As easy as it is to write off “core training” as just another trendy way to get personal trainers to add another certification to their wall and a few extra letters on their business cards, it’s also not enough to treat core training as another name for abdominal training. Also, while we often hear that big exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are great for developing core strength (and they are), that only works if you know how to use your core muscles during those types of lifts.
For our purposes, we’re going to define “the core” as anything responsible for stabilizing the lower spine, the hips, and the pelvis. More than just the visible abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, if you’re fancy), it also includes the external obliques, the transverse abdominis (the deep abdominals that you can’t see), your erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, and the glutes – medius, minimus, and maximus.
Why Should You Do Core Training?
The primary benefits we’re going to be aiming for during the Core Challenge are going to be:
Improved breathing patterns, including better use of the diaphragm
Reduction in back and hip pain or discomfort
Stronger glutes and abdominals
Better integration of the core into larger lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses
What Is the Core Challenge?
The Core Challenge involves training these muscles 6 days per week, with one full day of rest, using short workouts and steady progressions. Instead of doing longer workouts less often, training muscles that you struggle to use well allows you to practice more often and retain the patterns better, no differently than practicing a golf swing, playing an instrument, or learning a new language.
Knee pain seems to be far and away the most prevalent nagging, reoccurring injury in recreational athletes and trainees that I have worked with, probably more than lower back and shoulder issues combined. There are a few reasons for this.
First, there is a trend of promoting “knee-friendly” training routines in fitness magazines and blogs, including exercises such as partial squats, Smith machine squats, leg presses (partial range), and leg extensions. The problem with this is that in reality, most of those exercises do more harm than good, for a variety of reasons. Let’s break it down.
Partial squats – a barbell squat to no more than 90 degrees. Two problems here – the first is that you are shortening the range of motion, which essentially puts more demand on the thigh muscles to decelerate the weight faster because of the shortened movement. Here’s a good analogy – would you rather have 1000 feet to brake from 75 miles an hour, or 500 feet? Your brakes are working a lot harder to slow down a ton of weight (it doesn’t help that most people can squat up to 2 or 3 times as much weight in a partial squat vs. a full range squat).
The second downside is that the vastus medius oblique, or VMO, which is your knee’s major stabilizer, is most active during both the first 15 degrees and last 15 degrees of a squat. It is least active at or just above parallel. So you’re using more weight, requiring more work from your joints, without the help of the muscle designed to keep the knee safe.
The answer here is just to squat through a full range of motion. Ideally, a squat should be below parallel, with the hamstrings making contact with the upper part of the gastrocnemius (upper calf). In conjunction, the lowering stage of the squat should be performed under control, taking three or four seconds to lower the weight, and the overall load should be reduced to ensure correct technique.
Smith Machine Squats
Smith machine squats are usually the quickest substitute for conventional barbell squats that you’ll see recommended in training articles. “Oh, your knees hurt? Okay, squat on this”. If you’re not familiar with a Smith machine, it is essentially a barbell set on two guided supports that allows the bar to move in a single plane of motion – straight up and straight down.
A major problem here is that when you squat, you don’t only go straight up and down, there is horizontal movement of both the hips and the barbell, so having the “safety supports” inhibits the natural mechanics of the movement and actually places significantly more shearing stress on the patella (kneecap) than a conventional squat performed correctly. And again, as with partial squats, the leverage you gain from the machine usually encourages more load on the bar, making things even worse.
Truth be told, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the leg press. In fact, for bodybuilders and those only interested in looks, it’s a solid leg exercise, when done right. However, most of the time you’ll see people going through an incredibly shallow range of motion with far too much weight. The problems and resolutions are essentially the same as for the barbell squat.
The leg extension is a bit of a different beast than the others. Its primary function is indeed to strengthen the VMO, which, as mentioned earlier, is one of the main ways to stabilize the knee. So what’s wrong with the leg extension?
First, the leg extension is what’s known as an open kinetic chain exercise, meaning the foot isn’t stabilized and the stress isn’t applied the same as a squat or leg press. The issue with that is that the angle of pressure from the shin pad can create undue stress at the knee joint, so while it’s sometimes a useful exercise for developing the VMO, the trade-off is that it can inherently damage the joint.
The other problem is that I have had problems fixing poor motor patterns with people who have done a lot of leg extensions in their training lifetime. What does that mean? It means that the leg extension conditions the muscle to fire exclusive of any other thigh muscles, so the body gets strong operating in isolation. But when an individual begins squatting or lunging, they can’t apply that leg extension strength to the new movement, putting them at a disadvantage again.
