The word 'core' continues to be a frequently used word in the fitness industry. The increased popularity of 'functional training' has drawn a great deal of attention to core-focused training. Concentrating on the core is commendable, but often misdirected. I never can trust a trainer preaching core strength training when their only focus is on the aesthetics of their midsection. I'm in this for strength and function, and I hope you are too. I personally define core training as maintaining proper alignment of the ribs, spine, and pelvis throughout functional movement while properly utilizing the breath. I refer to this definition when I say my training is mostly based on core strengthening.

Optimal human gait is a very complicated topic and there are some great organizations dedicated solely to posture restoration. I have completed certifications and attended numerous seminars based around posture and movement and have used those lessons to improve my training.

[Click here to sign up for the WeckMethod Proper Body Mechanics Certification]

Here is what proper alignment for strength training means to me:

Breathing with Your Diaphragm:

You must be capable of breathing with your diaphragm, the muscle that is found between your lungs and abdominal organs, to utilize the rest of these principals. Most people think this should be an automatic function of the body, and honestly, I see where they are coming from. The sad truth is that most people have abandoned using their diaphragm and rely mostly on their chest and neck to breathe, leading to a myriad of issues. Don't be a neck breather.

Try This: Alligator breathing; wherein, you lay on your belly and focus on filling up your stomach with air and not your chest. Inhale what you would consider half of a full breath, hold for a second to feel the increased pressure in your midsection, and exhale all of your air. You should eventually feel your lower back rising with each breath as you improve. Complete at least 10 breaths. This can be used at the beginning of sessions to activate, but is also a great way to calm down the sympathetic nervous system at the end of the workout.

Rib Alignment:

After you are able to use your diaphragm properly we will learn to put your ribs in correct alignment in order to get the most out of your upper abdominal muscles.

Core Strength Training  Drill - 90/90 Breathing

Try This: 90/90 Breathing; Lay on your back with your feet on a box or wall, knees and hips at a 90 degree angle. Make sure your lower back is flat against the ground and take a long breath out, exhaling absolutely all of your air out. At the end of the exhale the ribs will depress and the upper abdominal muscles will contract. Try to maintain this position of the ribs and tension of the abs while continuing to breathe with your diaphragm, filling up your entire midsection. Start with short breaths as your ribs will try to rise on long inhalations. You should feel your lower back filling up with air, pushing against the ground. After enough practice you will hopefully be able to fill up your chest and upper back without having to deactivate the abdominals. Perform 5-10 breath sets at any point in the workout to maximize the activation benefits.

Posterior Pelvic Tilt:

Once you can breathe properly and correctly position the ribs, next you have to find a posterior tilt of your pelvis to achieve a neutral spine and form a cylinder of strength. Most people are stuck in an anterior tilt of the pelvis which causes the erectors and hip flexors to tighten and the abdominals and hamstrings to weaken.

Try This: You can find a good tilt easily while performing a basic hip bridge. Lay on your back with the knees bent and feet on the floor. Press the spine and use the breath to get the ribs into position and then lift the hips. Think about rolling the pelvis into the belly button and not allowing the ribs to open up. You should feel a strong contraction of the glutes and minimal to no contraction of the spinal erectors. Perform 5-10 reps or until technique starts to break.

This pelvic position will be present in almost all of your strength lifts and static holds so it is in your best interest to practice. I like to incorporate a lot of drills in the half kneeling stance to dial in this position.

Try this: Start with the right knee on the ground and the left leg bent with the foot planted on the floor in front of you. The hip and knee of the left leg should both be bent at a 90 degree angle. Think about tucking the front of your pelvis into the stomach to pull the hip into a posterior tilt. Use a line on the floor to make sure your right knee and big toe are lined up. This may cause you to lose balance, but that is good because your body is using proprioception to develop stability. As your balance improves you can walk the left foot towards to line to form an in-line lunge.

It may take some time to achieve balance in this position, but once it is achieved you can add in cable chops, presses, halos, etc. Practicing this position will result in a better posterior tilt and will enhance the split stance position. You may even find that one side of your hips is more stable than the other. Correcting this imbalance will improve performance in any sport and can even decrease hip or back pain.

[Check out this video on Non-Dominant Side Training for additional benefits]

When the ribs and pelvis are aligned directly over each other the diaphragm is able to expand and create intra-abdominal pressure, an important principle in building elite strength. I use these drills or some variation of them in all of my training sessions, either at the beginning in order to activate the nervous system, or at the end to calm the nervous system. There are plenty of other drills to improve breathing and 360 degree muscle activation of your core, but those will have to be addressed in another post.

If you apply this definition to core strength training, then it is very easy to build any type of program around it. I strongly recommend you give the above drills a try to feel the activation in your core to generate an explosion of strength in your lifts.

About the Author: Ben Eisenmenger originally worked to be a physical therapist, but realized he wanted to help with injury prevention in the gym setting more than in the clinical setting. He now works full time as a personal trainer at Queen City Kettlebell in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is certified through StrongFirst as a kettlebell coach and also through Functional Movement Systems. He uses movement screenings to help clients identify movement deficiencies and builds programs around correcting these issues to improve strength and performance. He is a lightweight strongman national qualifier and also competes in the Tactical Strength Challenge.

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