Monday 19 October 2015

The Best Core Exercise You Are Not Doing

Core training is overrated. On its own it won’t give you a six pack, it will do little to improve performance, it does not require its own training day and despite what some core enthusiasts would have you believe, it will not cure cancer. Also, if you are picking great movements, you are already getting a fair bit of core work. However, for best results a few good direct abdominal exercises can be a helpful addition to a solid training program – if you pick the right ones. The problem is that most “core” exercises are neither helpful or kind to your spine. Here is one of the best core exercises you are probably not doing.  

My vote for the most underrated core exercise: suspension strap mountain climbers

I started playing with this exercise a few years ago after learning a variation of this from Cray Cook and Lee Burton’s FMS video Secrets of “Primitive Patterns”. Since then it is become a favorite in my programming for athletes and clients.

I know you have seen mountain climbers done before. They have been used for conditioning purposes since the dawn of time (slight exaggeration). They are a fast, sloppy movement with repetitive lumbar flexion (not good if you want a happy, healthy low back). This however is exercise is a different ball game. Suspension strap mountain climbers are done slowly and under complete control. 

Benefits of Suspension Strap Mountain Climbers

Real-life function
Your core’s job is to resist movement at the trunk. This allows you to effectively transfer force from your shoulders or hips through a stable spine. Suspension strap mountain climbers teach you to lock in the core while dynamically moving the hips – exactly how you want your body to work in real life.

Multi-plane stability
Suspension strap mountain climbers force you to stabilize so you don’t collapse forward. However, as soon as you lift a foot of the ground there is an intense rotational force which needs to be countered with strong anti-rotation stability. This makes it a big-bang-for-your-buck exercise.

Naturally activates what you want activated
Both the instability of the suspension straps and the desire not to face plant naturally recruit the core muscles you want. There is no need to talk about transverse abdominis, internal obliques or deep hip rotators. Just do the movement properly (see finer technique pointes section below for details) and the muscle recruitment takes care of itself. 

Deceptively challenging
I love showing this exercise for the first time to a client or athlete. As they watch me doing it, I know they are thinking, “That looks easy.” However, when they get on the straps, they are quickly shocked at how hard it is as they struggle and shake to do the movement. At this point I smile and get a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Finer technique points
  • Start with a strap height somewhere between the hips and the knees 
  • Set up in a plank position as if you were going to do a push-up (see regressions and progressions below for more details on what your set-up should look like)
  • Make sure you start and stay in neutral spine (chest up, chin in, gentle low back arch)
  • Get tight
  • Slowly take one foot off the ground and raise it as high as you can without rounding your low back (the movement should be purely in the hip)
  • Pull your toe up and bend your knee as much as you can (think sprinting mechanics) while driving your other leg down into the ground
  • Pause and “own” that top position
  • Do not let your hips drop or twist
  • Slowly return your foot to the ground and repeat with the other side
  • Be sure that you start and finish your set in the same position – if you are not careful you will creep forward with each stride and end up making the exercise too easy
  • Avoid high reps (especially because of the slower speed) – I typically prescribe 3-5 very slow reps per leg
  • Don’t get sloppy – stop the set when you know your technique for the next rep might be compromised

  • If you can’t do a proper plank, this is not a good exercise. Master the plank from the straps first, then move on to the mountain climbers
  • Raise the height of the straps
  • Move your body forward – as the straps move to a more forward angle, this exercise will get noticeably easier
  • Lean into the straps for added stability

  • Go slower! When coaching this exercise, I smile (with a sinister smile) remind my athletes, “Slow is fun”. 
  • Move back until the straps are vertical
  • Move back enough that your arms are not touching the straps – this will prevent you from using the straps for stability
  • Lower the handle height. Note: this only works for a while. You need some height to the handles so you have room for your moving leg

Moving on
I would classify this exercise as an intermediate exercise. If you continue to get stronger and more stable, there may come a time where you out-grow this exercise. (Important note: you can still use it as an excellent activation drill in your warm-up – just keep the reps low and don’t get tired). There are plenty of other great core exercises you can use (see this post for some examples). 

Strict bear crawling provides similar core stabilization and it also brings in a similar pattern at the shoulders.

You can bring in other exercises that provide variations of the same theme (i.e. core stability with dynamic hip movement). One great example is Farmer’s walks. And other loaded carry variations.

Another totally overrated core exercise is sprinting. As strength coach Cal Dietz points out, sprinting requires high levels of core strength and stability while the legs move at a rapid speed. 

How about you? Give suspension strap mountain climber a shot and let me know what you think. As always, I invite you to leave your comments and questions below or on my Facebook Page.

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