So What Do I Do?
In the next part of this article, I will go over what changes to make to your leg training to spare your knees, as well as why all the training in the world may not save you from knee pain if you neglect these other variables.
Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release (SMR) if you’re fancy, is widely accepted as a useful tool for correcting postural dysfunction and alleviating muscle soreness and stiffness. However, just like anything, there is a right way and a wrong way to apply it. Here are some of the more common mistakes that I see when it comes to soft tissue work, and how to fix it:
Working in a Haphazard Order
Particularly when used for corrective exercise and treating posture dysfunction, there are specific patterns you should follow when foam rolling. Instead of just jumping around to whatever feels the tightest,follow steps to ensure that as you release tension in one area, it preemptively releases tension in other areas along what are called the myofascial lines. here are a few simple guidelines to follow to get the most out of the least amount of time:
Always, always start with the feet (plantar fascia) first.
Work from the pelvis outward. If you need to release tension in my calves and my glutes, start with the glutes and work toward the calves. If it’s the lower back and the traps, start with the lower back and work along the vertebrae of the spine until you arrive at the traps.
Rolling Stiff and Lengthened Muscles, Not Tight and Short Ones
Here is the best example of this scenario – somebody will walk into the gym, grab a lacrosse ball or foam roller, and start attacking the area between the shoulder blades. Why? Because the area feels stiff and sore. Logically, this would make sense; however, in application all it does is make the problem worse. Here is why.
In corrective exercise, there are typically two types of muscles, usually situated opposite each other. There are muscles that are loose and lengthened (and often weak, but not necessarily), and muscles that are tight and short (usually stronger than their loose and lengthened counterparts, but again, not necessarily).
If you look at your typical desk jockey, you will usually see rounded shoulders, a hunched upper back, and a forward head tilt. This usually results in tight and short anterior delts, pecs, and traps, with loose and long scapular retractors (rhomboids, teres major and minor, posterior delts). If all I roll is the upper back complex, all that serves to do is release even more tension, which makes the muscles even looser and longer, and allows the opposing muscle groups to get tighter and shorter. A better approach would be to open up the chest and shoulders with soft tissue work first, and then briefly work the upper back to increase blood flow.
Ignoring Trigger Points
The point of foam rolling is to find the areas that create the most discomfort, and apply generous amounts of pressure until the scar tissue that has built up in that area begins to break up and release muscular tension. However, human instinct is to run away from the pain, so what normally happens is that if I spend 2 minutes rolling my IT band, I’ll spend 1:45 rolling the areas that aren’t too awful, and just sort of pay passive attention to the intense pain that comes from the areas that are in need of the most attention.
Instead, pay attention to the two or three areas in each muscle that create the most tension – especially the ones that cause any sort of radiating tension in other muscle groups. There are your trigger points for that area. Spend most of your time here and don’t worry about the rest.
Soft tissue work has a plethora of benefits to everybody from word class athletes to busy executives to the senior citizen who is just trying to maintain mobility, but it only works when it’s applied correctly. Take these three tips and make the appropriate adjustments to get the most out of the least amount of time.
One natural reaction to back pain, or pain in any particular area, is to focus all of your attention on where the pain is, not necessarily addressing the things that might be causing the pain in the first place. Often, back pain is brought on by excessive tightness or poor mechanics in other, opposing muscle groups and movement patterns.
With back pain, usually there is some sort of problem with the pelvis, typically presenting in what’s called an anterior pelvic tilt (to visualize, put your hands on your hips, and picture “pouring” your pelvis forward). Your butt will usually stick out and an excessive amount of lumbar arch (called lordosis) results. This is usually caused by muscles that connect to the front of the pelvis being unnecessarily tight, specifically the psoas (one of the hip flexors) and the rectus femoris (one of the four quadriceps muscles).
As part of your daily routine, simply apply a mix of foam rolling and stretching to the hips and quads. It’s best to begin with foam rolling the quads, then the hip flexors, before stretching. If done pre-workout, do your foam rolling first and static stretching after a training session, as studies have shown that static stretching pre-workout can limit power output.
When it comes to improving posture and preventing injury, it’s best to start by working from the inside out. This is why core training has become so popular over the last few years – the idea that your center of mass has to be strong to control what’s going on in your extremities makes a lot of sense. When it comes to generating power, the same theory holds true. Ask any well-trained martial artist how much power a punch can generate when combined with adequate breathing, hip rotation and core control.
But what if there was a limitation in your movement that made all of that extremely hard, to the point where other, more vulnerable parts of the body had to start picking up the slack? This is what can happen if the spine is not properly aligned. Because as much credit as the core gets for being the center of the body, in reality, without the spine, the core means nothing.
The spine is divided into 3 major sections – cervical (upper, including the neck), thoracic (the mid-back), and lumbar (the lower back).
Much of the motion in the cervical and lumber areas is controlled by how much movement is available in the thoracic, or t-spine. Try this to see what I mean:
Stand up in your typical “slouched” posture – shoulders forward, back rounded, shoulder blades apart and chest sunken in. Now, without changing your body position, try to reach overhead. If you don’t change your body position, two things will happen:
1) You won’t be able to reach up overhead very far at all.
2) To compensate, you’ll start leaning backwards and letting the lumber spine shift into an arched, or flexed, position.
Now, try the same drill standing as tall as possible, with the chest up and shoulders back. You should get a lot higher without much compensation at the lower back.
But here’s the problem – unless you were able to get your biceps right beside your ears without having to shrug, lift your shoulders, lean back, move your hips, or arch your back, you’re still compensating. And most likely, the problem is restricted movement in the t-spine. This restriction can come from bad posture, previous injury, overworking the front of the torso (chest, shoulders, biceps) while ignoring the back of the torso (upper back, lats, triceps), poor flexibility, etc. With so many possible restrictions, it’s necessary to take a multifaceted approach to fixing it.
Step 1 – Mobility
The first thing you have to do is get movement back. I like to use more than one mobility drill for any given bodypart just to hit it from a few different angles.
Step 2 – Stability
Stability is simply the ability to control movement in a given range of motion, big or small. Stability and balance are not synonymous, so being able to stand on a circus ball and squat with dumbbells over your head does not make you stable, just insane.
Step 3 – Strength
The last piece of the puzzle, think of developing strength as the piece that makes the first two steps stick. You can increase flexibility and mobility, but if you don’t strengthen up the right areas to hold that new position, the body will revert right back to where it was.
The following video shows one of my favorite progressions for improving shoulder mobility through the thoracic spine:
Suggested Pre-Workout Corrective Program
A1. Foam Roller Thoracic Extension – until improvement is seen
A2. Quadruped Thoracic Rotations – until improvement is seen
A3. Wide-Grip Pullup Static Hold – start with a moderate band for assistance, when 30 seconds is achieved, decrease band assistance. Ideally you will be able to do it with bodyweight or with additional resistance from a chinup belt in the long term.
A4. Prone Cobra – 8-15 reps, stopping several reps short of fatigue
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give when it comes to the flexibility and stability pieces is not to get hung up on sets and reps. Work it until you feel noticeable improvement, then move on to the next movement. Even with the strengthening exercise (the prone cobra), you’re using it as a warmup, so don’t kill yourself on it. Get some work done, make it difficult, but keep it clean and be safe. Good luck!
The glutes get a lot of attention for their aesthetics (or lack thereof), and there are a plethora of training programs and articles designed to help you “work your booty.” But what happens when you have no idea how it’s supposed to feel when you use your glutes? Oftentimes, we’ll have potential clients come in to our center with the goal of developing their butt, but when they perform standard glute-building movements like squats, lunges and bridges, all they have to show for it is a pumped lower back and sore hamstrings, while the glutes remain underwhelmingly neglected. Why? Because your brain doesn’t know how to make those muscles fire. And if they don’t fire properly, then all of the hip-thrusting in the world won’t fix your posterior.
So how do you fix it? There are a subset of glute movements that are commonly referred to as “activation” movements, which means the whole purpose is to teach you what it’s supposed to feel like to use your glutes, as well as triggering your body to “turn on” (AKA activate) your butt muscles.
Here’s a simple glute program that includes both strength, hypertrophy (muscle growth), and activation movements. Give it a shot and let us know how it works for you!
Sample Glute-Training Workout
1. Activation – Band abduction – 2-3 sets of 10 reps with a 10-second hold in the open position
When most people think of their training programs, they usually think about the fun stuff. Weight training is what packs on muscle and makes your whole body stronger, and intense cardiovascular conditioning strips off bodyfat and develops stamina and endurance in the heart and lungs. But when done week after week, all of that hard work will leave your body feeling achy and beaten down.
