Even the biggest bodybuilder with the best set of “Abs” may have a weak core as storied in this episode of the NASM-CPT Podcast. Rick talks about the biggest person he’s ever met in real life and how his core stabilization system was … less than impressive. There’s also discussion about statistics, research, and the difference between the stabilization between each vertebrae and stabilization between the pelvis and ribcage.
Several muscles of the core stabilization system are discussed such as the transverse abdominis, diaphragm, multifidus, and more examining what they do and how they function to support the core.
Maxims to remember:
- Stabilize the spine before moving it
- Core is the anchoring point of all functional movement
- “You can’t have distal mobility without proximal stability”
Listen to this episode of the NASM-CPT Podcast for insights about the core and what it’s for and why stabilization of the spine is important.
Get 20% off your order now by calling 800-460-6276 or visiting NASM.org, and using the code Podcast 20.
Welcome to NASM-CPT Podcast. My name is Rick Richey and today we are going to be talking about core training. So, get ready all, I'm going to spend about 20 minutes with you today just discussing some things about core training.
But first I'm gonna give you a little intro story. Several years back I went out to a place called East Brunswick, New Jersey, and I was gonna teach an exercise science course out there. And I'm not entirely sure what is in the water out in East Brunswick, New Jersey, but I was by far one of the smallest humans out there.
So, I don't know if there was a chemical leak in the water or what it was, but these guys at that gym and a lot of the women too were jacked bro. They were basically all body builders. Everybody walked in with a gallon of water and their own meals, and they're getting ready for this exercise science workshop that I'm gonna be teaching. Now, I'm 5'8" and I'm about, at the time 160 pounds, and that's bigger than I am now. So, it's just gonna be a hard time to garner their respect than I would want teaching this workshop. Being my stature teaching to those guys.
So, what was interesting is at some point this gigantic man comes in, his name is Willy. And I've never seen a person this big in my entire life. Not not in real life, and he walks in and I'm tellin' ya, everybody basically dropped their smoothies and ran over to him like the body building Messiah had just shown up. And they're asking him questions and talking to him and trying to tap him on the shoulder about this and that.
He's really nice and he kinda talks to everybody and then he walks up to me and goes, "Hey how ya doin, my name is Willy." I say, "Hi, nice to meet you, do me a favor. I'm gonna, I may need your help here, because clearly people are coming to you and they respect you and basically nobody's even said hi to me since I've been here, and I'm teaching the course and I'd appreciate your help."
And he was like, "Oh absolutely, he was super nice and very supportive. And so we did a couple of different exercises. When we were talking about the core and part of it was, you know, I had him put his arm out, and try to stabilize his arm without stabilizing his core. So he's put his arm out in front of him like chest height, shoulder height, and I'd push down on his arm, and I'd tell him not to activate his core, which is by the way an impossibility. You can't maintain arm position out in front of you with somebody pushing down on it unless you activate your core.
So, then after we gave a few examples with that, then I said, "Alright Willy, go ahead and activate your core tighten up your core." And he did, and I pushed his arm down just as easily as I did before. And, I was like, "This is really weird. Yo bro, you get to win now. You get to win. Put your arm out, hold it, don't let this little guy push your arm down."
And I started to push it down again, and I did something that I kind of regret, but I pretended that he was stronger to make a point about, you know, when you tighten your core. But he wasn't any stronger and it was baffling me and I was really bothered by it.
So, at that point I say, "Hey everybody, let's go, and everybody partner up with somebody your own size." And since nobody was Willy's size, he partnered with a short woman named Fatima. I remembered it was in the course. And so they partnered up together and all I know is I'm walking around the course and I hear a thump, and I turn around and Willy is raising his hand and he asked this question. "Why can she hold her plank for 3 minutes, and I can't hold mine for 3 seconds?" And everything clicked right into place. I knew exactly what was going on, I had a complete understanding of the situation and then I kind of felt bad for fudging everything at the beginning.
But I didn't understand or comprehend it at the time, and this was really helpful. So I said, "I got 2 questions for you. Do you wear a weight belt?" That was number one. And number two, "Do you always lift for max strength reps?" Now those are two questions I want to come back to at the end of this as we get into the topic of the core. And talking about the core and what it's for.
