Training the Core in the Sagittal Plane Part II: Performance

Welcome back for Part II of our Training the Core in the Sagittal Plane series. If you missed Part I, be sure to go give it a quick read. The info in that will really help you better understand the material we’re going over today, and improve your ability to think critically about training the “core.”

The Training Process

While being able to riddle off some anatomy is great, it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t relate it back to training and get people a training effect.

Like all things, the training process can be broken down into three major steps:

  • Learn/Teach
  • Train
  • Integrate

This process is something everyone has experienced before, and learning to ride a bike provides a great visual for understanding the separate steps. You start off (at least most people do) with training wheels because you need to give your brain an opportunity to learn (an extra bonus provided by training wheels is that they decrease threat, but that’s a topic for another time). Eventually, as you log more and more hours, the training wheels come off and you get to start experiencing the real thing.

But you still aren’t crushing it yet. It’s not like the training wheels come off and you immediately hop into full fledged down hill racing, or start launching yourself off ramps in the backyard. You still have to practice and train.

After playing around with the real thing for a while, and again acquiring very important hours of exposure for the brain to learn, you start stepping it up and doing some of the sexier things you see on TV.

This is all part of the process, and whenever you’re attempting to learn a new physical skill you and/or your athletes will have to go through it as well.

Now…let’s relate this all back to the core.

Step 1: Learn

Before you can get to what most people would consider the sexy part of training (deadlifting, jumping and doing other such things), you must first give yourself and/or your athletes the chance to learn. In other words, you need to give the brain access to experiences and outcomes so it can begin adapting.

For example, in Part I I briefly touched on what we’re looking for when it comes to core control and strength: the ability to keep your ribs down and pelvis underneath you.

So, go ahead and do that….

Chances are you can’t (unless you’ve been coached through it before) because you don’t know what it feels like. The position is very foreign, and you’re attempting to find it without a map.

Thus, we need to give you a map. We need to figure out where you are so we can properly teach you how to get there, and one of the best places to start is with breathing.

Yes…breathing, and in particular learning to exhale because if you can truly exhale then you’re very close to regaining control over the sagittal plane. In other words, exhaling gives you abs. I’m going to repeat that one more time just so we both know how important it is: exhaling gives you abs.

And it gives you abs because while your internal obliques, external obliques, and transverse abdominis are pushing air out (aka they’re exhalers), they are also bringing your ribs down and pelvis underneath you (sound familiar?). If that doesn’t make sense, look back at the pictures in Part I and envision what happens as those muscles shorten.

Here’s the issue though: most people are terrible exhalers and need some help learning how to exhale again.

Enter our friend the balloon.

*I’d like to pause here for a second to briefly touch on


(The Postural Restoration Institute) because the balloon and everything else we’re talking about today draws heavily on their principles. If you aren’t familiar with PRI, then please go take a course. I can’t recommend it enough, and I’m not going to be going down that rabbit hole today for a handful reasons. The most important of which being that I’m not qualified to do so. It’s a monster of a rabbit hole and I’m going to let smarter people than me teach about it.

The balloon is a wonderful teaching tool because it provides resistance as you exhale, in turn forcing you to actually use your abs to get air out. You may laugh, but I’ve seen plenty of people (athletes I may add) who honestly can’t blow up a balloon.

So…here’s a quick tutorial on how to blow up a balloon:

And here are a few great exercise options to get you started (you can realistically implement the balloon into any exercise we’re going over today to help make sure you are appropriately exhaling):

  1. All Four Belly Lift and progressions

While the all four belly lift may seem like its over shooting a little on the flexion piece of the equation, you have to remember that I’m assuming we’re dealing with someone who has lost the sagittal plane. In other words, I’m assuming we have a bilaterally extended individual who has no idea how to flex and breath, so I need to re-establish that first before addressing other needs.

Also, let’s think through what’s happening from an anatomy standpoint. In particular, let’s revisit our good friend the serratus and appreciate how the reach in this exercise is helping to draw your rib backs, thus allowing you to better use your abs.

In review: serratus + obliques + transverse abdomins = winning.

  1. 3 Month Breathing with Band Pulldown

Remember how we’re attempting to give people a map? Well think of the All Four Belly lift as a system reset (in other words teaching them how to flex and breath), which then gives you the opportunity to create a new map with an exercise like 3 Month Breathing with Band Pulldown.

