By: Barbell Logic Team
The most useful exercises for general strength train the body as a unit, using the same coordinated use of the musculoskeletal system as exists in normal human movement. In general, the more joints we use in an exercise the more natural coordination is required and the more generally useful that exercise is. Within the context of coordinated movement, we can observe an important aspect of human function. For now, let’s focus on the “core”: the musculature of your trunk and how those muscles typically work.
Training your Core for Functional Fitness
“Function” is one of the prevalent buzzwords in fitness. Presumably, “functional fitness” is meant to distinguish certain programs from dysfunctional fitness. If you’ve ever spent time people-watching at your local big-box gym, your mind probably doesn’t have to go far to picture the fitness of dysfunction. People seem to come up with the most interesting, least useful things to do with machines, balance balls, and cardio equipment. Unfortunately, functional fitness as a buzzword has come to include a lot of dysfunction as well, balance balls and special stabilization exercises targeted at your “core.” These seem to gain traction as everyone seems to have been taught that their core must be strong and that this is strength must somehow be trained in isolation of the rest of the human body.
The most useful exercises for general strength train the body as a unit, using the same coordinated contractions of the musculoskeletal system that exists in normal human movement. In general, the more joints we use in an exercise the more natural coordination is required and the more generally useful that exercise is. Within the context of coordinated movement, we can observe an important aspect of human function. For now, let’s focus on the “core”—the musculature of your trunk—and how those muscles typically work.
Imagine a spectrum of human movement. On one end, you have the least amount of movement, lying prone and relaxed. Moving along the spectrum, you might go from lying to sitting, from sitting to walking, to running, and so on. As far as the number of joints used, the squat is going to be pretty far down the spectrum: It is a big movement. We use the squat, the press, and the deadlift in particular because they are big movements, that use a lot of muscle mass. As such, they use most of the muscles of the body and when we add weight to the bar those muscles must work proportionately harder to the added weight.
On this spectrum of movement, what do the trunk muscles actually do? The main muscle groups that make up your core are the erector spinae (the back extensors), the rectus abdominis (your abs), the transverse abdominis, and the interior and exterior obliques. Together, these muscles can extend the spine (back extensors), flex and rotate the trunk, and compress and support the trunk. In most normal human movement, the muscles of the trunk primarily operate isometrically. The spinal erectors hold your posture and the muscles of your abdominal wall squeeze and support. Rarely in the everyday moment do you intentionally flex your spine and almost never do you do so in active loaded movement. Perhaps there is a reason we equate slouching with laziness and timidity.
Anytime you are standing on your feet and need to produce force to move your body, to move an object, or to carry something, the muscles that keep your trunk stable are crucial to preventing the loss of force. These muscles are constantly keeping you upright, holding your posture. Running, jumping, walking, football, jiu-jitsu, or lifting, your trunk muscles are in a constant state of assisting force production through postural control.
For a more functional core, you simply need to load this function. Strength is built through force production. Calisthenics like crunches and planks may tax the endurance of some of these muscles. Stabilization exercises may activate them, but neither of these types of training allows you to gradually increase the strength of these muscles’ contractions.
You don’t just want to “work” the muscles of your core, you want to make them stronger. The concept of progressive overload applies to the trunk muscles just as it does to every other trainable skeletal muscle in the body. The muscles get stronger by being required to produce progressively more force.
You do this by making them do their job—squatting, deadlifting, and pressing. Then, make their job a little bit more difficult, adding weight to the bar does this just fine. The muscles then must adapt and get stronger.
The key is to learn how to contract and hold these muscles tight during your lifts. Many people do this without thinking about it. They get ready to lift by taking a big breath and squeezing everything tight. But sometimes the movement needs coaching. Especially when learning to lift and the idea of voluntarily contracting your back and abdominal wall are just two more things to think about in a litany of cues.
Others lifters will exhibit a weak abdominal contraction. You can usually see this in overextension of the lower back during the setup and movement of the lifts. This often looks like you are “arching,” and is accomplished most often at the expense of a weak abdominal contraction.
If you are standing tall and upright, you are in normal anatomical extension. This is as extended as your spine needs to be during the lifts. From here, learn to brace the muscles that control your spinal position. This is a squeezing rather than an arching or extending movement. As you get ready to lift, keeping tight abs like you are anticipating a punch to the stomach will prevent you from overextending your back and will improve your ability to lift if you have been weak in that area. A belt can help tremendously as well. When you contract your abdominals, the belt actually pushes back, giving you tactile feedback, your own personal cue that you are holding your abs tight and are ready to lift. Do this and enjoy a strong, stable core, and all the benefits of the most functional fitness there is.
For more check out the video below: