Develop back and ab strength

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Everybody who has participated in a sport of some sort knows the importance of a strong core. In almost every movement you transfer your force through the core, which means that if you lack sufficient strength there you will suffer in some way. So to minimize this problem and to prepare for “battle” most of us train our core vigorously.

Most trainees today use the swissball to train their core and abs. And many believe it to be enough - it’s unstable and forces the body to work as a unit to stabilize the movement - so it must be the best way to work the core. At least that is what you have been told, so it has to be true, right!? Yes it is true, but only to a certain extent. It is only one piece of the puzzle. And it is not nearly enough to accomplish what you are after, if you want to be able to use your body as a complete functional unit. On the contrary - doing too much work on unstable surfaces will limit your own progression. The problem is that it limits the weights you can use and does not totally mimic the muscle use on stable surfaces (which in turn can lead to faulty movement patterns). After all this is still what we predominantly walk and perform on! If you compete in a sport done on a more unstable surface such as downhill or surfing the puzzle change and so do the training priorities.

You can train your core as much as you want but still not get the results you seek, if done wrong. You have to move from isolation to integration. Isolation in this context means working a part or movement of the body with no help from other parts. It’s really simple, the body strives on movements and it will program itself from the way we train. So if you use the swissball and/or train on unstable surfaces, this is what you will be good on and so on. This does not mean that I am against this kind of training, it plays an important role in developing foundation and proprioception (bodily awareness), and used correctly it will give you great benefits. But this is only one part of the puzzle that makes up a total training program, not the “Holy Grail” of training that some people might make you believe. Done in right parts it is a terrific tool, but I see it done too much, too often.

In our daily lives, or in our sport of choice, we do complex movements that involve many muscles working in tune with each other. To improve this through training we must do complex movements from time to time, and I don’t mean any of the circus acts you might have read about or heard some trainers suggest – leave that to the circus! It´s not the complexity of the movement that makes an exercise effective but how well you can transfer the effects of the exercise into whatever improvement you want to achieve!

To give you an example and to keep it short and sweet, I am going to focus on upper body pushing movements and core integration in this text. Most every day upper body pushing movements are generated from the feet up, and usually done with one hand at a time. And to break it down further, it often involves a rotational movement and is done in some kind of lunge/split position - as in walking and running. Let us now look at how most of us are training pushing movements, which will translate into chest, shoulders and triceps training in bodybuilding terms.
The most common chest exercise known to man must be the bench press, an exercise where you lay on your back and push the resistance towards the ceiling. Not so common in everyday life, would you agree?! I am not saying that you shouldn´t do it, since it has its place, but you need to incorporate variations of the exercise to get the full benefit from it. Looking at shoulder training, a favorite amongst many trainees is the shoulder press, preferably in a seated position. I would say that this exercise, especially seated has even less practical transfer into real life than the bench press has. But as I said these exercises also have their place in a well planed program.

To give you an example from real life, I was recently approached by a world level wrestler, who was not satisfied with his progress. After having tested him and looking through his training journals it was clear to me that his training program was lacking complex strength movements. (Even though wrestling itself improves coordination and helps the body to work in tune this is not enough.) He was doing the bench press, the seated shoulder press and so on, just like I explained above. But he was clearly not getting the results he wanted, which I could also state after having done the tests. A typical example of spending too much time in the isolation stage and not moving to integration.

So to improve his performance and to get his body to work more as a unit, I prescribed the following exercises for his pressing movements:

1. One arm dumbbell press with only half the body on the bench.

2. Standing one arm barbell press, barbell in corner.

The reason for these exercises, as stated earlier in the text, is that when you perform a pressing movement it almost always starts from the feet, generating through your legs and hips, followed by a diagonal/cross movement in your upper body. When using your right hand your left oblique’s will contract forcefully and at the same time your right leg, gluteus, quad, ham and calf will work in synergy. So to improve this you have to train it hard and heavy.

After implementing this and some other tweaks, our wrestler went on to win the Nordic championships, in a heavier weight class than his usual. I don’t claim this to be The reason for his success, but I bet it didn’t hurt him either!

Now that you have the theory behind it down, you might be interested in trying it out for yourself. So here follows a step by step guide on how to increasingly make your pushing exercises more functional using “safe” movements.

For ”chest”:

Stage one – Alternating dumbbell press on bench (Pic1a +b)

Stage two – One arm dumbbell press on bench (Pic2a +b)

Stage three - One arm dumbbell press with only half the body on the bench (Pic3a +b)

For “shoulders”:

Stage one – Standing alternating dumbbell press in split stance (Pic4a +b)

Stage two – Standing one arm dumbbell press in split stance (Pic5a +b)

Stage three - Standing one arm barbell press, barbell in corner (Pic6a +b)

One thing that I have noticed in my years as a trainer is that a stronger athlete with a good foundation always beats a weaker one - all other things equal! So don’t fall into the trap of staying too long in any phase if your goal is to perform. To be the best you can be you have to train for integration hard and heavy and not only by using the swissball.

So when designing your program, take a step back and think things through. What is your reason for training, is it to look good or to look good as well as to perform, or simply to perform?! And from that choose the necessary exercises. On the field it´s not the competitor with the most stunning abs who will win, but the one who can integrate his core with the rest of his body in every thinkable movement. (And I bet he or she will have some pretty impressive abs too..)

© Magnus Agren 2007

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3.26 Copyright (C) 2008 / Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved."