A Uniquely Effective Core Exercise

blog DNS sprinterWhen it comes to building performance, whether it’s more speed or more muscle you’re after, it’s imperative to develop high levels of stability strength first. The path to high-powered performance is paved through full body stability strength.

The Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) techniques out of Prague understand and emphasize that fact. The moves and positions they teach respect the complex integration between your nervous system, muscles, and physical structure.

Let’s take a standing one-arm dumbbell row as an example. Your right hand is holding the dumbbell and your left leg is forward. As you row the dumbbell with your right, the left leg and hip work to stabilize the movement. This stabilization requires a transfer of force through your core between the left hip and right shoulder.

The contralateral neuromuscular control between your shoulder and its opposite hip is essential for power and performance, whether you’re throwing a hard punch or sprinting at top speed.

Many traditional abdominal exercises don’t enhance this complex neuromuscular activation and control. That’s why so many experts don’t consider a typical floor crunch to be functional enough to carryover to sports performance, no matter if you’re a weightlifter or a MMA athlete.

I recently learned a terrific DNS-based core exercise that develops stability strength between the shoulder and contralateral hip. Your left shoulder is designed to function effectively with the left hip so the following exercise is ideal for anyone who wants to develop his/her midsection. I call it a “contralateral core lift” since DNS doesn’t typically name their exercises.

This core exercise is more challenging than it looks, so it probably isn’t ideal for people with low levels of strength. But if you’re looking for a new way to build athleticism through high-performance core training, give the exercise below a shot.

Here are my recommended training parameters for the exercise.

Contralateral Core Lift
Frequency: 3-4 times per week
Sets: 3-4
Duration: start with a 5-second hold and work up to 20 seconds.
When to perform: I prefer to do this exercise at the beginning of your workouts because it’s challenging and requires high levels of strength. Furthermore, the enhanced contralateral stability strength you’ll achieve from this exercise at the beginning of your workouts will boost your performance in all the lifts that follow.

Stay Focused,
CW

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DNS in LA

I recently spent four days at USC’s Movement Performance Institute studying Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) with Dr. Petra Valouchova, Dr. Craig Liebenson, and their associates. It was terrific training that progressed my knowledge for building strength and athleticism. DNS is an approach out of Prague, developed by the outstanding physiotherapist Dr. Pavel Kolar, that gets its roots from developmental kinesiology.

The DNS-Sport training starts by teaching you how to stabilize the torso with specific techniques that put the ribcage and pelvis back in proper alignment. In particular, many people suffer from some degree of the “opening scissors syndrome” which can be caused by anterior pelvic tilt, an elevated ribcage, or both.

opening scissors syndrome

So the first goal of DNS is to re-establish proper posture as shown above the letter “b.” In DNS training I learned how essential proper diaphragm function is for training and posture. That function hinges on the correct breathing patterns that re-align the ribcage and pelvis, and it’s this proper alignment along with elevated intra-abdominal pressure that boost your strength and performance during sport.

The saying, “You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe” sums up the importance of spinal stability whether you’re a professional athlete or a hard-training fitness enthusiast. A more powerful body requires higher levels of stability. Too often people will jump straight to the advanced stuff like Olympic lifts before building a stable base. The positions that DNS emphasize help bridge the gap between stability and power.

I should mention here that many of the most valuable DNS techniques come from proper cueing and instruction throughout various movements. In other words, it takes a lot of practical experience to really understand and feel the effects of improving neuromuscular stabilization with the DNS approach.

With that in mind, here’s one move I learned that helps correct the “scissors” posture many of us battle. One key element of the exercise below is that your breathing pattern should remain normal. This isn’t intended to be an intense strength training exercise – it’s a drill to help put the ribcage and pelvis back in proper alignment.

From there, DNS builds on neuromuscular patterns that were developed during the first year of life. Even though DNS was primarily intended for rehabilitation purposes, the exercises and positions they teach can be applied to strength training.

For example, one position that’s emphasized in DNS is the modified side plank, a mid-transition position between lying on your back and standing. I’ve been having my clients hold the modified side plank while they perform various presses and pulls because it’s an excellent way to build spinal stability and strengthen the muscles around the pelvis. Also, the position is stable enough to allow you to train with moderately heavy loads.

In the near future I’ll be showing more exercises that revolve around these novel positions, but in the meantime, here’s a video of me doing a kettlebell press from the modified side plank.