So, here's some research about the core I just find very interesting, and you may want to take this and put it into your back pocket. We have research that about 80 to 85 percent of the population in this country have experienced debilitating lower back pain. Eighty percent of the people with chronic lower back pain have decreased muscle activation in core muscles or in muscle groups in the core.
Lower back peeps tend to have weak back extensors. But before you just go out and say, "Hey, I think that you probably have weak back extensors. Let's go do back extensions," we also need to be familiar with this that research shows that going directly into performing back extension exercises without proper core stabilization increases disc pressure to dangerous levels, as well as ligament pressure, and it also creates narrowing of the foramina or the holes in between the vertebrae that the nerves go through. So, you want to be aware of that. And make sure that you are doing a pretty thorough assessment and also adding in your cores stabilization exercises. We know that people with lower back pains, and have decreased muscular endurance and the trunk muscle weakness is an independent risk factor for developing lower back pain.
Now, that's just for people with lower back pain. Usually people don't necessarily care that they have weak core muscles unless it has an adverse effect on how they feel or how they function. So, lower back pain is a clear indication that's how somebody feels.
Now, the example with Willy that I gave in the beginning, it was an example of function. However, this guy wearing a weight belt, it's basically like Sampson having his hair every time he puts it on, and every time he takes it off it's like being cut. Like he goes from having core strength and stabilization artificially provided for him. And then as soon as that belts off, his functional strength was incredibly low. So that's something to be aware of.
Now, when we talk about the core we need to identify what that is. And, I know some people hate the term core, like that's just a thing for people. "I don't like using the word core." Alright, cool, don't use it. That's fine. It's just a word. It's just a word. So when we talk about the core of an apple then nobody's like, "I don't like that word core." And it just simply means the center of something. Right, so this is the center of our movement, it's where our movement originates from. And it's where our appendages attach to.
So, basically if you think this, unplug your arms and your legs and you're left with your core. So, if you want to use the word trunk, go for it. I've heard people use the term column, yeah, if that makes sense for you bro, go for it. If you don't have an affinity for the word core, find another word but honestly stop being angry at other people if they use the word core, cause you kinda know what it means.
So, we've got this core. Now, NASM likes to define it as the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, thoracic and cervical spine. So, any muscle that attaches or crosses over it, which means that any muscle that crosses over the lumbo which is lumbar, pelvic, pelvis, hip is, oh that's hip. So, anything that crosses over them, so you would literally be looking at muscles like the glutes and the hamstrings and the rectus fem as part of your core complex as far as that definition is concerned. And we can identify these muscles as core muscles, but they're different types of muscles. They're core stabilization muscles and they're core mobilization muscles. So ones that are global movers and ones that are primary stabilizers.
Now, in many instances the stabilizers have movement capacities and the movement muscles have stabilization capacities though that's not what they're designed for. That's not really their ideal function. It's just a supported process that goes along with it. And what are we trying to stabilize primary? Well, yes, the pelvis and the hips absolutely, but we also look at stabilization in the vertebrae. So, between one vertebra and another we want to stabilize each vertebra on top of each other. So, that is call intervertebral stabilization, right Intervertebral stabilization. So I know that it's going to go from one stabilization to another to another to another to stabilizing each one of those vertebrae. And then there's intravertebral stabilization. And intravertebral stabilization is a little bit different.
So, with that we're looking more at what's going on globally with stabilization. So, that's more so the concept of things like attaching your rib cage and your pelvis together. Alright, so that's what we'd be looking at. But, in between each vertebrae those are going to be smaller muscles, they're going to be stabilizing muscles. Those are going to be muscles like the multifidus muscles or you got deep erector muscles, the transverse and spinalis muscles, the rotatores, all these are tiny, tiny muscles in between each vertebrae.
Stabilization muscles also include: very commonly we'll hear people talk about transverse abdominis a lot and transverse abdominis creates that drawing in maneuver, it's your body's internal weight belt. And then the diaphragm's the breathing muscle. Pelvic floor muscles are the muscles in the pelvis that close off the exists. The internal obliques primarily, the internal obliques will support that and then the posterior fibers of the external obliques.
So, you have all of these muscles that create a support system in stabilizing the core. And, when you look at stabilizing the core you want the vertebrae to stack on top of each other and stabilize. Now, if I jump directly into doing core movement exercises, like crunches or rotations, but I don't have the vertebra that are on top of each other stabilized intravertebrally right there together, then you might get a bit more sheering taking place, you might get some anterior to posterior movement, or vice versa, PA as in not APs. So, there are movements that could take place within these vertebrae if they're not stabilized. And that's why stabilization is remarkably important and primarily important prior to going into these more global movement exercises with your core.
Now, I asked these questions to Willy. "Do you always wear a weight belt?" Now we talked about the transverse abdominis being the internal weight belt and when I asked him when he lifted weights did he always wear a weight belt? And Willy told me, "Yeah. Yeah, always wear a weight belt when I work out." Now the reason I asked him if he always lifted heavy is because I can understand if you're always lifting for max strength that you may want to protect your back. So, I'll concede to that and I understand that if that's part of your sport, you're protecting your back, I get it. But he didn't always lift for max strength, he lifted for hypertrophy, he's a body builder. He was one amateur win away from getting his pro card and that was the following weekend, he was going to be having that amateur win, which took place.
So, when I asked the question about the weight belt, he puts the weight belt on, I'm going to ask this question. If you've ever had a cast on your body and I've had it on my leg, I've had knee surgery twice. So, never a cast but they splinted my leg and it was splinted and what happens 6 weeks later or whatever it is when you take the cast off of your body. What do you notice? Yeah the opposite of hypertrophy, which hypertrophy's the growth of skeletal muscles. We have atrophy. So atrophy's taken place. We've lost size and specifically speaking, our skeletal muscle. Well, Willy had been wearing a cast, so to speak, around his abdominal region his entire lifting life. So again we're going to take this concept of atrophy with a cast, apply it to his core and really be able to almost very clearly identify that once the weight belt is off, he's taking his cast off, he has no strength. So, he's literally got no strength in the stabilization muscles, transverse abdominis, diaphragm, multifidus, erector spinae, deeper erector spinae muscles, pelvic floor, internal obliques, posterior fibers of external obliques. He's not producing stabilization with these muscles.
So, I said something unintentionally that was incredibly offensive to Willy. I said, well when he said, why I fall down after 3 seconds she can hold it for 3 minutes, and it just pops into my head. I was like, "Oh bro, you got a weak core." And he it was like, don't make me angry. And he gets up and he pulls his shirt up and I see his checker board abs sticking out, it almost punched me in the eye, you know I almost got hit by an ab. And, I was like, "What? That's incredible, bro, that looks so dope! But that's a different muscle group man." You're working these movement muscles, you have large, well hypertrophied rectus abdominis muscles, but I didn't say you had weak abs, you have weak core muscles. And going through and having this conversation, it helped to clarify a lot with this group of fitness professionals. To say, look, here's this guy that everybody, when he walked in the door, was like whoa, whoa, whoa, what, so big, so strong, so powerful. And now they look at him and they say, "man, I get it, but there are holes in your game bro." And honestly what should have been, that dude left his weight belt on, I could have pulled down on his arm, I could have climbed on his arm, bounced on it a few times, and then jumped off it like a diving board. That's how big this dude is and that's what I am expecting in the strength that this guy has, was not what I got. I got him being just as weak when his arm is out without the weight belt when I told him to tighten his core.
So, we want to pay attention to these types of situations. And we want to be able to also do very clear assessments with people. So now let's go through and talk about some of these muscles. The transverse abdominis runs transversely, so it's the muscle fibers run horizontally off over the center of the abdomen and they help do what's called the drawing in maneuver. So, we're going to talk about the difference between drawing in and bracing in just a moment. But the transverse abdominis does something called the drawing in maneuver. Or allows you to suck in your belly button. Now, the common thing that I see take place when I ask people to draw in their belly button is they suck in their belly button but they also crunch. They also go into a little bit of spinal flection and that gives me a clear indication that they don't fully understand that drawing in the belly button and flexing the spine are two different things. So, we want to make sure when they draw in the belly button that there's zero movement in the spine. I don't want to see spinal flection, that means you're not differentiating rectus abdominis from transverse abdominis. So belly button goes in without spinal flections. So you can create this differentiation between these two muscles.
