouts, life is good and you will excel with minimal chance of injury, barring some complete act of God or massive stupid attack. Many people will tell you squats are bad for your knees, deadlifts will screw up your back and presses will trash your shoulders. My response has always been that swimming will kill you too if you don’t know how to do it. So it’s a moot point. Learn proper mechanics and movement patterns and you will be fine. If you don’t know what a squat is or where the femur is, then find a truly knowledgeable person who does and get some 1-1 coaching time in.

There are two types of strength domains – absolute strength and relative strength. Looked at in layman’s terms, they would be “max effort output” (1 RM and similar short, high power maximal efforts) and “Strength to weight output” (your ability to produce force and work capacity in realtion to your size). Both of these are dependent upon each other and more importantly, if you wish to get fitter, faster, stronger, and healthier you need to lift something heavy on a regular basis.

You can do air squats and push ups till the cows come home, and at some point, it is what it is. You are about as strong and as fast as you are going to get with bodyweight and minor external loading will allow. In other words, your relative strength is at it’s end range. So now comes the time to improve performance by adding some external loading, and working on absolute strength.

Absolute strength will increase your relative strength as your force production and power will dramatically improve in efforts where sub-maximal loads are being moved, be it bodyweight or lighter loads. Additionally, if the ME days are done in a proper manner at prescribed percentages and time domains, you will create new motor pathways and increase the motor units that cause the muscles to fire. This creates muscular efficiency, an improved proprioceptive response between brain and body, and increased athleticism and fitness. By creating more motor units and and bettter efficiency, the body now knows how to use the muscles and their “new found” abilities in a variety of situations in sport and real life, from endurance events to high intensity short or long term output requirements.  The Central Nervous System is stimulated and creates change in the body through various mechanisms of recovery and adaptation. Some movements can be very systemically taxing at heavy weights and volume, especially deadlifts, and should not be overdone or the CNS will have a rough time recovering. One heavy day of deadlifts a week is plenty, so don’t get too jiggy with it just because you think it will be better. If another workout with deadlifts comes up, put the ego on a shelf and scale back from RX’d weight to allow the body a chance to continue it’s recovery.

Of course strength work at maximal loads, (80% and up) will create some lean body mass growth, but not to the degree of being bulky or body building routines. Coupled with a good conditioning program, you will see great results in strength and power, as well as maintaining cardiovascular efficicency. Strength work has a huge neuroendocrine response in the body. The positive hormonal and chemical changes that take place in the body do some great stuff for you, long and short term.

Lastly, strength work is a great way to create a stronger body thereby avoiding injury. A solid structure, supported by healthy bone and muscle is more resistant to injury. For many people, myself included, when the back, knees, or whatever starts to hurt, a few sets with a heavy barbell makes it all better. The muscles are re-tensioned and many aches and tweaks are mitigated and shaken off. A steady diet of this helps maitnain this strong muscular support system and also builds strong bones and connective tissues within the body. This is crucial as we age and the ravages of inactivity and poor diet creep up on many folks.

All this being said, you still need to rest and recover from hard days of strength work. Ice it, stretch it, roll it, do whatever, but take care of the body and you will go a long way. The work on the front end will be a benefit on the back end. I’d rather do heavy squats now to prevent the possibility of having someone else help me off the toilet at the nursing home when I am 90 because I thought squats were bad for me. I bet you all agree!