core training

Play With Speed (Part 1) - Add a Pause To Your Lifts

When you think about your overall abilities in most strength exercises, you probably tend to judge your progress by how much weight you can move at once or how many reps you can complete at one time. And so, these two variables, load and volume, are likely the ones you focus on the most as you practice. You make the work more challenging by increasing one or both.

This strategy is quite smart. Changing only these two variables will work for quite some time before your progress seems to level off - years, really(when programmed correctly). However, there is another variable you can manipulate just as easily to bust through that next plateau. You can play with the speed of your repetitions to help you get stronger, and closer to your aesthetic goals.

And there are a lot of upsides to this beyond those two more obvious, covetable benefits. The first is that you can work with relatively light weights for big gains. You’ll have considerably more options to train sub maximally and still continue to build strength, without super heavy weights all the time. Working with super heavy weights more than a few weeks at a time can fry your nervous system and stunt your progress and cue significant detriment to your health, so this one is major. Whether increasing or decreasing the speed, you'll be working with no more than 60% of your max.

The second is that you'll really OWN the movement. Like any other skill - and strength is a skill to be sure - it's to your advantage to practice slowly at first. As you gain proficiency and fluidity in the movement, you'll be able to add speed and complication while maintaining integrity.

OK, OK. On to the reasons you really care about...

Add Speed For Challenge

As you can imagine, you have many options here. You can try to move your body or the weight(the load) really quickly and explosively. This action teaches your brain to recruit motor units very quickly, and therefore get your muscles to help you execute the action really fast. We’re talking about building efficiency here. You'll feel more like the strong chick you already are. Keep in mind, this is on the advanced end of the spectrum. 

Decrease Speed For Mastery

You could also slow down the concentric or eccentric(the push or pull) parts of the lift, fighting gravity a little more to lengthen out the time of the reps. This action teaches your brain to recruit a higher number of motor units, and therefore get more of your body involved. We’re talking about keeping your bod looking like it does all the work you do. Also important to note, is that exaggerated isometrics and eccentrics have been shown to reduce inflammation that can keep you feeling both achey and boxy(you know what I mean here). These are great options on the more beginner end of the spectrum, as we sort of touched on above.

Or, you could slow things down so much that you take a PAUSE somewhere in the lift.

Pause To Break Through Plateaus

Now the pause is great for multiple reasons including all the benefits that come from decreasing the speed of work. But, the pause being a quick hold that you add to a specific part of the lift, also helps you gain more specific strength at the moment you stop, and work through weaknesses that might be holding you back from progress. For example, if you find it difficult to get your back knee close to the ground in a split squat - if that end range mobility is tough - you could dump some of the weight and add a pause in the bottom of the movement, adding greater value and dare I say FUN to the session.

There are an unlimited amount of moments at which you can add an unexpected pause to your typical movements. So, get creative if you're not sure. Really girl: Trust yourself. Try adding it in different places and see which feels most challenging. This can lead you to intuitively find the weak links and learn about your body.

Here are some wonderful ideas (including the split squat example above) that focus on owning that end range of motion, as most of you lovelies express concern with mobility. Beginners can start with 10 reps and a three-second pause. More experienced lifters can use loads of 40-50% for 4 sets of 5 reps and a two-second pause.

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Crunches Are Bad For You. And This Is Exactly Why...

I Refuse To Do Crunches 

I used to feel bad about it. 

I would lay on the mat in the dark with everyone else and and pretend to be adjusting this or that on my clothes,  maybe stretching some tight muscle, or even feigning more significant fatigue.

It was a little dance I'd have to coordinate without disrupting my very near-by neighbors to get out of doing crunches in yoga class any time my favorite teacher was absent.

I just had this terrible fear, that whichever instructor was substituting, would see my refusal as a sign of disrespect.

I'm a coach. I know what it's like to be thrown into the fire, in front of someone else's loyal followers. You can literally feel the skepticism and ambivalence as you call the class to attention.

But see the thing is, those crunches that many instructors like to begin class with, are actually disrespecting me and my body. They're not "lighting up the core," as they are so innocently intended to.

These abs were not built by crunches....

These abs were not built by crunches....

So instead of acting out my silly pantomime, that stresses me out and turns my focus away from my body, I now just kick back by the candlelight, lay still on my mat, and come back to my breath.

Why am I so literally unmoving in my stance?

Joint-By-Joint Theory

Well, I have very few beefs with the practice of yoga. I personally practice yoga once a week religiously. And I'm actually completely convinced that some of our more typical yoga exercises and principles that I do disagree with, are more likely good intentioned but ill-advised Americanized interpretations of said ancient practice. See also: We're doing it wrong.

And one of those misinterpretations is the idea that the lower back, or lumbar spine, needs to be any more flexible and mobile than it already is.

In fact, most of the population already has wayyy too much movement going on there, and that needs to be put in check.

Joint-by-joint theory is also an old concept, not quite as early as yoga of course, as I believe it dates back to the late 1800's. But even by then, we had real evidence from Vladmir Janda to support our "crunches are bad" statement.

Joint-by-joint theory is the idea that the body is made up of joints that exist in alternating priority as we travel from the ankle, all the way up to the neck.

We have joints that are more mobile, sandwiched between joints that need to be more stabile. If we honor these differing responsibilities, we can build a strong and resilient body while protecting ourselves from excess stress and injury.

Let's look at the ankle as an example. in order to run, jump and walk with good mechanics, our ankles need to move really well. 

If our ankles do not move adequately, and we continue to go about our business without addressing this issue, we will likely end up with breakdown of the connective tissues in the knee as it attempts to pick up the slack.

This is why one knee surgery usually turns into two and three down the line -- by ignoring the dysfunction of the surrounding joints.

When we address the symptom without addressing the original cause, we don't actually fix the problem.

But what does this have to do with crunches?  Hang on. We've got one more principle to discuss.

The Four Knots

When we go further up the line, we find that the hip is even more important, as most of our movements as humans originate from the four knots, that is the two hips and two shoulders.

You can liken the kicking of a soccer ball to the crack of a whip. It all starts at the hip, with the leg following in a whipping action that terminates at the foot as it strikes the ball. This is how most movements happen. 

When our hips are not mobile, and I mean mobile, not flexible. It's important here to note that you may be passively very flexible in the hips, folding into a pigeon pose that leaves your chin on the floor in front of you with zero effort.

But, if you cannot control those ranges with strength, your hips are not actually mobile. And as you move about on your feet and get into a squat, or are even further taxed by dumbbells or barbells, that flexibility will be lost to you. 

But we as humans can be very determined when we step into the gym or onto the mat. We often disregard that the cost is higher than the benefit and risk injury for the sake of our pride (this is part of the argument against that no pain-no-gain mentality).

And when you do attempt something that is say outside your range, or past the edge (that's yoga speak for all you non-yogis), your lower back will have to move more than it should to account for the inadequacy in the hips. Can you say lower back pain?

Crunches Disrespect Your Body

So back to our original point. Why are crunches so bad?

You are probably already drawing the correct conclusions in your brain. The reasoning is two-fold.

1) Crunches violate joint-by-joint theory

Your lower back, that includes all of the vertebrae there, falls in the stability category. Instead of teaching us to protect our lumbar spines and limit movement there, to keep good space between the joints with muscular strength; crunches demand that we shorten the space between each vertebrae and add unnessecary stress to all those tiny joints. 

You would be much better off with exercises that increase the stability in your lower back, that honor the proper function of the joints like dead bugs and planks. And there are limitless variations on these two alone to keep you busy.

2) Crunches violate the theory of the four knots

It's like taking violation number one to the next level. Not only do we ask our lumbar spines to move, but to further create the motion that we are trying to execute. This creates a bad pathway in the brain. If we know we can rely on this shortcut, we'll probably just keep using it as an alternative strategy to get by in other situations beyond the crunch. That's just natural adaptation.

You need to work on your hip mobility to be able to create a better and more efficient pathway to that super low chair pose (narrow-kneed squat) you desire, as crunches will certainly have zero translation here. I'm a big fan of the high tension 90/90 stretch.

Honor The Way You Were Meant To Move

So please please please, stop doing crunches.  If you want that deep definition that separates a super strong midsection from the silly superficial abs (and who doesn't?), cut the crunches.

Focus on appreciating your body and loading up exercises that honor the way we were meant to move. As I love to say, a real good front squat with a well braced midsection is an honest 6-minute ab miracle. 

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How Do I Train My Core?

And What Does That Really Mean, Anyway?

I always make it a point to sit down with new clients and talk about their goals. And in the past, the most frequent request of my lovely ladies was, as you can easily imagine, weight loss. They’d look down at their already beautiful bodies and point to this or that stubborn spot and anxiously ask, ”How do I get rid of this?

But the tides, they are a'turning. A shift has been made. The mainstream fitness industry is beginning to push the importance of moving better and getting strong. Now my potential prospects are pointing to the exact same areas and proclaiming, with even more uncertainty, I think I need to work on my core?

Not unlike fat loss, core training is somewhat confusing. There’s tons of available information and all of it seems to be quite conflicting.