The diaphragm muscle. We also hear the diaphragm is a muscle that helps you breathe. And if you've ever done a class of whether it's a speech class or a theater class or a singing course or something like that. And they say, diaphragmatic breathing, we want to hear you in the back row. And it's interesting when you say that because the diaphragmatic breathing actually when the diaphragm concentrically contracts, it helps to create the inhalation. So, if I'm trying to project, that is an exhalation and even though the diaphragm eccentrically is doing that, we have a lot less control over that eccentric contraction, a lot more control over the concentric contraction as we breathe in our air.
So, breathing in is what the diaphragm does, it pulls down and allows the thoracic cavity to open up and allows the the lungs to fill with more air. Now the multifidus muscles, they go from the transverse process to the spinal process, and often times they skip a vertebrae in between. So they create like these arrow shapes from the spinous process at the top and then maybe skip a vertebrae and go to the transverse processes out to the side. So, it does help to create a little bit of rotation. But, its primary job is to help stabilize the core. Stabilize those vertebrae. The deep erectors of the spine. We're looking at these paraspinal muscles, these other tiny muscles around the spine, whether they are the the erector spinae, there's possibility, yes that the erector spinae can stabilize, but their primary goal is to erect the spinae. So, to lift the spine.
But smaller muscles are going to work there. Pelvic floor muscles, actually when you squeeze the pelvic floor, that's kind of like when you have to go to the bathroom or pass gas and you're trying not to. So you're squeezing everything, trying not to let anything escape, so you're closing off the pelvis. So that muscle actually pulls up, so if you've got the diaphragm pulling down, the pelvic floor pulling up, and the transverse abdominis surrounding that entire abdominal area with those two other things going on, then what you've done is you've created what's called intra-abdominal pressure or pressure's increased within the abdominal wall. And if I'm going to create that intra-abdominal pressure then it's going to help stabilize my core and the drawing in maneuver helps to create a feed forward mechanism for the pelvic floor to activate and for the diaphragm to activate.
Now, the internal fibers of external obliques attach directly to the thoracolumbar fascia or the thoracolumbar abarognosis, which is in the lower back so that helps to stabilize the muscles or the vertebrae in the lumbar spine. And then the external fibers of, sorry, the posterior fibers of the external obliques, tend to do the same thing.
So, we look at this concept now of drawing in. Where I'm sucking in the belly button versus bracing. And bracing is basically if I say, "Alright, tighten your abs, I'm going to give you a little punch in the stomach. So you tighten your abs tight and it might include a bit of drawing in but it's that tightness in the abs that's going to protect your back and we can agree that that's also going to help to support your spine when you're doing things like lifting. Often times people do something called a Valsalva maneuver. And a Valsalva maneuver is interesting because it is the closing of sphincters both on the backside and on the topside. So there's actually the sphincter that goes in through your esophagus down into your stomach, so you close that sphincter off. And then there is the closing of the throat so you're not breathing and then squeezing the backside. And the reason, it's okay, the Valsalva maneuver is a real thing. And it's okay but you have to be very careful using the Valsalva maneuver because what can happen is that there can be a huge spike in your blood pressure. And it can also lead people to once they hold that for to long can cause people to pass and faint, pass out and faint and I've seen some videos on the old YouTube that proved to me that that's not something you want to participate in. So be aware of the Valsalva maneuver and use it sparingly but also you may want to focus on how can I tighten my core and continue to actually breathe at the same time.
So, here's a little bit about the core and the lumbo pelvic hip complex and how your body works and what the core does when when other muscles are going and what happens truly is if you can't support your arms or your legs through your core, then your arms and your legs also won't be able to activate. Unless you're doing some fixed path motion machines and that's where we see a big discrepancy where you might see good and like what we would look at is being very strong on maybe a knee extension machine but when you put it into a functional pattern you're unable to produce really any additional forces, even though when you do a single joint exercise then you seem to be quite strong. When you move that over into a free weight exercise or a functional pattern, then that strength that you have no longer exits because it can't be supported through the core. So this is an example of core training, the benefit of core training, and kind of get an idea of what muscles are involved. The difference between intervertebral and intravertebral stabilization and drawing in and bracing. Alright cool, well I hope that helps out! If you got questions give us a shout out you can hit me up at Rick R.I.C.K. dot firstname.lastname@example.org. lLet me know what questions you have, what topics you want to hear, and I look forward to talking to you soon. This is the NASM-CPT Podcast.