Functional Training Zones

Timing is Everything

Joe Heiler MSPT, CSCS

Core training has come a long way over the past 10 years.  Crunches and back hyperextension were once commonplace until researchers like Dr. McGill came along to show us the error of our ways.  No more repetitive flexion and overloading the structures of the spine.  We began to replace our old “core” exercises with more functional choices like side planks, bird dogs, and bridging progressions.  Now anti-flexion and anti-rotation training is all the rage when it comes to the core.

In the clinical setting, we have also come to the realization that increasing strength just for the sake of increasing strength in the abdominals and back musculature is not always desirable.  The work of therapists like Gray Cook, Shirley Sahrmann, and others have shown us that training for a stable spine is the most important goal.  Achieving stability versus strength requires us to look at a couple things that we had not previously given much thought.  Those two things would be muscle timing and disassociation - meaning the ability to move the hips and shoulder girdle independently of the trunk.  

By muscle timing, I mean the order in which certain muscles fire based on the task at hand.  The research of Hodges, Kiesel, and others has shown that the muscles of the inner core (transverse abdominus, pelvis floor, diaphragm, and multifidi) fire in an anticipatory manner just milliseconds before the prime movers in an effort to stabilize the spine at the segmental level.  Most of us aren’t going to be hooking our clients or athletes up to EMG anytime soon so this is a tough one to evaluate. Using a diaphragmatic breathing pattern will be your first clue in the gym.  Checking rolling patterns is another great assessment of inner core function (check out the Primitive Patterns DVD by Gray Cook and Lee Burton for more information).

Beyond inner core function, here are some other common muscle timing issues of the core that will determine the athlete or client’s ability to disassociate the extremities from the trunk.

1. Hip Extension

Can the athlete or client extend the hip without moving through the lumbar spine?  This can be tested in prone or from a four point position.  In prone, you should see the spine remain motionless while the hip extends at least 10 degrees.  From the four point position, can they extend the hip to neutral prior to spine extension?  This is critical for any athlete sprinting or jumping to prevent energy leaks but also to protect the spine with high speed activity.

2. Hip Abduction

Can they abduct the hip without side bending or rotating through the spine?  This can be tested with the patient in side lying with the hip in slight extension and neutral rotation.  The athlete should be able to abduct the hip 45 degrees prior to spine movement.  Mini-band glute activation exercises are very popular now, but is the athlete able to disassociate the hip on a stable core, or are they side bending and rotating through the spine to assist the hip?

3. Hip Flexion

The athlete or client should be able to flex the hip to 90+ degrees without lumbar flexion.  Test seated with the person’s back up against a wall.  Can they flex the hip past 90 degrees without losing their tall posture?  This can also be screened out in the FMS during the hurdle step.  A lack of clean hip flexion will limit squatting ability and alter running mechanics, as well as increase stress to the lumbar spine.

4. Shoulder Flexion

The athlete or client should be able to achieve full shoulder flexion without extension through the lumbar spine.  With the client or athlete supine, will their arms touch the floor behind them while maintaining a neutral spine?  If so then they have sufficient mobility.  Now recheck in standing, do they have the stability?  If not, then any type of overhead work you do could be compromising their spine health.

5. Horizontal Push

The athlete or client should be able to develop force and maintain stability in the spine.   My favorite way to test this is using the Trunk Stability Push Up from the FMS.  The athlete or client attempts to do a push-up with the chest and pelvis leaving the floor simultaneously.  Any lag in the pelvis indicates poor abdominal timing and a lack of stability.

In each of these cases, the inner core muscles must fire first for segmental stabilization, and then the larger outer core muscles (obliques, rectus, paraspinals, QL, ect) to maintain stiffness while the hips and shoulders go through their ranges of motion.   Any of the functional core exercises I mentioned in the beginning are great options for training, but be sure your athletes and clients are engaged and movement is occurring only in the right places.