DNS is a complex approach that addresses posture, movement, joint centration, intra-abdominal pressure, etc. so there’s plenty that needs to be said beyond the few things I mentioned here. If you’re interested in learning more about the philosophy and development of DNS, you can read this overview from Dr. Craig Liebenson.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Weakness in This Muscle Will Rob Your Power

If you’re a trainer, your job is to have the tools and knowledge to take your client’s performance to the highest level. Throughout that pursuit many underlying dysfunctions can surface. For example, if the deadlift hurts the left side of your low back, the problem probably isn’t the deadlift: the deadlift identified an underlying problem. To paraphrase Gray Cook’s famous line: don’t build performance on top of dysfunction.

The training program a power athlete such as an MMA fighter or running back must follow is replete with explosive strength exercises that challenge full body stability.

An essential component for progressively building an athlete’s performance while keeping him healthy hinges on a strong, stabile foundation of support from the core musculature. I’m not just talking here about building strong abs: your lats and glutes are just as important, if not more. And everyone knows that you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

One muscle that I’m constantly seeing as problematic is the quadratus lumborum, or QL as it’s commonly referred to. Thanks to my work over the last few years with Dr. Craig Liebenson, owner of LA Sports and Spine, I’ve come to realize just how important this muscle is for power athletes, including anyone with back or knee pain.

The importance of the QL becomes evident when you look at its anatomy and function. First, the medial fibers that attach to the spine also connect the ribcage to the pelvis. So these medial fibers play a crucial role in stabilizing your torso in the frontal plane. If you’re holding a heavy briefcase in your right hand, the left QL contracts to keep you from leaning to the right. In fact, research (Knapp 1978) suggests that paralysis of the QL makes walking impossible, even with braces. And when you throw or kick explosively, the QL must fire hard to maintain the correct torso position and provide the spinal stability to transfer power throughout your body.

Second, the lateral fibers play an important role in lateral bending mobility. When you lean to the side, the lateral fibers must lengthen and then contract to pull you back up. Although, from a training standpoint, Dr. McGill demonstrates that it’s best to strengthen the QL with static exercises to preserve the intervertebral discs. Bending to the side, especially under load, is very stressful to the discs so that movement should be avoided. Another key point I learned from Dr. McGill’s research is that the QL needs endurance strength since its primary role is to provide lumbar stability.

The QL, like many muscles in the body, can have far reaching, deleterious effects when it’s weak or spastic. Through Dr. Liebenson, I learned a series of compensatory actions that can occur when people have patellar tendonitis, that annoying dull pain directly below your knee cap.

You see, the QL works with the contralateral glute medius muscle when you’re walkig. So if you’re walking with a heavy briefcase in your right hand, the left QL and right glute medius are firing hard to maintain correct posture and gait. However, when those muscles are weak excessive stress can be put on the right knee because the hips and core can’t stabilize the movement pattern.

Put another way: when someone has right knee pain the right glute medius is usually weak. And since the right glute medius works with the left QL, there’s usually weakness or trigger points in the left QL. In other words, if you have right knee pain, strengthen your left QL and your right glute medius in order to take stress off the knee.

Indeed, the QL is a vastly important muscle that must have plenty of endurance strength, and even more important, that endurance strength must be balanced as you test the QL on each side. If you can hold a right side plank for 70 seconds and a left side plank for only 4o seconds your left QL needs help.

A strong, healthy QL is essential for everyone from fighters to those who have knee pain. That’s why I shot the following 12-minute video with Dr. Liebenson to teach you how to test and strengthen this often neglected muscle. If you missed my discussion with Dr. Liebenson on the role of the QL for performance, you can check out the YouTube video at this link.

Strengthen the QL and you’ll become a stronger, healthier, more explosive athlete!

Stay Focused,
CW

How to Lift and Live with a Herniated Disc

Question: Hi Chad, I recently purchased Huge in a Hurry from Amazon, and think its a very well written book. I love the plans and how they’re laid out in the book. I’ve been strength training for a few years, and have had decent trainers along the way, so I honestly feel like I have form pretty locked down.

With that said, I was experimenting with my back arch while doing back squats in June this year, and ended up herniating my L5/S1 disc in my lumbar spine – so completely stupid and a mistake I’ll never make again. I was out for a few months, and did physical therapy for over 2 months. I’m now back in action, and have been cleared to do split squats, single leg squats..basically any squat that is not with both legs. I’m leaning on the cautious side!

My question for you, is how can I do the program and work around the 2 legged squat / deadlift exercises? I suppose I could wait a few more months to get started, but your book got me excited to focus again.

Thanks,
Andrew

CW Answer: Thanks for your support Andrew and I’m stoked that you like Huge in a Hurry.

First off, most avid lifters have some level of disc herniation (bulge). My friend and colleague, Dr. Stuart McGill, works with many NFL players and he constantly sees disc problems. Or put another way, he constantly sees NFL players who play with herniated discs. I don’t have the hard numbers, but I’d guess that the majority of all NFL players probably have some type of disc herniation, even if they’re not symptomatic. You can include me in that category.

In other words, you can have a herniated disc and not even know it. The good news for the small fraction of you who don’t have a disc problem is that this information will still apply to you. I follow the same technique and core activation protocols whether or not a client comes to me with back pain. Prevention is key for those who aren’t injured because it’s very likely that you will herniate a disc unless you get your training parameters right.

There are three important steps to follow when performing any leg exercises, or any strength exercise in general, when you’re experiencing back pain.

Step #1: Improve tissue health and mobility
When your back is aching you can be sure there’s compensation going on in multiple muscles throughout your body. If you have pain in your left low back I’ll bet your left hamstrings and calves are tight as guitar strings. You must loosen the fascia covering those muscles so they can move freely.

That’s why you should start each workout with the golf ball foot roll as popularized by Anatomy Trains author, Thomas Myers. Stand barefoot and roll the bottom of your right foot over a golf ball with as much pressure as you can withstand for 30-60s with each foot. This relaxes the fascia from your calves all the way up to the back of your neck. Focus on the sorest spots since they need it most. Then, foam roll your spinal erectors, quadriceps, IT band, glutes and calves.

Step #2: Activate your core and lats
Before each set of a leg exercise perform the side plank with rotation. This is one of the most beneficial activation exercises you can do to protect your back and remove stress from your aggravated disc. The benefit of this exercise is that it activates the muscles in your quadratus lumborum (QL) and lats, two muscle groups that are essential for spinal stability.

I recommend you perform 3-5 slow, intense reps of the side plank with rotation on each side before every set of leg exercises (squat, deadlift, lunge, etc).

Step #3: Focus on single leg exercises that don’t cause pain
When you’re experiencing radiating pain from a disc herniation, most physical therapists will recommend that you stay away from two-legged exercises such as squats and deadlifts. I agree with that cautious approach.

So, if you’re following the workouts in Huge in a Hurry and have an injured disc, replace all traditional squats and deadlifts with single leg versions of each. A back squat can be replaced with a single leg squat or lunge; a deadlift is replaced by a single leg deadlift. Do your best to stick to the same other parameters for that workout.

For example, if a workout calls for 40 total reps for the back squat with a load you can lift 10-12 times for the first set, simply replace the back squat with a single leg squat or lunge and follow the same protocol.

However, there are two important points to keep in mind. First, just because it’s a single leg exercise doesn’t mean your nagging disc will approve of your choice. Any exercise that causes immediate pain should be avoided or you should reduce the load. Second, I talk a lot about lifting fast in Huge in a Hurry but that advice goes out the window when you’re dealing with an injury. Perform each rep slow and controlled and focus on keeping your core and glutes tight.

Now, what you do outside of the weight room is just as important. In fact, it’s probably more important. There are 168 hours in a week. So if you lift for four hours each week that leaves you 164 hours where you can really aggravate your discs.

That brings me to step 4…

Step #4: Maintain lordosis throughout the week while sitting
I herniated a disc at L5 back in 2001 when I was doing heavy back squats. Since that time I’ve managed to keep it under control, even in the face of nonstop strength training. However, it wasn’t until this last year when I finally fixed the problem.

How did I do it?

I made a point to maintain the inward curvature of my low back (ie, lordosis) whenever I was sitting. I realized the time I sat at my desk or on an airplane or driving to clients was constantly aggravating my decade-old disc injury. The solution is as simple as rolling up a large towel and placing it between your low back and whatever chair you’re sitting in.

Follow these four steps and you’ll allow the disc to heal without losing any significant strength or muscle.

Stay Focused,
CW

Strengthen Your Core and Loosen Your Hamstrings

Core training is what fitness is all about these days. Ten years ago, “core training” was basically crunch variations along with an assortment of leg raises. Then Dr. Stuart McGill came along and changed the game. Thanks to his terrific research, Dr. McGill taught us that the ability to brace the core, and maintain that position for time, improves back health and performance. When I say “brace,” I’m referring to that core tension you instinctively create when someone is about to punch you in the stomach. You don’t need to bend your spine around like a twig to get the most bang for your core training buck.

