Core training has been so diluted and bastardized that I honestly hate using the word “core.” It sounds like I’m about to run you through a 6-minute routine that requires leg warmers, headbands, and some horrible 80’s music in the background. I’d rather a play a game of grab ass with an alligator. The muscles of the core are just like every other muscle in the body. It has to have heavy resistance to increase strength. Just feeling the burn will get you nowhere. The exercises below will not be found in your local cardio class or any “quick six-pack” YouTube Video. Why? Because they hurt. They will push you far beyond any sit-up routine ever invented and they will require just as much mental strength as physical.
The RKC Plank, or Maximum Effort Plank, is a great starting exercise for anyone with a weak core. It forces the body to maintain alignment against gravity and its own weight. A good plank should be on the hands with the arms locked out, same position as the top of a push up, with the hands directly under the shoulders. The shoulders, hips, and heels are in a straight line. This exercise is designed to add a little extra pressure. I start on my elbows and try to flex every muscle in my body. I try to pull my elbow and feet together while squeezing my back and glutes as tight as possible. If done correctly, it should only be held for fifteen to thirty seconds max. If you feel that you can hold it longer, then you are not squeezing hard enough.
The Bent Over KB Row is performed by hinging at the hips, like the bottom of a KB swing position, and row the KB into the body. The elbows should be tucked tight to the body and slide right by the ribs. The back should stay flat. This is done by presenting a proud chest during the duration of the exercise.
The Zercher Squat is an advanced modification of the front squat. The barbell is held in the crook of the elbows and the back is forced into an upright posture during the entire movement. I squat down to a comfortable distance, or until the elbows touch the knees, and return to the standing position.
The Zercher Deadlift is a very advanced movement. It is also feared by most of the fitness industry, but those guys are just lazy. This is the second progression of the Zercher Squat in which I take the barbell all the way to the ground before returning to the standing position. Only perform this once you have mastered the Zercher Squat.
Another version of this is the Romanian Deadlift with the Zercher hold. The top position is the same, but this is a hip hinge instead of a squat. In the picture below is one of my Idols, Pavel Tsatsouline, performing this variation in the lab with Professor Stuart McGill. They are testing the muscle activation of the lower back during some of Pavel's favorite exercise. Pavel is performing this movement with 315 pounds at a body weight of about 165 pounds. I'm sure I just made a few "Fitness Experts" shit themselves, but it's only dangerous if you lose control or if you do not have a good base.
There are four main lifts in resistance training: Deadlift, Bench Press, Squat, and Overhead Press. Each of these are full body lifts when using a maximal weight; yes, even the bench press. So even though these are four completely different movement patterns, they all require core strength. The core ties the body together and stabilizes the spine to protect and to maintain a straight line of movement. When I look at the average lifter today, I see two main flaws that hinder their progression. The first is weak grips. It seems like everyone has a pair of lifting straps in their bag these days. What’s the point of moving heavy weights if you can’t hold on to them? The second is a very weak core. Introducing the weight belt! No core needed because this will hold your hips and ribs together. The human body has a built-in weight belt. It just needs to be trained.
*NERD WARNING* The main muscles I am referring to are the transverse abdominis, the internal oblique, and the multifidus. The transverse abdominis is the muscular sheath underneath the rectus abdominis aka the “six- pack muscles.” These are used to stabilized the mid-section from the pelvis to the thoracic spine. Internal obliques are attached to the rib cage and extend laterally down to the hips. They are responsible for compression of the rib cage and stabilization during rotation of the shoulders and hips. The multifidus are muscles that extend the entire length of the spine from the base of the skull to the sacrum. Another function of the multifidus is to protect the disks and vertebrae from shifting and slipping.
I know it that is a lot to take in, but the good news is that they can all be target together through resistance training. These muscles also work together to create internal pressure. Internal pressure is a must have for anyone wanting to be “strong like bull.” This is what separates the beasts from the wannabes. One sure fire way to tell what someone is made of is to see how they react under pressure. One of my favorite examples of this is the bench press to failure. I will load up the bar with a weight for a solid six to eight rep set (obviously weight will differ from client to client) and basically let them fail on the last rep. This will result in one of three actions.
The first is that they will push and grind the weight out. This means they are fighting to the end, engaging their hips and giving the press everything they have until the weight touches their chest again. These are the beasts. These are the ones who truly know how to push themselves and fail like a professional. The second bunch are the funny ones. These guys will throw a tantrum. They will pant and kick their feet like a three-year-old wanting a cookie. They know how to create internal pressure, but they have no idea how to control or focus it into power. One way to break this habit is to do slow reps with overhead press or front-loaded squats. If they are standing, they cannot throw a tantrum; they must work with the force. The third group will just give up and let the weight drop. Usually they will say, “I don’t have it” or, “I can’t do it.” This means the they are not even trying. If they were giving it everything they had, they would not be able to talk because the intraabdominal and intrathoracic pressure would be too high to maintain control of the diaphragm. This is where the guttural yell comes from. I suggest heavy loaded carries and high rep Goblet squats for this group because they need to spend more time under tension and learn how to build internal pressure.
