It’s one of the biggest buzz words thrown around when it comes to training, and I fucking hate it.
Maybe I’m not that smart, but I just don’t know what people are referring to when they use the word. Are we talking about just the abdominal muscles? The abs and low back muscles? Everything between the shoulders and the knees? Everyone has a different definition, and it leads to very vague training recommendations.
When I refer to the trunk, I’m referring to all of the muscles involved in keeping the spine in it’s natural position, which are the pelvic floor on the bottom, diaphragm on top, with the internal and external obliques, multifidus, quadratus lumborum, spinal erectors, rectus abdominus, and the transverse abdominus forming a cylinder between .
These muscles act as stabilizers, not movers like your glutes or pecs and they need to be trained as such. Thanks to tireless research by Dr. Stuart McGill, we’ve learned that the trunk musculature is designed to keep the spine stable so we can create motion at our joints, and to transfer force between our lower body to the upper body, and vice versa.
Also, his research has shown that repeated spinal flexions lead to disc injury. This is why endless crunches aren’t the answer. So what the hell are we supposed to do?
Well, first of all we must classify all of the ways that the spine can move, and understand that the trunk muscles are working to resist those forces. These are:
- Anti Extension-think resisting the urge to extend at the lower back when pressing heavy stuff over your head.
- Anti Flexion-not rounding over when deadlifting
- Anti-Rotation-keeping stable so your hips can generate power, like in a baseball swing
- Anti Lateral Flexion-not leaning to one side like a trailer park chick with a baby on her hip
With 4 different ways we have to resist forces to keep our spinal alignment, we need to set up progressions so that we have a systematic way to improve our strength all around. After listening to Alwyn Cosgrove speak recently, I was able to see a better way to classify these than I had been using before:
At the bottom of the pyramid we have pure stabilization. This is where you build your strength on planks, side planks, and Pallof holds. As you can see, the rest of the pyramid is build on this, and the wider your base, the higher the peak can be.
Next, we have dynamic stabilization. Think side plank rows, front planks with overhead reaches and kettlebell pull throughs, dynamic Pallof presses, and carry variations.
At the top is where we are going to be challenging the core through movement. This is where medicine ball throws, heavier deadlifts, and higher level movements will be challenging the trunk musculature to a high degree.
Now, how would this look in an actual program over time? Glad you asked.
|Anti Extension||Anti Lateral Flexion||
Pure Stabilization 1-3
|Push Up Plank 3x:15/3x:20/3x:25||Side Plank 3x:10/3x:15/3x:20||Tall Kneeling Anti Rotation Hold 3x:10/3x:15/3x:20|
Dynamic Stabilization 4-6
|Pushup Plank with Overhead reach 3×5/3×7/3×9||Side Plank Row 3×8/3×10/3×12||Tall Kneeling Anti Rotation Press 3×8/3×10/3×12|
Integrated Movement 7-9
|Ab Wheel Rollout 3×5/3×7/3×9||Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift 3×8/3×10/3×12||Half Kneeling Medicine Ball Side Toss 3×8/3×10/3×12|
After you’ve progressed through the 3 levels of the pyramid over the 9 weeks, begin again at the bottom with more advanced pure stabilization exercises, like feet elevated pushup planks, feet elevated side planks, and half kneeling anti rotation presses, and work your way back up the pyramid week after week. This system of progression is literally infinite in it’s options.
Too often, once people get to the top level of integrated movement, they feel like they are too advanced for the bottom level stuff. The reality is, the wider we continue to make that base, the higher level of movements we’ll be capable of at the top. Don’t lose sight of that.
Lastly, I didn’t include any anti-flexion exercises, because quite frankly, if you have a sound strength training program, you already are getting a lot of that anyway. Any time you are resisting curling over at the spine you are getting some work here, so I believe in most cases, extra is unnecessary.
Obviously, training the
core trunk musculature is absolutely pivotal for performance, injury prevention (and sometimes treatment), and aesthetics, but like everything, there are best practices-utilize them to simplify your training while getting better results with less back pain. Seems like a no brainer to me.