Welcome back to Squat University. All too often I see athletes who go about training their core in the wrong way. Many coaches are still under the impression that by strengthening the muscles of the core, stability will be enhanced. For this reason it is common to see athletes still performing endless crunches or hypers off a glute-ham machine. While these muscles do need to be strong, isolation strengthening in this manner actually does little to promote stability that will carry over to helping us squat with better technique.
Core stability is all about timing and coordination. The muscles of our abdomen, back, and hips must work together in order to maintain our lumbar spine in a neutral position as we move. When we combine the action of bracing our core with the power of our breath (as we talked about last week) we open up the potential to lift tremendous weight.
Corrective exercises for the low back need to focus on how well we can maintain our back in a stable position and not the number of sit-ups we can perform. Most of us have been training our core the wrong way our entire life!
Before working on core stability, we have to address any hip restrictions we have. Any core stability that we work on will be short lived if we don’t have adequate hip mobility.
Cleaning Up the Stickiness
With the squat, our legs must be able to move freely without affecting the lumbar spine. During the squat it is important that our legs be able to move freely without affecting the lower back.
As we squat the upper leg bone (femur) will eventually reach its anatomical end range in the hip joint. If hip mobility is limited, the femur will hit end range earlier. This can be due to adaptive restrictions that build up over a lifetime of sitting at the office or due to the individual anatomy of your bones. If we have limited hip mobility our femur essentially hits a wall and can no longer move freely.
If the lifter continues to descend, the pelvis will be pulled underneath (posterior pelvis tilt) causing the lower back to round as well. The subsequent rounding of the back has been justly termed “butt wink”. Improving hip mobility will decrease the likelihood of the “butt wink”. If you have not yet cleared your hips, check out the lecture article “The Squat Fix: Hip Mobility Pt 1-3.”
Level 1 Corrective (Lumbar Stability)
Each level of corrective core stability exercise is based on the teachings and research from renowned experts Peter O’Sullivan and Dr. Stuart McGill (1,2). The first stage of training is called the cognitive phase. It focuses on improving our sensation and perception of stability. We need to be able to feel the muscles that should be activated as we brace our core.
Bracing involves activation of all the abdominal muscles of our core (abs, back, diaphragm and pelvis) to create 360° of stiffness around our spine (2,3). If bracing is coupled with proper breathing mechanics during heavy squat attempts, stability is enhanced to an even greater degree (4).
In the past many experts claimed we needed to only activate the transverse abdominis (a small flat muscle that runs across the front of our core). However, we have come to realize that activating the transverse abdominis solely is a misdirected attempt to create core stability. This muscle is only one member of the “abdominal team.” It is no more important than any of the others that encompass and surround the torso. They must all be equally activated in order to fully support the lower back.
The first exercise I want to introduce is an easy way to learn the bracing process. Focus on feeling the muscles around your entire core activating as we go through this step-by-step process.
Step 1: Lie on the ground with your back to the floor. Your knees can stay bent for comfort.
Step 2: Activate the muscles on all sides of your core, a process called co-contraction. A verbal cue I like to use is to brace yourself as if you were about to receive a punch to the gut. This should create a feeling of firmness around your entire lower torso. Place your hands on your stomach and on your side. You should feel the muscles under your hands tense as they activate. Improper bracing will only activate our rectus abdominus (our 6-pack muscle).
Step 4: Once this pattern has been isolated, we need to train these muscles to work together for an extended period of time (10-20 seconds). Stability of our lower back is needed throughout our entire day, not only the few heavy lifts we do in training! Being able to hold this bracing action for a sustained time allows us to train stability for endurance.
Recommended sets/reps: 3 sets of 10 repetitions
Level 2 Corrective (Lumbar Stability)
After learning how to actively co-contract the different muscles of the core, it is time to learn how to maintain that stability as we move. The exercise I want to introduce for this section is the bird-dog progression. During this exercise, focus on how well you are bracing your core. Our ability to maintain stability often falters as soon as movement of the arms or legs is initiated.
Step 1: From the all-4’s position (quadruped) place a PVC pipe or cane along the back as shown. At all times the PVC should be in contact with the back to ensure proper spinal alignment.
Step 2: Once you find the neutral position, re-create that co-contraction of the core you learned from level 1. This bracing effort will create the stability needed for the next few steps.
Step 3: Next lift your arm up towards your head (one at a time) and back toward the starting position by your side. During this arm movement, your lower back should remain in a stable braced position. It is important to breath first and then brace your core. Don’t hold your breath during this movement. Let your breath out slowly through pursed lips (as if you have a straw in your mouth).
Step 4: Once this stage is mastered, the second step is to perform the movement with one leg at a time. Extend one leg backwards as far as possible. Again, this movement should not change the position of your back at all! You should remain solid at all times. If an athlete moves poorly during this stage, their lower back will over extend and they will lose contact with the PVC pipe.
Step 5: The next stage is one where both the legs and arms are moving. Start by moving your right arm and left leg at the same time. This is the standard birddog exercise that most people are familiar with.
Step 6: The last stage is where the arm and leg on the same side are moving. This stage is very difficult for most people.
Recommended sets/reps: 2 sets of 10 repetitions at highest level possible without compensation
Stage 3 Corrective (Lumbar Stability)
Once we develop good awareness of core control/stability, we need to translate it to functional movements. In order to fully grasp true core stability, exercises must eventually be performed in movements that relate to a given sport (5). One functional core stability exercise I like to use is the “no hands” or “zombie” front squat.
Step 1: Assume a front squat position with the bar held on top of the chest and shoulders.
Step 2: Take your hands away from the bar and hold them out in front of you. This should look like the starting position of the bodyweight squat.
Step 3: Use the proper breathing and bracing pattern to stabilize your core properly. Take a big breath into your stomach followed by a strong brace of your core muscles.
Step 4: Next, perform the front squat to full depth while trying to maintain the bar in the same position. In order to stay balanced the bar must track over the middle of your foot the entire time. Inability to adequately maintain core stability and stay balanced will force the arms to fall forward. This will cause the bar to roll off the shoulders and drop to the ground.
While this corrective exercise can be loaded to increase the difficulty of the movement, the amount of weight added to the bar must be within reasonable amounts. Start with an empty barbell. Once you can do this with ease, progressively add weights to increase the difficulty. Prioritize technique over weight on the bar.
Recommended sets/reps: 2-3 sets of 5 repetitions
Proper mechanics during the squat is all about maintaining proper core stability. If core stability is compromised strength and power is lost.
Until next time,
- O’Sullivan, P.B., 2000. Lumbar segmental ‘instability’: clinical presentation and specific stabilizing exercise management. Man. Ther. 5 (1), 2e12.
- Grenier SG & McGill SM. Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2007; 88:54-62
- Gardner-Morse MG & Stokes IAF. The effects of abdominal muscle coactivation on lumbar spine stability. Spine. 1998; 23(1):86-92.
- Cholewicki J, Juluru K, McGill SM. Intra-abdominal pressure mechanism for stabilizing the lumbar spine. Journal of Biomechanics. 1999; 32:13-17.
- Willardson JM. Core stability training: applications to sports conditioning programs. J Strength and Cond Res. 2007, 21(3), 979-98