On the previous article we learned how to locate the different muscles of the Core and we went through the importance of each one of them for proper midline stability.
Now it’s time to learn how to strengthen these muscles and integrate exercises that help us have a stronger and stable midline to be able to safely perform exercises such as the snatch, clean, deadlift, hollow rock, etc.
One of the exercises that I commonly see wrongly executed is the hollow rock.
Treated as the base of every gymnastic movement obviously it’s programmed quite a lot by coaches but are they teaching it properly?
What is the hollow rock?
The hollow rock is a great exercise to develop strength in the Core if done properly and teaches the body the basic position that we’ll need for many other gymnastic movements such as push ups, pull ups, muscle ups, etc.
How do we do the hollow position on the floor?
1. Lower back is flat on the floor
2. Belly in: will assure that the transversus abdominis muscle is activated.
3. Glutes and hip flexors co-activated holding the legs elevated from the floor.
4. Active quads, adductors and toes pointed to help maintain the tension of the legs giving stability.
5. Scapulas up not touching the floor, this is possible thanks to a slight flexion of the thoracic spine.
6. Arms in flexion keeping the tension.
Let’s give a look to these two ways of doing a hollow hold that might seem correct from a functional point of view and seem to check all the key points discussed but let’s go through each of the key points described and find a slight but important difference.
- Lower back flat on the floor: in both pictures the lower back seems to be flat on the floor but are the muscles involved as activated in picture A as in picture B?
- Belly in: here is the big difference between the two pictures. In picture A the Transversus is activated and in picture B it’s not, the belly is pushing out which will direct the intra abdominal pressure down to the pelvic floor.
- Glutes and hip flexors co-activated holding the legs elevated from the floor. In Picture A the legs are a little bit higher because that makes it easier to maintain the activation of the transversus (belly in) when the lower back is flat to the floor. Picture B is achievable with the correct activation of the transversus but will require flexible Psoas and strength on the Transversus, Psoas and Rectus abdominis.
- Active quads, adductors and toes pointing to help maintaining the tension of the legs giving stability. In this point both pictures match.
- Scapulas up not touching the floor, this is possible thanks to a slight flexion of the thoracic spine. In this point both pictures match.
- Arms in flexion keeping the tension. In this point both pictures match.
Another group of muscles that I talked about in the previous article are the Obliques, both Internal and External. It’s important to develop proper tone because they control the rotations of the trunk and pelvis.
The best way of working on them is including them in functional movements instead of analytic exercises, so they are challenged in anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion movements to keep the stabilization of the midline.
A good example is the Pallof Press where the Obliques have to work against the tension of the elastic band that is trying to rotate the torso (anti-rotation).
Start holding the elastic band with both hands close to the chest, walk laterally looking for the tension on the elastic band, feet shoulder width (as you narrow them up it becomes more challenging) and from there you can either extend the elbows and hold the position or do presses.
You can also increase the difficulty by standing in lunge position, one foot, closing your eyes, etc.
For the anti-lateral flexion movement I like the side plank because you can increase the intensity by adding movements of the legs while stabilizing the midline. Perform 3 sets of 10 slow reps or 5 sets of 10 seconds hold.
The Rectus abdominis is activated when you flex the trunk but also when you do anti-extension exercises like the Hollow Plank or the Dragon flag where the Rectus abdominis has to work to avoid the force of gravity wanting to extend the spine.
A good plank shouldn’t need more than 1 minute for being effective if done properly so do 3 sets of 30-40 seconds and 3 sets of 3 slow dragon flags.
For the Quadratus lumborum the side plank works well as an anti-lateral flexion exercise but we can include a dynamic movement too with the windmill.
How to do the windmill in Crossfit?
Place your toes looking slightly at the side, hold a kettlebell or dumbbell over your head with the elbow locked ( please note you can also perform this without a weight), then with the other hand look to touch the internal part of the foot and control the way back. With 3 sets of 5-8 slow repetitions you will feel this muscle.
The Psoas muscle is quite often found shortened and tense in most people due to the large amount of hours that we spend seated, but this situation can lead to a weakened muscle.
So you want to stretch the Psoas to have full range of motion on the hip extension while also strengthening it so to have control of your pelvis while flexing and extending the hips.
For strengthening the Psoas it’s important to keep a neutral spine.
How do we strengthen the Psoas?
– Lay down on the floor and put a short loop elastic bands on your feet, now flex one hip while maintaining a neutral spine.
– Don’t push the lower back against the floor, perform 3 sets of 12 repetitions each leg.
– If you don’t have an elastic band you can do the same exercise standing and increasing the number of reps, for example 3 sets of 20, focus on maintaining that lower back stable: don’t let it bend.
– The hip should flex around 90º depending on your flexibility.
Multifidus and spine erectors
Multifidus and Spine Erectors are activated in anti-flexion movements of the spine, they work to keep the spine neutral when external forces are trying to bend it.
The most famous anti-flexion exercise is the deadlift.
Here’s a way you can strengthen these muscles with no equipment.
How to strengthen the spine erectors?
Just hold the position and make it challenging by moving the arms in an over head position. Or perform a Prone cobra laying on the floor, facing down and extending the spine while you squeeze your glutes, hold the position for 20-30 seconds and you’ll start feeling your erectors working. These muscles need isometric work as well as dynamic so combine doing 3 sets of 20-30 seconds hold with 10 repetitions of the movement performed dynamically.
The pelvic floor muscles
And last but not least (in importance) are the Pelvic Floor muscles.
Before doing exercises to strengthen these muscles I highly recommend that you go to a physiotherapist specialized in pelvic floor to assess your muscles and learn to contact them properly.
I recommend so because a lot of people tend to push them down instead of activating them properly and that can cause more damage than benefit on the muscles.
How to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles?
A good strategy to strengthen these muscles is doing sets of long contractions of the muscles: about 5-10 seconds hold at 80% or submax intensity. You want to hold the contraction and also feel when you are relaxing so use the same time or double for the rest between repetitions. Combining 3 sets of 10 repetitions with balance exercises you’ll be working on both kinds of muscle fibers of the pelvic floor. For the balance exercises make sure that you are holding a correct posture.
I like the exercise commonly used for the proprioception of the ankle and knee: I call it the Star.
Standing on one leg you will then reach far with the foot of the non-supporting leg pointing it in 4 directions ( front, behind, one side and the other side).
I also like to stimulate the co-activation of the pelvic floor muscles and the Transversus abdominis with breathing exercises. For this specific one you’ll take a deep breath expanding your lower ribs laterally and while you exhale slowly try to keep those ribs opened in that position. Practice as many times as you want, no harm.
Of course there are thousands of exercises to work on your Core muscles, I picked the ones that I find simple and effective, once you master them you can explore more complex exercises but keep in mind that the most important thing to do is to activate from the deepest layer of the muscles to the superficial one, that means that in any of those exercises you have to start by activating the Transversus abdominis so… belly in!
Article written by coach TJ García