This is not the first article on “core” training I have written, but I felt the need to expand on the previous ones and to highlight what we are doing in our current programs. In general, the way we look at training the midsection has not changed, but over the past couple of years we’ve refined the program and the focus of the training. First, I’ll start with what core training is not and should not be:
Core training is not going to get rid of fat on your belly. By now you should know this, but for those who have not been keeping up, I’ll explain. The abdominals, obliques, and transversus are the primary groups that most of us try to target when doing ab exercises. These are important muscles to strengthen, but exercising them to reduce the fat that happens to lay on top of them is futile. Once again, I’ll reference the University of Virginia study that showed you’d have to do 700 crunches a day for a year to burn a pound of fat. Since spot reduction has been proven over and again to be ineffective, even doing those 365 workouts might not give you the desired results. If your belly fat is bugging you, it’s time to step away from the donut box and buy some spinach.
Core training is not “back strengthening.” Strong abs do not mean a strong low back. The exercises I’ll describe are safe for the low back if done properly, but should not be seen as a direct way to make the back stronger. A huge misconception for sufferers of low back pain is the idea that spinal flexion exercises, such as the abdominal crunch, are good for the back. In fact, it has been shown that repeated spinal flexion is overwhelmingly a bad idea if you have back pain. Dr. Stuart McGill has several excellent books on low back disorders and injuries, and if you have back problems I recommend picking up Back Mechanic http://amzn.to/1T7zno6 .
The core should not be treated as a prime-mover. There are many exercises that target the abdominals, but the abs should be trained the way they are used- as structural support. Most of the ab exercises we learned as young athletes use the rectus abdominus to create either hip flexion (as in supine leg raises) or trunk flexion (as in crunches or sit-ups). Although these do “work” the abs, that’s not how we use the muscles in normal movement. The core muscles are almost exclusively stabilizers, and are best used to control movement rather than to initiate it. The one exception which may be specific to climbing is the hanging leg raise and its variations.
It’s more than abs. The core, or what we prefer to call the midsection, includes all of the muscles that connect to your pelvis and low back. We include:
The rectus abdominis
The transversus abdominis
The internal and external obliques
All hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, etc.)
The hip flexors
The spine extensors (spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum)
The hip adductors and abductors
The latissimus dorsi
“If you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies”
We want to be strong, so clearly, crunches won’t do the trick. We are looking for high-load, integrative exercise that will actually change the way your core functions in climbing. Being able to crank out five more reps of a rectus abdominis-focused exercise won’t do it.
Our training program focuses on creating a strong midsection to effectively transfer strength from the arms to the legs, and to maintain tension during climbing movements. I don’t feel you always need to mimic climbing movement to train the core properly. I do feel you need to train very intensely. A good rule of thumb: if you can crank out a few more reps once fatigue sets in, your exercises are not hard enough.
Telling you what not to do only helps so much, right? Here is what I am going to tell you to do.
We train four patterns for the core. By integrating the four main categories of movement, you can effectively train all of the muscle groups listed above. By training them with the correct intensity, you can have a stronger midsection that you’ve ever dreamed.
Stability. This is where you hold your body in a tensioned, static position in which the muscles around the spine and pelvis must be held isometrically. The one that pops to mind for most people is the plank, but as you’ll see below, you can do better.
The plank can be regressed or progressed as needed. We stick with a general rule of twenty seconds: if you can hold a given position for a 20 count, move on to the next level of difficulty.
In order of difficulty, the plank progressions look like this:
Elbow Plank on a bench
Palm Plank on the floor
Elbow Plank on the floor
Plank with one limb raised
Plank with one arm and one leg raised
Dynamic Stability. The plan is the same in dynamic stability as in stability, except that you try to hold to body in a rigid position while moving one or more limbs. There are dozens of great exercises that fit this category, but our favorites are:
Stir The Pot / Cauldron
T Push Up
Anti-Rotation. We use the obliques to initiate rotation, like in the Russian Twist, but we also use them to avoid rotation. The anti-rotation abilities of these muscles are under-appreciated, but are implemented every time you move. For Anti-Rotation, I like to train the Core Press and the Plank with Weight Transfer.
Hip Flexion. This is the exception to the avoid-spine-bending guideline. We have to train the way we play, and we do train a series of movements that involve pulling the knees toward the chest.
Our progression is as follows:
Dip Bar Straight Leg Raise
Hanging Straight Leg Raise – full range
When implementing high level midsection training like this, you’ve got to respect the exercises. These movements should be a major focus if you are to do them and benefit from them, not something you throw in after a bouldering session. Start with 3 sets of 5 reps in any given movement, and progress to the next harder movement only of you can do them flawlessly. Plan on doing 2-3 exercises per training session, picking from separate categories. You should do these exercises three days per week.
A strong midsection makes all other strength easier. Be patient, and keep focused. Forget the burn…and if you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies.