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

PRI

(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

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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.