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Core Wisdom: The Inside Story

It's time for another installment of Tales From The Gym. This should be accompanied by the soundtrack from The Outer Limits as the crazy hijinks performed on a regular basis often equate to insane antics of the non-thinking variety. I'm talking about my favorite gym pet-peeve here: BAD FORM. This started with a woman who has witnessed squats being performed by the serious folks (i.e., those that venture into the free-weights section of the gym), all from her safe little corner of selectorized weight machines (not there's anything wrong with this). Yet, she decided to take a walk on the wild side and swaggered on over to the Smith machine to give it a go.

Now let me say - I am so proud of her for breaking her boundaries! Then I saw how much weight she loaded on it, without ever having used this machine or performed squats, and the resultant poor form. It made me hurt just watching her. Don't be fooled into thinking that the Smith machine is like a tricycle, safe because it has training wheels. Just because the movement is in a fixed plane of motion with guide rods for providing stabilization regardless of the load amount, this does not mean you should start off treating it like your bitch!

Of course, I coached her on how to properly do squats using the Smith machine though I did notice a big problem that had nothing to do with Smithy: core strength. Correction: lack of core strength. Her form was all over the place. You can do all the research you want on how to do squats but very little will be included about how important core strength is to performing a squat properly. This should be the FIRST thing mentioned. Even if you're super strong, have been weight training for years and can do sit-ups galore, this DOES NOT mean you automatically have a strong core. Core strength does not mean abdominal strength alone. The principle core stabilization musculature is composed of deep muscles (multifidus, transverse abdominus, internal oblique, diaphragm, pelvic floor muscles) that we can't see when we flex and that we don't categorically train unless we do core training. Specifically, these muscles work to provide joint support and stabilization primarily to the spine and pelvic girdle during functional movement.

An easy way to see the importance of a strong core is to picture an apple: what would it be without a core? You guessed right if you said "Baby food!" Or perhaps the following illustration drives home the importance of a strong core. See the tent below? If all the tethers, poles cables, etc., are not properly adjusted with even tension, image what happens when you add heavy rain...

This poor thing doesn't stand a chance! Same thing happens with the human body which brings us back to squats with added weight, regardless of whether you use DB's, an Olympic bar at a squat rack or the Smith machine. Strong core strength will dictate your success with squats more than any other single factor!

So, it seems fair to wrap up with suggestions for core training which can be added into your routine as a warm-up. Ten minutes will suffice.


Focus on engaging the quads and glutes while keeping your back free from arching. Contracted and engaged abs is what is meant as the 'drawing-in' maneuver where you think of pulling your navel to the ceiling. When done right, the plank will be challenging so aim for 15-20 second holds to start. There are endless variations on the plank but the main key will be proper alignment regardless of the modification to the move.

Single-leg Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift:

Here it's all about keeping that nice tight core with straight lines while performing; also a great stability-training move. Practice this without weights to begin; can also use DB's as shown. Hold the balance for 2 - 4 seconds before returning to the starting position and beginning again. Note: lower your torso and lift your leg AT THE SAME TIME. Think of it as a pivot move and not 2 separate moves. Don't worry about how low you can go-focus on form and work your way into progressing the range of motion. Imagine that you have a cup of water on your back as you are lowering and you don't want it to spill. This means a nice, flat back as you pivot; no twisting!

Reverse hyper-extension:

This can also be done on a Roman chair, flat bench or incline bench with your head at the bottom of the bench. I personally feel this more for core and glutes when I focus on NOT allowing hyper-extension, or while trying to maintain a straight line through my low back and not going into hyper-extension. Doing the lift slowly with a 2 - 4 second hold in the contracted position will make your glutes scream for mercy! Keep your neck in a straight line and don't allow your body to twist as you lift.

These are just a few examples but they can add a new dimension to your routine, preventing a 'rotten to the core' physical status and instead, promoting 'hard-core! Yeah, baby!

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