McGill’s research also shows how detrimental spinal flexion can be. Each time you do a normal crunch, your spine flexes. It’s the repeated flexion of the spine that can lead to all sorts of nasty problems such as disc herniation. And when you bend over to pick up a weight while your spine is rounded the story gets even worse. In order to protect your discs and nerves from undue stress it’s essential to learn how to properly brace your core.

Now, teaching someone to brace their core isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sure, we can all tense our abs, but most of us can’t maintain that tension while moving our body, especially when an external load is added to the mix. A simple way to train someone to maintain core tension is with the plank. Most people should be able to hold the regular plank for 90 seconds. This core endurance is essential to keeping your back healthy and strong.

However, we’ve been inundated with pics, articles, and videos about the plank, so doing that exercise probably doesn’t sound new or exciting to you. That’s why I want to show you two of my favorite core exercises once people are ready to move past the regular plank.

The first exercise is called “Stir the pot,” and I learned it from Dr. McGill. It’s an outstanding exercise to build core stability strength. Here’s how you do it.

First, rest your elbows on a large swiss ball with your body in the plank position – body straight from neck to ankles and core braced tight. Second, make circles with your forearms/elbows so the ball rolls around without moving your body. This exercise is tougher than it looks when you do it right. You’ll feel muscles working all the way down to your spine. As you get accustomed to the exercise focus on making larger circles. The goal of this exercise, or any core exercise, is to make it as difficult as possible.

The second exercise, the “leg curl with single leg balance,” I learned from Dr. Craig Liebenson, owner of LA Sports and Spine and a terrific doctor who specializes in everything related to the spine.

To perform this exercise, lie on your back with your legs straight and heels resting on a Swiss ball. Then, lift your hips as high as possible and perform one leg curl. Next, brace your core/hips super tight and lift the right leg in the air and hold it for 4-5 seconds. Do the same with the left leg. From start to finish it’s one rep. Perform 5 reps.

Not only does this exercise improve core stability strength and performance, but it also induces a surprising side-effect that I hadn’t measured before: it loosens your hamstrings.

Try it with yourself or a client who has tight hamstrings. First, perform a standing toe touch and make a note of how far your fingertips reach. Then, perform five reps of the leg curl w/single leg balance and test it again. It’s common to increase your range of motion 3-4 inches. Pretty impressive considering you didn’t do any stretching.

How does the leg curl exercise increase hamstring mobility? Before I answer that, let me explain why your muscles get stiff in the first place.

You see, when a muscle is stiff most trainers will stretch it. Immediately, the muscle will increase its range of motion. But here’s the important part that I’m sure you’ve experienced: the added range of motion from static stretching doesn’t hold. A few hours later, or the next day, the muscle is stiff again.

More advanced trainers will do deep tissue work such as the Active Release Technique (ART) to restore range of motion. This hands-on style of improving mobility and tissue health can be effective and I’ve used similar techniques for years. But again, the added range of motion doesn’t hold for long.

The problem with typical stretching or soft tissue techniques is that they don’t address the root of the problem. I’d say that 99% of the time the problem is actually in the spine. In order for a muscle to be flexible, the nervous system must get the memo that it’s safe to increase the range of motion. In other words, if you have super stiff hamstrings it’s likely the deep muscles that support and surround your spine aren’t firing correctly, or they’re just plain weak. So the nervous system puts the brakes on your hamstrings mobility.

The leg curl with single leg balance activates deep core and hip muscles that provide a strong foundation of support for your muscles to work against. This immediate neural enhancement (potentiation) allows the nervous system to release the brake that’s currently holding your hamstrings tighter than guitar strings.

And when you perform the “stir the pot” exercise right before the leg curl exercise it works even better. So, test your hamstring mobility by attempting to touch your toes, then perform one set of each exercise I posted above. Retest your hamstring mobility and prepare to be impressed. Continue doing these two exercises for one week and the increased range of motion will hold.

Get ready for a more effective approach to mobility training. It all starts at the spine.

Stay focused,
CW

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Huge in a Hurry Clarified

In December of 2008 my book, Huge in a Hurry, was released by Rodale publishing. The book has been a big success with tens of thousands of copies sold, and multiple translated versions around the world. If you’re someone who purchased the book, I really appreciate the support.

And if you haven’t picked up a copy, I feel it’s one of the best resources to explain the science of heavy or fast lifting to build a bigger, stronger, leaner body. I’m biased, of course, but considering the quality of this 354-page, full-color book I think it’s a steal at less than $17.

Now that the book has been out of quite some time, I’ve compiled a ton of feedback. Whenever I write an article or book, it’s my job to clearly explain my points and, most importantly, to outline the workouts in a way that leaves little room for confusion.