Chronic muscle soreness lasting more than 1-2 days after a training session
Joint aches and pains
Posture changes due to muscle tightness, leaving the body vulnerable to injury
Difficulty feeling an exercise in the target muscle
At this point, there is no way to continue to train at full intensity without making some kind of adjustment to correct these issues. Enter recovery training.
What is recovery training?
Recovery training is simple – it is a short, low-intensity training session designed to help your body repair muscle damage and increase blood flow to ease inflammation on joints, tendons and ligaments. In most cases, recovery sessions are simply added in addition to your regular training sessions during the week. However, since they are rather short and not very intense, they can be done any time – before training, after training, or on an off day.
Basic recovery methods
There are three big commonly used recovery methods that can be done as often as needed – static stretching, dynamic stretching, and self-myofascial release. Each has its own place, and they work best when implemented together throughout a training program’s duration.
Static stretching is simply holding a muscle in a gently stretched position for a period of time, usually 5-30 seconds. It’s critical that you do not overstretch a muscle, as it can result in strains and tears. The focus should be on getting a “gentle stretch,” something that you can feel the muscle but should never be painful or unbearable. One other caution is to be careful of hyperextending certain joints, specifically the knee and elbow. The knee should stay unlocked when doing hamstring stretches (hurdler stretches, toe touches, etc.), as should the elbow during bicep and pec stretches (doorway stretches, etc.).
Also, because muscles are more pliable when they are warm, static stretching is best done once the body temperature has already been elevated, so make sure you do it either after a warm-up or post-workout for maximum safety and effectiveness.
Dynamic stretching serves two purposes – increase circulation through a muscle and the surrounding connective tissue; and increase range of motion beyond that achieved through static stretching. Dynamic stretches are not held in place for any length of time; instead, they return to the original position as soon as they have gone through the full range of motion. Examples of dynamic stretching include arm windmills, butt-kickers, high knees, and straight-leg swings.
Think of self-myofascial release as a form of self-administered deep-tissue massage. SMR is to your muscles what a rolling pin is to a lump of bread dough. You basically take a hard object (usually a foam roller, which come in various densities) and roll up and down the muscle, stopping to apply pressure to the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on to the next tight area. The pressure from the roller stimulates the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) reflex, which triggers the muscle to relax and release tension. It can take several weeks up to several months to fully release the pressure on an area, depending on how severe the problem is.
Also, just like static stretching, SMR is best done with the body’s temperature already elevated.
Implementing Recovery Training
It doesn’t take long to work recovery training into your program – all three methods can be completed in 15 minutes or less 2-4 times a week. What’s the old saying? “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
At some time or another, almost every serious athlete is going to experience periods of knee pain. Whether it’s a runner who is feeling the effects of running on concrete, the football player who’s made one too many quick direction changes, or just your average gym rat whose knees are starting to bark at them from too much squatting, odds are pretty good it’ll happen at some point. That is, unless you take a few steps to prevent it.
Prehabilitation vs. Rehabilitation
Many people are familiar with the idea of rehabilitating an injury – fixing something that’s already broken (injured). But very few people know much about prehabilitation – stopping an injury from ever developing in the first place. Granted, it can be pretty boring and can feel like a waste of time when you’re already healthy, but trust me, it’s better than having to see all of your progress come to a screeching halt because you got sidelined for 3 months with a strained ligament, or even worse a muscle or ligament tear. At that point you’d be kicking yourself for not taking a few extra minutes for prehab – except you can’t bend your knee enough to do it.
It’s important to note that prehab movements to prevent an injury to one area are not always the same movements that you would use to rehab an existing injury. So I just want to point out that this article is not intended to replace physical therapy or any other rehab protocols, it’s merely a breakdown of an easy 5-minute workout to keep already healthy knees just as healthy.
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) – Iliotibial (IT) Band
SMR – Adductors
SMR – Calves
Terminal Knee Extensions (TKE’s)
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)
SMR is to your muscles what a rolling pin is to a lump of bread dough. You basically take a hard object (usually a foam roller, which come in various densities) and roll up and down the muscle, stopping to apply pressure to the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on to the next tight area. The pressure from the roller stimulates the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) reflex, which triggers the muscle to relax and release tension. It can take several weeks up to several months to fully release the pressure on an area, depending on how severe the problem is.
