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Smart Exercise Swaps for the Core

by Meaghan posted February 1, 2016

I feel like at this point I shouldn’t still be talking about the importance of prioritizing neutral spine and core stability over movement in training, but I still see so many examples of the opposite that I guess not everyone is up to speed. For brevity’s sake, I’ll try to simplify the science as much as possible.

First, the sheer structure of our lumbar spine suggests that it’s not meant to move very much. Each of its five vertebrae have only a few degrees of available motion, and between them we have discs that have shown to wear down with excessive movement, especially under load. And there are all those fragile nerves sticking out at every interval!

Additionally, the anatomy of most of our core muscles is unlike that of our prime movers: The fibers aren’t really aligned in a manner that is optimal for large amounts of force production. Rather, they seem better suited to absorb and resist force through isometric action. To no surprise, many of our core muscles also seem to elicit greater EMG activity with isometric exercises than they do with movement-based exercises.

That said, to both prevent spine injuries and optimize performance and appearance, doesn’t it make more sense to train them in the manner for which they seem to be designed? I certainly think so. That may mean simply training the core to keep the spine stable under load through larger lifts like squats and deadlifts that train our bigger, stronger hip extensors to produce movement. Or, for some clients who feel the need to “do abs,” it may mean making smarter exercise selections – and here are two examples:



Instead of: 

Standard Crunches (requiring a flexed lumbar spine)



McGill Curl-ups


As our renowned and leading researcher in spinal biomechanics, Dr. Stuart McGill, points out, your pelvis and lumbar spine stay neutral in this exercise due to the position of the legs while the more mobile thoracic spine moves to lift the chest and shoulders. Moreover, the tactile feedback on the hands in the small of the back tells us if we’re moving from places where we shouldn’t be. And for stubborn clients, the exercise still looks and feels very much like a crunch!

Added bonus: Check out FPTI instructor, Ryan Chow, hanging out with Dr. McGill himself this past weekend!

Ryan and Stu McGill




Instead of: 

Stability Ball Sit-ups (a movement-based exercise)



Stability Ball Roll-outs (for actual stability)

These are safer for the spine and more effective for training rectus abdominis for its primary function (resisting spinal extension), and their eccentric nature will make the abs even more sore the next day!


There may be some holes in the research here and there, but we seem to have ample evidence to suggest that even if you do incorporate movement-based training for the spine, you should probably be doing at least about twice as much stability training for your core – for both functional performance and injury prevention.

Quick Programming Tip: Simply put, if you train spinal movement, for every movement-based exercise, do two stability exercises.

Filed under: core training, tips for trainers, workout tips

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