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

TRX Plank

Hardstyle Plank

 

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

Plank/Pulldown

T Push Up

Lever Variations

 

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:

Hanging Knee Raise to 90 degrees

Hanging Straight Leg Raise to 90 degrees

Seated Straight Leg Raise

TRX Pike

Knees to Elbows

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.

5 Comments

  1. Lauren on October 12, 2021 at 12:48 am

    “If you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies”.

    You might not realize it but those words hurt. I consider myself to be fit and dedicated to climbing and training, and I eat a healthy diet with lean protein and lots of veggies and almost zero cookies, but I can’t see my abs. My body just doesn’t look like that. It does not feel good to be shamed and demeaned in that way.

    This is probably true for a lot of women, who even when very fit will naturally carry more fat on their bodies, especially in their midsection. It’s a constant internal struggle for me, and I’m sure others, to accept myself despite not looking like Alex Puccio.

    So maybe check yourself and choose some different language.

  2. Jess on October 21, 2021 at 12:25 am

    Stop complaining and train harder Lauren. It’s a short way of saying ‘if your not saying results, eat better’, not a personal attack on your inability to get a sixpack. Jesus christ.

  3. Cassandra on December 16, 2021 at 12:59 am

    Hmmm maybe, Jess, you should refrain from expressing your opinion if it’s sole purpose is to bash someone else. Also, it’s *you’re and *seeing. If you’re gonna be a bully, at least get your grammar right.
    Lauren, you’re doing awesome. Keep up your hard work!

  4. Matthew on December 21, 2021 at 8:21 pm

    Jess might’ve been a little blunt, but they’re right. It’s not a personal attack; it’s a simple statement that having visible abs is almost entirely just having low body fat. If you can’t see your abs, you need to have lower body fat. It’s simple sport science.
    Then again, visible abs≠strong abs. Lauren, nobody is saying you’re fat, weak-willed, or whatever you think by telling you that you need to have lower body fat to see your abs. I see nothing wrong with the language used here.
    Thanks for this Steve. Always helpful.

  5. Steve Bechtel on December 22, 2021 at 7:55 am

    This is an interesting thread. The general idea of the article is WHY we do core training (strength) and HOW to do it (higher intensity movements). I included the Rachel Cosgrove quote about not seeing your abs in order to underscore that ab training was not the solution to bodyfat issues. I don’t think Rachel meant to shame / trigger / or marginalize anyone when she said this. She was simply stating that nutritional interventions were the more effective way to lose fat.

    There is no strong argument for pursuing ultra-leanness in climbing. As we all can see, there are people who climb at the highest levels that are not skeletal, and there is ample evidence to show that eating a bit more and maintaining slightly higher fat levels is good for injury prevention and recovery. To me, both of these things are worth pursuing.

    That being said, I don’t think it is wrong to want to be leaner. In today’s world, we’re seeing as much “fit shaming” as “fat shaming.” As long as we don’t fall into the trap of obsessiveness or into disorder, training to be leaner is OK. Disordered eating and exercising is clearly damaging to the person engaging in those activities. However, “ordered” eating and training can be an excellent way to stay healthy and perform better.

    Lauren, I didn’t mean to offend. Everyone else, thank you for your comments. We’re all on the same team here, all wanting to be better at this crazy think that is REALLY hard. Now, back to training.

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