SMR – IT Band
The IT band is a length of connective tissue that originates at the hip and runs down the side of the thigh, inserting into the lower leg just below the kneecap. When tightened, the IT band can pull both the pelvis and the knee joint out of alignment, leading to pain in the front (anterior) side of the knee, an ailment commonly diagnosed as “runner’s knee syndrome”, as the repetitive impact of running or jumping (volleyball, basketball) tends to contribute highly to the buildup of tension.
To roll the IT band, lie on one side with the roller just below the hip bone, with the bottom leg straight out and the top leg on the floor in front. Use the front foot to push so that the roller moves down the thigh, stopping just below the knee joint. Be careful not to roll directly on the hip or knee joints, instead staying only on the muscles of the side of the thigh. Remember to apply continuous pressure to affected spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on.
If you need to apply more pressure to get at tight spots, try stacking the front foot on top of the bottom so that both legs are straight out, and use the top leg to push down to add more pressure. Note: this is not for beginners and can be extremely painful, so try to get as much release as you can from the first variation as you can before trying this adjustment.
You can also try slightly turning the shoulders and hips as you roll to get more surface area, so that you’re rolling the side, slightly off to the front toward the quads, and slightly off to the back toward the hamstrings.
SMR – Adductors
The adductors are basically the antagonistic muscles to the IT band – they still pull on the knee and the hip, just in different directions. They tend to get tight with increased quad training, as well as movement patterns that involve a wider stance.
To roll the adductors, lie face down on the floor with the roller parallel to your torso. You’ll want to keep the shoulders and hips squared to the floor as you move, and you want the knee to be straight out from the hip with the lower leg bent at about 90 degrees. Start with the roller positioned higher on the thigh up near the groin muscles, and roll down toward the top of the knee. The adductors extend down the leg a little lower than the IT band does so you can go down just a bit farther. Make sure that your knee stays in line with the hip, it’s easy for it to start dropping low as you roll. Find those tight spots and hit them each for 15-20 seconds before moving on.
SMR – Calves
If the calves are tight, then the weight will tend to shift to the ball of the foot when squatting or deadlifting, causing a lot of shearing stress on the patella tendon. A big red flag is when the heels pop up off of the ground during squats, deadlifts or lunging movements. The pressure should always stay on the heel or mid-foot, never the ball of the foot (with the lunge, I’m referencing the back foot; with the rear foot it’s impossible to keep the heel down and you shouldn’t try).
To get the calves, I recommend focusing on rolling the top of the calf (the gastrocnemius) and the bottom (the soleus) seperately, if only because of how difficult it is to keep your body held up by your arms if you try and roll everything at once. You’ll sit on the ground with both legs straight out and the roller positioned just underneath the knee at the very top of the calf. Start with both feet side by side on the roller and the toes pointing up toward the ceiling. Lift the hips up so that all of the pressure is now applied into the foam roller, and pull the hips back under your shoulders so that the roller moves down toward the middle of the lower leg, and then roll back up. Again, you’ll want to focus on the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on. After you’ve done all of your rolling for the upper calf, readjust so that the roller starts at the mid-calf and roll down to just above the Achilles tendon and back, being careful not to apply pressure to the tendon itself.
As pictured, you can increase the pressure by crossing one leg over another and using the top leg to press down into the roller. You can also try doing some rolls with the toes up, some with the toes pointing off to the left, and some with them pointed off to the right to get all of the calf surface.
Terminal Knee Extensions (TKE’s)
TKE’s are a great strengthening movement for the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO), which is responsible for stabalizing the patella (kneecap). The muscle recruitment is similar to a conventional leg extension movement, with one big difference – a leg extension machine braces the thigh in place, eliminating movement at the hip, which in turn, combined with the downward pull of the weight, results in a huge amount of compressive force on the knee. The TKE allows the knee and hip to move freely together and eliminates the compression because the weight pulls front to back.
I use JumpStretch bands, and use either a light (purple) band or an average (green) band. Other bands work just fine, just figure out a comparable tension. Choke the band to a power rack or something stable at about knee height.
Make sure to keep the heel of the working foot on the ground so that you’re not using momentum to get through your reps, and make sure that you’re not moving your hips and butt forward and backward for the same reason. I like to pause for 1-2 seconds at the top of each rep to keep things extra strict. Just remember nobody cares how thick of a band you use for TKE’s.
SMR – IT Band – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
SMR – Adductors – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
SMR – Calves – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
TKE’s – 3 sets of 10-20 reps per leg
Do this at least before every lower body training session, but it can be done 4-5 times a week if necessary. Just be consistent, and it’ll go a long way toward keeping your knees healthy and happy, and your performance will thank you.