The only difference being, we don’t seem to come across a decent definition of what core stability actually is as we scroll through our feeds.

There are however, endless random lists of exercises that appear to challenge our midsections….or something like that?

Core stability... That’s like working on my abs, right?

And that assumption is not untrue. Go ahead, girl. You’re on to something with that statement. It’s just not the complete story. There’s a little bit more to the definition.

 

What Is Core Stability?

Core stability refers to your ability to tie yourself together, to connect the different segments of your body and maintain your posture through a given position or movement.

It’s your ability to hold that position, to stand your ground against resistance. 

So it involves your abs and your midsection yes, as much of your success is dependent on your ability to breathe through the positions and harness that power. 

But it’s oh so much more than that. 

Mainly because, not unlike fat loss, the reason for the mystery surrounding core stability is that it’s situation specific. Or position specific to be exact. 

Meaning, your ability to maintain core stability in a squat, is quite independent of your ability to maintain core stability in a row, or even say something as similar as a squat on one leg. You might look really poised and pretty on two legs, and then not so much on one.

And everyone has different core strengths and weaknesses. Things we are inherently good at and things we may need a little more confidence with.

There’s plenty of reasons why that could be. Maybe you’ve had more practice with squats, so your posture looks lovely. You’ve had more experience and training to refine the movement.

But maybe you sit at a desk for long hours during the day and now your rowing posture is not quite as pretty. 

Not to worry, my dear! You just have some practicing to do.

 

Regress to Progress

Just as you attack any other skill, you’ll need to start with the basics. All exercises have regressions and progressions. There are unlimited ways to make them easier or harder. A deadlift can turn into a swing. A split squat can turn into a lunge.

You will, however, need to start at the very beginning of the path to learn the requisite skills you’ll need later. So that as the challenges get more complicated, you can move through the next progressions successfully. You can progress to that lunge without pain or compensation. Which is really a nicer way of saying you’re doing it wrong. Let’s get it right. 

The very first step for most exercises is to bring them to the floor and turn them into isometrics, or static holds, rather than dynamic movements.

And that my friend, is why you think of core work as that ab stuff on the mat. You learn to use your breath to connect to your body and it certainly does feel like a lot of abs. Mostly abs. All of the abs.

We said that core strength is specific to the movement in question. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll say that in the gym, your movements are generally broken up into six or seven different categories. You push and pull. You squat and bend. You rotate. And you stand on a single leg. I say seven because I believe the split stance is it's own thing. Respect the lunge. Anyways...

The Best Basic Core Routine

So, I’m going to give you five different foundational exercises(the single leg consideration is built in) and a breathing exercise, that will serve as your core warm-up for any workout you may have planned. Or they can also be used as the workout if you are just getting back into the gym. 

Breathing From Child's Pose

Finding neutral spine can be difficult when you are stuck in lumbar extension. Stress, sitting at a desk, indigestion, periods, and wearing heels can all cause your back to stiffen up. What we're referring to here is that excessive curvature in your lower back that feels painful and makes ab stuff impossible. Not everyone deals with it, but a lot of us do. In this video, I instruct you to complete one round of five breaths. But you may need more rounds on tough days to experience relief.

Even if your back is perfectly painless, it's a great idea to still start with some breathing first. You're going to need to create large amounts of tension for these exercises while still managing to control your breath. Practice without the tension, first.

 

Prone Cobra

What we're preparing for: pulling motions - Deadlifts, rows, carries 

***For all exercises, be sure to read the cues and troubleshooting tips below the videos! You'll find them in the description section if you click the little YouTube icon to the bottom right.

 

Prone Plank

What we're preparing for: pushing motions - Squats, Bench Press, Sleds

 

Hurdle Hold

What we're preparing for: squatting motions/single leg motions - Squats, Step-Ups

 

Leg Lock Bridge

What we're preparing for: bending motions, lunging motions - Deadlifts, Split Squats, Step-Ups

 

Side Plank

What we're preparing for: rotating motions - Get-Ups, RoTational and Anti-Rotational Exercises

The Routine

1. Breathing From Child's Pose 1 - 3 rounds of 5 breaths

2. Prone Cobra x 30sec

3. Prone Plank x 30sec

4. Hurdle Hold x 30sec

5. Leg Lock Bridge x 30sec

6. Side Plank x 30sec

And don't forget about the carry-over! When you advance to more difficult movements or move to the strength portion of your day, look to apply the same principles to the progressions. Breathe through your loaded movements while creating tension and focusing on maintaining stability. 

Stand your ground, girl!