When I started out as a personal trainer working for a chiropractor, my focus for the patients was to work core strength and rebuild and support posture. I used to always say that "the core" doesn't only consist of mirror muscles that we can name check like the abs and obliques, but rather, everything from the diaphragm to the pelvic floor. I usually went on to say that if they were sitting at their desk and reached for a pen, that movement had to first stem from their core muscles: the muscles around the spine engaged to help the body turn and bring the torso forward to then allow the arm to reach and grab the pen. It's not the arm independently moving forward, it just all happens without much thought on our part.
As I gained more experience over the years, I still thought of core muscles as the ones from diaphragm to pelvic floor but it became a subcategory to what I've learned to call "The Pillar," which includes the shoulders, torso and hips. When these points of the body are properly aligned, energy transfers throughout the body more efficiently and allows for greater strength and power production with less fatigue (1). This made sense to me as nearly everyone that walked in my door had dysfunction, weakness or imbalance in any or all of these three areas.
Since this pillar strength is important in how we move in our daily life, we should also train our bodies the same way. This would therefore have a much better translation to our daily life activities, work we do or sports we play. But first things first: if you were to walk into the gym and start cranking out heavy squats, overhead presses or hundreds of crunches on your first day, you're not going to do much besides create more muscle imbalance or perhaps injure yourself. Here's where we go back to my chiropractic trainer roots: prehab and corrective exercise. Now, before you start an exercise program, you should ideally have a movement screening by a certified professional beforehand. In my humble opinion, the Functional Movement Screening (FMS) is the best but even if it's a few tests to check areas of the body (mainly shoulders, low back and hips) for function and mobility that's better than nothing at all. I understand though that not everyone who reads this will be working with a knowledgable trainer so as you go through these sample prehab movements, really be tuned in to your body and how it feels throughout each one. Do you feel any pain? Is it tight? Make notes!
You can do prehab exercises anytime. From right when you get up in the morning, midway through your day as posture support or before your training session. It only takes a few minutes so there is no excuse!
Right off the bat, I would always start with YWTL. I always taught this standing to all of our patients for a couple of weeks and then moved them to the floor lying on their stomach, if able. YWTL are the letters that we make with our arms...kinda like "YMCA." During each letter, you're trying to have good posture through your pillar and think of cracking a nut between your shoulder blades as they retract back for every letter.
Top Left: "Y"- Arms up overhead, palms facing in towards each other; retract shoulder blades
Top Right: "W"- Still retracting scapula, pull the elbows down into a "w," palms still facing in
Bottom Left: "T"- Arms straight out, palms facing up.
Bottom Right: "L"-Elbows down and in, making two mirror image "L's," palms facing up.
When you feel like you have a handle on the standing YWTL, move those exact positions to the floor. Lie on a mat or soft surface. You can rest your forehead on a folded towel:
(Malcolm likes to join in on any floor exercises)
2. Elbow Plank
Ah, the classic elbow plank! This is an isometric exercise meaning you get into the position and you hold it still, or, as I like to often say it: "hit it and hold it." In the plank, keep the entire shoulder firm and strong as you press the forearms down into the floor. Pull the navel up towards the spine as you keep the torso solid and gently press the heels back to create a long, strong line down the back of the body.
If you are unable to hold the plank with good form for :30--i.e. the upper back arches up, the low back turns into a "U"--then drop the knees to the floor while the upper body stays the same. Oftentimes, when people drop their knees, the shoulders move behind the elbows and the butt goes up in the air, which will get you no benefits whatsoever so keep the shoulders over your elbows.
There are many different variations of the plank, but this is a good place to start, especially if planks are new for you. Start by trying to hold this for 30 seconds and then work it up to a minute.
3. Side Plank
Like the elbow plank above, there are a few variations and progressions to this basic side plank position but this is a good place to start. Like in any plank, keep the entire shoulder solid and strong while pressing down into the floor on the supporting forearm. Notice that the shoulder is still over the supporting arm. This is very important. Start by trying to hold :30 on each side. As that becomes easier, work your way up to a minute on each side. Also try to do 5 reps of a side plank bridge in which your bottom hip touches the floor then lifts back up to plank.
4. RKC Plank
The regular front plank getting too easy for you? Well, even if it's not, if you're able to hold good form in a front plank for 30 to 60 seconds, it's time to try the RKC Plank. I have a handful of clients who like to call this the Crunch Plank or the Hairball Plank (because of it's similarities to another core exercise we perform called "The Hairball"...I'll let you think about that one for a moment. Yup. Like a cat.)
Now take a look at the differences between a front plank (top) and an RKC Plank (bottom):
Don't notice much? That's because the change is minimal to the eye but huge in the body for the person performing it. Essentially you get into your plank and then tuck the pelvis by pulling the belly button in and the tailbone tilting forward. Think of trying to make a C-curve in your spine--the upper back arches a little while the navel pulls in and away from the floor and the hips tilt forward from the tailbone. The knees may bend slightly to accomodate. You'll feel like you're doing an abdominal crunch along with a plank and you'll be feeling the work happen immediately!
5. Glute Bridge
This is great for everyone! There are many different variations to the bridge, which strengthens the glutes and hamstrings, but let's start with the classic:
Lie on your back, arms by your sides and heels to the floor. Squeeze your core and glutes to lift the hips up off the floor and slowly lower back down. Do 10 reps at the start of your workouts as part of your warm-up as well as part of your daily prehab movements. If you're looking to progress this, try a single leg bridge performed the same way but with one leg up towards the ceiling:
A great exercise for everyone since so many people are sitting on their butt for long periods of time to the point where we lose the muscle activation of our glutes and they essentially "shut off." This causes weakness and imbalance in our hips, pain, decreased performance in daily life and in sports. No Good.
Do your bridges!
6. Bonus: The Overhead Squat
Holy Moly can this be hard! Overhead squats can be so difficult since it is not only a complex movement but it really exposes weaknesses that you may have. It's humbling. In fact, I had to take the pictures for this a few times since I wasn't getting into a good position.
Using a dowel rod, a yardstick or small diameter foam roller (here I'm using a cord), place it across the top of your head so that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle (left picture). Your feet should be about shoulder width apart. Raise the arms straight up overhead and begin your squat by sitting your hips down and back while attempting to get your thighs parallel to the floor. You should be pressing the weight down through the arches and heels of the feet to stand again while feeling like you're trying to pull the dowel apart (right picture). First start with getting your bodyweight squats solid with good form and then start trying the overhead squat.
(Wow, I'm the same color as my shirt!)
While this isn't an exhaustive list of great exercises for pillar strength, it's a perfect place to start. Begin with the basics of each exercise and then progress yourself to perform the harder progressions.
When the center of your body is solid and stable, movement in life and sports becomes more efficient, leaving us healthier and less likely to be injured. Take your performance to a greater level! Lay a solid foundation for your workouts by making sure YOUR pillar is strong.
1. "Pillar Strength 101"
Written January 27th, 2009.
2. "Avoid Injury with Prehab"
Written January 26th, 2009.