For starters, it gives the person a reference center: the ground. Which in all honesty is one of your best friends as a coach. It makes your life way easier when you can get someone on his or her back (with gravity on their side I might add) and cue him or her to “crush a bug” or “velcro their low back to floor” because they’ll be able to feel that. In addition, it gives you a target for your ribs: “as you exhale here I want you to think about drawing your ribs down to the floor.” In essence, whenever you can make things simple…do it.

Now, a key feature of this exercise, like all other exercises, is how it’s performed. The low back needs to be pinned to the floor, and the ribs need to come down and stay down (to a degree) on the inhale. In other words, your low back shouldn’t pop off the floor when you go to take a breath in because that defeats the purpose of doing the exercise. I want to see if you can get in a good position with some added tension from the band and breath without breaking down.

It’s absolutely essential that the athlete learns what this feels like, and is able to find it on his or her own, because this is the foundation for everything else you’ll be doing.

Step 2: Train

Once the new map has started to take hold, it’s time to up the ante a little and add some more definition to the map. If you ever played Age of Empires, think of it like at the beginning of the game when the whole map is black except for where your few little settlers are.

As you played the game and explored you uncovered more and more of the map, and the black area slowly gave way. The same thing is happening here: you’ve done some of the early exploration work, and now it’s time to set off and uncover more of the map.

Thus, let’s stress the system a little more. Let’s put you and/or your athletes in positions that’ll challenge their ability to hold the rock solid position you taught them earlier.

  1. Leg Lowering with Band Pulldown

Yeah, this should look really familiar. All we’ve basically done is take the 3 month breathing with band pulldown exercise from above, and make it more dynamic by seeing if you can move your leg without falling apart.

Let’s think on a deeper level though and focus on a big muscle we talked about last time: the rectus femoris. What’s happening to that muscle as you’re going from hip flexion to hip extension? It’s lengthening right. And as that muscle is lengthening what is it doing? It’s attempting to yank your pelvis forward, and make your low back come off the ground. In order to prevent that from happening what better be working? Your abs! Those sexy obliques and transverse abdominis better be opposing that quad, or else you’re going to lose the tug of war.

This, in essence, is exactly what you’re looking to do when training the “core”: how many different ways can you pit someone’s “abs” against muscles like a quad or a lat.

3 Month KB Pullover

I explained pretty much everything in the video, so yeah…not gonna waste your time and repeat myself.

While there are probably 50-100 exercises that could fit into this section, hopefully these two exercises give you a good idea for how to start thinking about “core” training: opposition. It doesn’t matter that you can do crunches. What matters is that you have abs capable of opposing big muscles like your lats and quads. Ultimately, if you understand anatomy then you should have a field day coming up with ways to challenge this.

*challenge homework assignment: think your way through a split squat.

Step 3: Integrate

At the end of the day, the goal is to be bigger, faster, stronger and better conditioned than everyone else. Period. Unfortunately, however, people often mistake what I’ve gone over thus far as being “too low level” or “not intense enough” to reach that end goal. But I couldn’t disagree more. If you aren’t adequately addressing Step 1 and 2 in this process, then you one, aren’t doing your job, and two, are merely setting up your athletes for failure down the road. You’ve gotta build the pyramid from the bottom up.

Now that that short rant is out of the way, let’s talk about integrating because this is what we live for right? I mean who gets excited about lying on the floor and breathing? I know I don’t (I actually hate it). I’d much rather turn on some loud music, hangout with my bros, and throw weight around for an hour.

And assuming you’ve done your homework in Step 1 and Step 2, it gives you the ability to do so because now we can start talking about deadlifting. In other words, movements like the deadlift represent your highest level of “core” performance. It’s where are the boring, shitty work you do on the side gets to shine. Just think through any major, compound, complex movement and you’ll see a beautiful sequence of events that all stems from your basic ability to control the sagittal plane.

And let me make something perfectly clear: this is the goal. The goal isn’t to lay on the ground and breathe. That is merely a tool so that we can get you on your feet, integrate, and turn you into a monster. So PLEASE, do not forget this step. Performing a high quality deadlift is core training. Performing a high quality squat is core training. And so on and so forth.

Closing Thoughts

While there are many exercises that we could have gone over today, I chose to focus just on a few them because I care more about you understanding the principles behind why we do them as opposed to just listing off exercises. Thus, if you feel lost or don’t understand anything we’ve gone over today, please post your questions in the comments below.

Also, I’d like to go over one last tidbit of info before I sign off for the day, and that’s failure. Generally speaking, when someone is performing these exercises I look for them to fail 2 out of every 10 reps because this tells me that I have found something that’s adequately challenging. In other words, if someone can crush something for 10 reps and every rep is literally perfect, then you should probably find a way to progress the exercise or else they won’t get better. Small amounts of failure tell me that I’m imposing enough stress to get an adaptation.

That's about it for today though.  Hope you enjoyed the article and post any questions/thoughts you have below.

about the author


James Cerbie is just a life long athlete and meathead coming to terms with the fact that he’s also an enormous nerd.  Be sure to follow him on Twitterand Instagram for the latest happenings.

Exercises You Should Be Doing: The Bear Crawl

On your mark…get set…go! And we were off.  Pseudo running/crawling our way to the 20 yard line.

As we reached the 20 yard line, someone tripped over their hands and fell flat on their face, while the rest of us made the turn back towards the starting the line.

The return trip was rather uneventful, and we all crossed unscathed jumping up to cheer on the rest of our team.  I’m not entirely sure how the event ended, or even how old I was, but I vividly remember my first bear crawl experience.

Maybe you can relate to the above story.  You get put in teams, someone yells go, you “run” as fast as you can on all fours, and then watch as everyone else does the same.  It may have served as conditioning, a mild form of punishment, or just to fill time, but either way we’re on the same page.

Although the competition and galloping around is fun and all, it’s not exactly what I’m looking for when I give someone a bear crawl.

Rather, when I program a bear, I want it to look like this:

But James, why is the bear crawl so awesome?  I’m glad you asked.  Let’s go over 4 of the major reasons why you should be doing bear crawls:


The bear crawl is a great exercise for all of you extended bros out there (yeah…I’m talking to you) because it biases flexion.  Another way of saying the same thing is that it works on anterior core control.  It helps give you the ability to use your abs to counteract extensor tone, and maintain position.  In particular, we want recruitment of the internal obliques and transverse abdominus because they help maintain proper position of the pelvis and rib cage.  Which brings me to my next point…


Reaching is the coolest thing since sliced bread (never understood that statement because sliced bread isn’t very cool, but whatever), and here’s why:  when you reach, especially in a closed chain reach such as this, you get great recruitment of your serratus anterior and work on active thoracic flexion.  This is important for several reasons.  For starters, the serratus anterior, because of its attachment site on the first 8 ribs, can actually pull the ribs back.  This is key for people with rib flares because it gives them the ability to use their abs.  Also, by “walking” forward you’re working on quality scapular upward rotation on a flexed thoracic spine.


Although I didn’t slow down in the video, you can easily go at a pace that forces you to take a breath with each step.  For people who have trouble breathing, aka are extended with ribs flares (see how this is all tying together), this is big time.  These people never get all their air out, struggle to fill up their posterior mediastinum with air, and can’t take a breath in without driving into extension.  By putting them in a state of active flexion, however, you can now work on how to properly get air in and out.

 It’s Dynamic

I’m always a fan of moving from a static state to a more dynamic state.  It involves more moving pieces, requires greater control, and is just more athletic.  It’s awesome if you can crush planks, reverse crunches, and a host of other “ground” based core exercises, but you have to be able to stabilize when multiple pieces are moving simultaneously to be a beast.

Closing Thoughts

When it comes to programming the bear crawl the options are limitless.  You can put them on the back end of a warm up, use them as a superset during the strength portion of a workout, or throw them into some low level conditioning circuits.  My only request is that you don’t do them on the treadmill like our friend from earlier.  If you have any questions, feel free to holler at me below, and if not, happy crawling.

about the author

James Cerbie is just a life long athlete and meathead coming to terms with the fact that he’s also an enormous nerd.  Be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram for the latest happenings.

Understanding and Controlling Injury: The Law of Repetitive Motion

Photo Credit:  Ben Solomon/The New York Times/Redux/REA

Unfortunately, injury is a part of life and a part of sports.  If you play long enough and push hard enough (which you’ll have to if you want to be good) you’re bound to run into little tweaks and pulls every now and then.

The key is to minimize there frequency, ensure quick recovery, and avoid the big guns like your ACL.

Step numero uno in avoiding injury is to understand it.

Why does it happen?  What factors make me more likely to become injured?  And stuff like that.

Unfortunately, most people don’t have the slightest understanding of injury and shrug it off as an unfortunate circumstance.

Don’t be one of those people.

With the right approach you can both understand and prevent it (well…prevent may not be the best word, but you’ll be better at limiting it than your peers).



Let me introduce you to the law of repetitive motion–aka the most user friendly injury equation of all time.

As you can see, 4 variables dictate your likelihood of getting injured:

I (injury)

Don’t feel like this one needs explanation.

N (number of repetitions)

The obvious explanation is the number of reps you perform of a particular exercise.  For example, doing 5 reps of the back squat versus doing 72.  Here are a few other items it applies to as well:

Steps taken throughout the day

Bending over to pick something up

Reaching up to grab something out of the cupboards

Throwing a baseball

Sitting (yes…that’s right…sitting counts as one gigantic rep)

Does this mean the answer is to try and keep N as low as possible?  No because you also have to consider form.  An individual who moves well and has good form can afford a higher N than an individual who moves poorly.

F (force)

This is kinda confusing, but it’s the force of every repetition as a function of maximal muscular strength.  Thus, if you increase your maximal muscular strength F will decrease because your body is better able to handle the external load.  Here’s a really simple example (I understand that this is way oversimplified, but it’s just to help you see the point):

Maximal muscular strength subject a:  100 newtons

Maximal muscular strength subject b:  75 newtons

Force form external load:  60 newtons

Which subject is better prepared to handle the load?  Or which subject will the load have a greater impact on?  It’s subject b because he or she is weaker.  At the end of the day, being strong reduces the amount of force placed on the body.

A (amplitude)

Amplitude, in its simplest since, is range of motion.  The tighter you are the more prone you are to injury (sort of).  On the other end of the spectrum, you can be too loose.  As I mentioned before in Why You Should Squat and Deadlift Heavy, you have to think of range of motion on a continuum.  At one end of the spectrum is the bodybuilder who has a fair amount of stability but horrendous mobility, and on the other end is the yoga queen who has way too much mobility and zero stability.


Like the bell curve above illustrates, the best place to be is somewhere in the middle.  You want a good balance between mobility and stability.

R (relaxation)

I can’t stress the importance of quality relaxation enough.

Being able to unwind and hit the chill button has a large impact on your bodies ability to recover.  Unfortunately, relaxation doesn’t carry much weight today.  People are constantly jacked up on caffeine running from their apartment to work, from work to the gym, from the gym back to work, from work to home to do more work etc. etc.

This type of lifestyle tends to jack up your sympathetic nervous system (the one controlling your fight or flight response), and keeps it turned on all the time.

That’s not supposed to happen.

From a biological standpoint, the sympathetic nervous system is supposed to be turned on rarely (key the name fight or flight).   It’s supposed to be what kicks in when you’re foraging in the woods for some berries, and a giant black bear pops up trying to eat your face.

I know the deadline your stressing about, or the traffic you hit in the morning doesn’t seem as bad as the bear, but your body doesn’t know that.  It’s not going to differentiate between the two.  It views stress as stress.

Anywho, the ability to flip the switch and get back into the parasympathetic nervous system is vital to your overall health, and it’s something I recommend you practice.


With all of that mind, here are some key takeaways to help you limit injury:

Keep N small by not staying in one posture for extended periods of time (sitting at work), or repeating the same thing over and over again (cough cough people who have their kids pitch year round for multiple travel teams)

Keep F low by getting strong

For A, if you’re hypermobile spend time stabilizing your joints.  Stretching for you will only create greater instability.  If you’re really tight and missing range, then you need to figure out why.  Is it an alignment issue?  Is it a capsular issue?  Is it bony restrictions?  Is the muscle short?  Is the muscle stiff?  Is it protective tension?  These are all things that need to be answered before coming up with a game plan.  Either way, you need to get your functional range back.

Keep R high by taking a chill pill.  But seriously, here are a few ways to attack R.  First,  be sure to foam roll because it helps improve muscle tone.  Second, do some focused breathing drills (crocodile breathing is a good example).  Third, find a release that helps you relax.  For me, it’s reading fiction.  I do it every night before bed.  For you it may be having a glass of wine.  I don’t know.  Just find something.