Vertical Core Training: Part 1 by Chris Kelly
When it comes to core training, one of the fundamental gaps I see in many programs is the failure to teach clients conscious abdominal control.
Whether we refer to this as a brace, hollowing or simply keeping the stomach muscles tight, the ability to actively contract the abdominals is essential to efficient movement, low back protection during daily activity, and keeping the stomach defined during photo shoots and figure shows. You or your client might be able to perform perfect straight-leg sit-ups and plank for minutes at a time, but the carryover into strength or definition in standing positions is minimal.
Aesthetics versus athletics: Why choose?
Many figure and fitness clients have come to me with a flawless diet and solid work ethic, but poor results in competitions due to a flat and/or soft appearance on stage. In an effort to bridge the gap between abdominal control on the floor and in standing, I have begun applying the concept of vertical core training with great success.
Introduced to me by Texas strength & conditioning coach Todd Wright, the idea behind vertical core training is that because most sports and activities of daily living occur in three dimensions, performing exercises which involve movement of the extremities (twisting, bending, rotating, etc.) while maintaining a stable core is the ideal means of training reactive stability.
As these movements generate kinetic energy, the core is forced to react and work harder to stabilize against motion in multiple planes. Vertical core training can therefore be divided into saggital, transverse and frontal plane exercises. For me, this concept truly began to separate core training for movement versus muscles and served as a vital link between teaching stability on the floor versus stability in standing positions.
While we initially employed such methodology primarily with our athletes, I came to an epiphany one day while working with a figure competitor who just couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of keeping her stomach tight on stage. Despite my best cues — “Tighten your abs, damnit!” — nothing seemed to work until I placed a dumbbell in her hands and instructed her to “squeeze the dumbbell with her stomach.” This was my “ah-ha” moment, as I watched her stomach tighten and release.
With dumbbells and medicine balls serving as teaching tools, we progressed from a series of timed static holds in which she was instructed to consciously brace her stomach to movement-based drills like farmer walks and dumbbell carries while keeping her stomach tight. Suddenly, a concept originally intended to improve performance on the field had become a vital tool for improving the performance of our model, figure and fitness clientele.
Teaching the brace
Given a solid core routine, the first step in bringing strength and definition from the floor to standing positions is teaching the standing abdominal brace. In my experience, I have found this is most easily accomplished by asking the client to push into a wall to tense the body.
The following exercises are generally performed after a floor stability exercise (plank or roll) to provide additional sensation when teaching the standing brace.
Phase #1: Wall press
1. With the client facing the wall, instruct him or her to push into the wall while squeezing their stomach muscles.
2. Once the client understands the cueing involved, he or she can begin by contracting the stomach for 10 seconds and releasing. We generally begin with three 10-second holds and progress to five before increasing difficulty.
3. While your client is bracing, lightly poke different areas of the stomach to ensure the abs are fully braced.
Phase #2: Squeeze walks
1. After mastering the wall press, the client is given a medicine ball or light dumbbell and instructed to squeeze the object and brace the abs while walking slowly back and forth.
2. If the client loses the brace for any reason, tell him or her to stop and reinitiate it before moving again.
3. Performed for 30-60 seconds at a time, this drill can be progressed by adding 10 seconds per week until the client reaches 60 seconds.
4. Once the client has progressed from this initial drill, we move from forward walking to multi-planar movements and exercises like squats and lunges while maintaining the brace.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Vertical Core Training, where I’ll show you how we incorporate these movements into efficient circuits to train the core.
Filed under: exercise instruction