Given the plethora of feedback I’ve received, apparently some workout descriptions weren’t as crystal clear as they should have been. Furthermore, there are a handful of cable exercises that people don’t have access to so I want to outline some alternatives.

So I’m going to take this opportunity to clarify some of the confusion reader’s have had. It’s likely that if you had a question it’s going to be covered in the following explanations.

Program Design: Most of the training phases in the book consist of three separate workouts (although, the high frequency training phases have more). Nevertheless, each workout corresponds to a letter. For example, the Get Big phase consists of workouts A, B, and C. Each workout is performed on a different day throughout a 7-day cycle. Here’s an example:

Monday – Workout A
Wednesday – Workout B
Friday – Workout C

Then, in the upper right corner of the Get Big program it says “perform each workout four times.” That statement has created quite a bit of confusion. It translates into “perform this program for four weeks.”

In the Get Big Phase Ia (unloading) week it says “perform each workout once.” That unloading phase lasts one week. So you’ll do Workouts A, B, and C once during a 7-day cycle, and then move on to the next phase.

Speaking of the Get Big program, there’s a typo on page 106. The load for Workout C should be heavy not light. So you’ll start with a 4-6RM and perform 25 total reps with 60-second rest periods for all Workout C exercises. Many people wondered why I’d prescribe 25 total reps with a load you could lift for 22 reps the first set. No wonder they were confused. This has caused me many sleepless nights because I didn’t catch the mistake in the final overview before it went to printing. If you happen to have a later version without the typo on page 106, consider yourself lucky.

There’s one other error in the book, but isn’t a big deal. On page 110 the first exercise in Workout B shows a cable standing one-arm external rotation but the exercise description reads “cable standing one-arm mid-pulley row, palm up.” Which one is correct? Either will work but the description coincides with my original exercise choice. So if you want to be precise, perform the exercise shown on page 214 (#5) for the first exercise in Workout B on page 110 instead of the external rotation.

If you have the book, you probably already know that I’m a big fan of cable exercises. The reason is because a cable allows you to manipulate the line of resistance, unlike free weights in which the line of resistance is always straight down. Plus, cables allow for natural movement patterns, much like free weights do.

However, many people don’t have access to cables. I should’ve put an alternative free weight exercise next to each cable exercise, but I didn’t. You know what they say about hindsight.

So here’s the complete list of cable exercises with an alternative for each.

Upper-Body Pulls
All lat pulldown exercises >>> do a pull-up with the same hand position instead. If you need assistance with the pull-up, place your feet on a bench in front of you to reduce the load you have to lift.

All one-arm pulldown exercises >>> do a one-arm dumbbell row with the same hand/elbow position instead.

All cable row variations >>> do a dumbbell row with the same hand/elbow position instead. This will be a one-arm or two-arm dumbbell row depending on the workout.

All face pull exercises >>> do a dumbbell row with external rotation while lying facedown on a 45 degree incline bench instead. This will be a one-arm or two-arm row with external rotation depending on the workout.

Upper-Body Pushes
Cable standing chest press >>> Push-up (any variation)
Explanation: let’s say a workout calls for a load that allows no more than 22 reps the first set. Use a push-up variation that you can’t do more than 22 times. That might be a regular push-up, a push-up with your feet elevated, a push-up off a Swiss ball, or a clap push-up. Any will work.

Cable standing one-arm chest press >>> Dumbbell one-arm bench press

Squats
Cable squat >>> Dumbbell or barbell Romanian deadlift

Abdominals
Cable woodchop >>> Perform the same movement with a resistance band attached to a sturdy object or hold a medicine ball and do the same movement that’s prescribed

Specialty Exercises
Cable one-arm triceps pushdown >>> Dumbbell decline one-arm triceps extension

Cable hip/knee extension >>> Reverse lunge or step-up

Moving on…

In the Get Lean program, each workout ends with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). For example, in Workout A you’ll complete 20 total reps for the four strength exercises followed by 10 minutes’ worth of HIIT.

Finally, many people have asked if they need to do the Get Ready program, a three-week program that’s recommended before you start any program in the book. I was adamant in the book that you need to do it. However, I’ll modify that answer.

If you’ve performed any of my workouts in publications such as Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, or T-nation, you can jump straight into any program in the book. But if that’s not the case, it’s best to start with the Get Ready program.

Got any other questions about Huge in a Hurry that need to be cleared up? Post them here and I’ll be sure to answer them.

Stay focused,
CW