Core Concepts: Part III
Programming for Performance
This is the third and final part of our series on trunk stability. If you haven’t read the first 2 parts, this is the time to go back and do so. It would be like watching Return of the Jedi before you watched A New Hope, or reading The Return of the King before reading The Fellowship of the Ring, or… well you get the point, go read the first 2 parts first.
This final article in the series will be focused on programming your workouts to optimize your trunk strength/health. It’s important that I put in the disclaimer that there are A LOT of exercises that, when done properly, train the trunk. I’m not writing this to say that one way is better, this is more of a guide in how to think about programming to strengthen those areas in the beginning, middle, and end of your workout.
The first part of your workout should be focused on warming up the trunk for the physical activity that you are going to be participating in. This seems like a no-brainer, but it is one of the more butchered parts of a workout that I see. If I am going to be doing heavy deadlifts, squats, cleans, or anything else involving external load, my warm up is not going to be 10 minutes on the bike/treadmill/elliptical. This time spent doing something like a low-intensity aerobic exercise isn’t specific in terms of substrate needs, range of motion, or muscle contraction speed.
A proper warm up should be focused on achieving optimal range of motion, getting the body ready to be loaded, and increasing core temperature. Ways to do this include pushups, hip airplanes, kettlebell swings, dead-bug variations, sprints, etc. I personally like to warm up by doing whatever lift I’m focusing on that day with a lighter weight. For example, doing squats, RDLs, pressing variations, bent over rows, cleans, snatches, etc. with an empty bar. These exercises can be done individually or as a circuit. Just keep in mind that part of a proper warm up is increasing core temperature in the body. So don’t move too slowly.
The rep scheme is going to be anywhere from 2-3 sets of 5 to 15 reps and will be dependent on load and skill level. What I mean by this is that the higher the skill level of the movement and the higher the load, the less reps that you will perform. If i am going to be warming up with hang cleans, I am probably going to do closer to 5 reps per set rather than closer to 15. Below is an example of how I might warm up if I am focusing on deadlift that day.
Part 1- (minimal rest between sets)
- Hip Airplanes 2×10 each side
- Straight Arm Pulldowns 2×10 each side
- Empty Bar RDLs 2×10
- Empty Bar Bent Over Rows 2×10
Part 2- (no more than 60 seconds between sets)
- Deadlift with 40-50% of 1RM 2×5
- Dynamic stretch for whatever feels tight in the movement 2×10
Again, I will state that this is NOT a statement of what you have to do for your warm-up. I wanted to provide and example of a safe and effective way of preparing your body for load.
Meat and Potatoes
Next comes the fun part. The meat and potatoes of your workout, or for you non-meat eaters out there, your beans and rice. This is where you load/challenge the core through dynamic movement. The trunk functions to transfer force by limiting movement.
Stability in the trunk allows for a platform to force the transfer between the lower and upper body. Basically, the stronger and more stable your trunk is, the better you can exert force throughout the body. We can create a strong platform by doing exercises that involve movement of the whole body without extension of the lumbar spine. Higher skill level would be exercises such as push presses, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, jerks, and can be done with any implement. Lower skill level exercises would be pallof presses, anti-rotation holds, deadbugs, and jumping.
Another function of the trunk is to produce force by creating movement. If you just look at what was covered above, one could easily get the false impression that our trunk musculature only has one kind of a passive role in performance: one where the torso only functions as a stable platform that channels force between the hips to the shoulders vertically, horizontally and/or diagonally. We can create a lot of force in all planes of movement using our trunk, so why not add that into our training? We can do this with exercises such as medicine ball shot throws, medicine ball hip tosses, overhead throws, slams, kettle tosses, band/cable rotations, band/cable chops, landmine rotations and my personal favorite, a landmine exercise that has yet to be named in the video at the end of this article.
The key part in all of this though is that the exercises are done with intent. If the proper load and proper amount of force are not applied, the exercises have significantly less impact on performance.
Now how do we program these movements into our workouts? After properly warming up your body to be forceful, it is time to be just that. Throws are a great way to transition from your warm up into the lifting portion of the workout. Let’s go back to that same deadlifting day for the sake of continuity. Some of these movements we discussed could be added in a couple ways, like this:
(Part 2 of the Warm Up)
- Deadlift 2×5 w/40-50% of 1 rep max
- Medicine Ball Rotation Hip Toss 2×5 each
- Medicine Ball Slam 2×5
We can also add them into our actual deadlift section to create what is called a contrasting superset. That would look something like this:
- Deadlift 4×5 w/ 70-85% of 1 rep max
- Medicine Ball Overhead Throw 4×5
Exercises like the one shown with the landmine attachment below can even be used as a primary lift, if proper intent is used. Keep in mind that your spine is one big series of levers – each segment is a small lever. The trunk musculature supports and protects the spine. Understand what you want your spine to be able to do and how to train appropriately for that result.
The end of a workout is a great time to pinpoint weaknesses in your trunk and train them. Things to keep in mind when programming this part of the workout is fatigue, skill level, weaknesses, and intent. For example, say someone is semi-new to lifting, is at the end of the workout, and can’t hold a plank for a minute or more? Start with plank variations. Got those down? Awesome! Lets challenge the body in anti-extension a little more dynamically now with rollouts. At the same time anti-rotation can be challenged with holds and paloff presses. Once those are mastered, start to add some slow rotations with a challenging load. My personal favorite trunk exercises are carry variations. They can be done in a myriad of ways and loading patterns and are, for lack of a better term because i hate this term, highly “functional.” At the end of the workout we are looking to improve our trunk with lower skill level exercises that puts our spine at minimal risk and challenges weaknesses that we possess in our trunk strength/stability. After the deadlifting and throwing fun we had earlier in the workout and did some other exercises in the middle, the end of the workout might look something like this:
- Overhead Carry 3×20-40 yards (or 30-60 seconds if you prefer/need to use time)
- Anti- Rotation Hold 3×20-30 seconds each side
- Bear Crawl 3×20-40 yards (or 30-60 seconds if you prefer/need to use time)
What can be summed up from all of this? By this I mean ALL 3 of the articles including this one. Our trunk is very important to how we move as human beings and we should make it a priority to add safe, effective programming into as many of our workouts as possible. Trunk strength/ stability programming doesn’t have to consist of boring and monotonous planks and sit ups. I actually strongly urge against staying that simple. The word I used earlier was intent. The trunk is made up of many key pieces, the more varied the load and movements, the healthier our trunk will be.
Thank you all for reading this series on trunk strength and stability. I hope you enjoyed it and were able to get something useful out of it. If you didn’t? Well I tried and you should reach out to us and I want to see if there is any way that I can be of help!
This article does not necessarily represent the views/opinions of MadLab Performance, LLC. This article is not meant to recommend health solutions in place of a doctor or other medical professional and should only be used to help those reading it gain more information prior to making their own decision.
Josh has experience with anything and everything, from prenatal and postpartum care to coaching high school athletes as they prepare for high-level DI careers. He specializes in getting the most out of whoever he is coaching. Josh is the Director of Education for MadLab Performance and manages the company’s personal trainers. He also is a frequent contributing writer for MadLab’s continuing education articles. Josh may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org