I don’t care how many crunches you can knock out in a day; if you don’t move heavy weight, you have a weak core. This is one reason I hate doing ab work. It’s great for the beach, but it serves no real-world application and it doesn’t build strength. If you want true core strength you must stay under pressure. Powerlifters are notorious for having large midsections or “power bellies.” They don’t care about shredding down and looking good. They care about moving weight. You can also see this in the good ‘ol boys that throw hay and wrestle cattle for a living. They look chubby, but they can also sling a ninety-pound bail up into a twelve-foot barn loft all day long. This could be done with any of the four main lifts, but there are some great ways to target these muscles that can be worked into every workout.
Be sure to check out True Strength Comes from Within Part 2: Real Core Training
“Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders.” – Tom Peters
Last week we covered how motivation comes in many forms. Getting help from an experienced professional can build on that dedication and motivation. When I started going to the gym, one of my goals was to learn as much about muscle hypertrophy as possible. I had a ton of books on exercise and diet, but it’s hard to learn physical action through pictures. Luckily, I made friends at the gym quickly and after a couple weeks, I had a regular training partner nicknamed Stout. Stout was about 200 pounds and could move some serious weight. I figured if I hung around long enough I could learn from him. Turns out, he had a deep understanding of anatomy and was very open to teaching me about resistance training. He taught me the basics on isolating muscle for increased focus and thousands of exercises for every muscle group. We would hang out in the gym for hours going over techniques and talking about programs. He was with me every step of the way and kept me on track when I wanted to quit. He set the bar for me and showed me how tentative a trainer and coach should be.
I owe a lot to Stout for teaching me about fitness, but I still had some questions. The world of health and fitness is so vast that no one knows everything. It’s kind of like Jiu-Jitsu in that way; the more you learn, the more questions you have. Therefore, I continually read books, articles, and forums on various lifts and programs. I have been studying this topic for about half my life and I am nowhere near done. Even the Fitness Gurus I follow online have different views on many training strategies. I trust these guys as well, but I prefer to research the topic and form my own opinion on most topics. I also like to play with new exercises and modify them to fit my training style and programs for maximum efficiency.
I started this journey, just like many before me, with very little knowledge. I knew I needed help to accomplish my goals and I had an idea of where to find it. I ran into a couple challenges along the way to my goal, but I modified the plan and kept moving forward. (I didn’t care because I love a good challenge.) And some of my goals changed along the way. I no longer plan to be 250 pounds of muscle because I would not be able to move the same way that I can at 180 pounds. That doesn’t mean that I gave up on that goal. It means that I learned more about myself and discovered what my priorities truly are.
Self-discovery is goal that many people search for. There are countless books and workshops about finding your “True Self.” I stumbled upon it almost accidentally. I kind of knew I was looking for it, but I never really figured out that I found it until I reflected on past decisions. It’s like when you lose your phone, then you realize it has been in your hand the whole time. You never say anything, but in your head, you think, “Damn I’m a dumbass, it was right there the whole time.” Yeah… That was my road to mindfulness.
One of the main factors of goal progression is motivation. Motivation is what gets the ball rolling and keeps the snowball effect going. On the days I didn’t feel like training, I would watch or listen to clips of Arnold, while my preworkout kicked in, to get me stoked up for the hell I was about to endure. Like most lifters, he was a huge motivating force for me. It didn’t matter how bad my day was or how tired I was; when he started talking about training it made me want to give every rep one hundred percent. I would finish those workouts completely exhausted. And often, those were my best workouts. Every time I was in the gym, I was in front of a mirror because I was motivated by my small frame to keep going through the pain and fatigue. I don’t care what any self-help guru wannabe says; hatred is a great motivator. Motivation comes in many forms, it can be a quote, a video, encouraging words from a friend, or a warning from a doctor. Literally anything one uses to help push through hurdles. The only thing that outweighs motivation is discipline.
Discipline is what separates the weak from the strong. This is what makes dreams come true. I started lifting when I was 16 years old and 120 pounds. I hated being small and I hated being weak. I wanted to look like the heroes in the action movies. So, I got to work. I made myself go to the gym as often as possible. I pushed to failure on every set and increased weight every chance I could. I first saw a drastic increase in my strength. This was way before I saw an increase on the scale. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but I knew it was a step in the right direction and my gains shouldn’t be far away. This is what pushed me from motivated to determined. It pushed me to build the body I wanted. When my hard work began to pay off I developed self-confidence. I developed a drive that told me I could do anything. That’s why I became a trainer. That’s why I am working on my second fitness book. That’s why I care about my clients. That internal motivation I had to change my body was so strong that it ended up changing my life.
The new self-help flock says that motivation is useless. Discipline is the only way to get anything done. This is complete bullshit. I have been disciplined to work out five or more days a week for at least the past fourteen years. I have had the opportunity to work out any time of day for as long as I want for the past year and a half. I spend about fifteen hours a day inside the best gym I have ever seen. But sometimes, I don’t want to get off the couch. (Literally. We have a big comfy couch in the breakroom/my office.) Some days I have to shoot a scoop of Demon Juice and watch an Arnold video force myself to be productive. If all else fails I go tell Mr. Goodwin that I’m too tired to train and he calls me names until I feel the need to lift. Even a kick in the ass is forward progress.
Be sure to check out Goal Setting Part 3: Get Help
ACSM Certified Fitness Professional