July 2, 2010 9 Comments
So often we look to the core for being the magical fix for the lower back. Often, even though many won’t admit it, health care professionals are let down. The core becomes stronger but the pain remains or becomes worse. There are multiple reasons for this (see the post: why core exercises are not fixing your spine). Without going out on an already kinetic tangent, I would like to speak about the obliques, their function, and application in training and sport. One of my favorite topics right now (besides prion research and ipads) is anti-rotation training.
Touching on the basics, regarding the anatomy of the torso, we know the following to be correct:
1. The anterior abdominal wall is designed for flexion but also to act as a spring to prevent damaging compressive forces to the spine.
2. The extensors of the spine are to protect us from heavy anterior shear loads by creating extensor torque.
3. The lateral abdominal wall is designed to resist us from rotating into extreme ranges.
Let have a ponder regarding each section of the torso and what each section is up to. A great start is the anterior abdominal wall. Most text’s state that they are specifically designed to flex the trunk. However, is it the main reason that we have them? If so why would don’t we have large bands of muscle instead of the six pack (if yours is visible)or beaded architecture?
The extensors of the lumbar spine may be divided into two general categories. Ones originating from the thoracic region and those originating from the lumbar region. The lumbar region extensors have a very small lever arm. Therefore, they do not act as primary movers for extension, simply because, they don’t have the power. Instead the act as a support against anterior shear forces by naturally exerting a large posterior shear force.
The obliques are muscles that act to resist movement from side to side and to tie together the protective forces of the front and back. They distribute the anterior posterior force as well as protect. The abdominal fascia, which connect laterally to the appernerosis of all three layers of the abdominal region, also connect to the pectoralis major. Functionally this allows for force during most movement to be transmitted equally through the torso. In addition, one shouldn’t forget the important role of the QL and psoas in relation to the torso during motion.
This is where is gets controversial.
Lets start with the traditional school of thought on the obliques. The traditional thought is that we should train them and make them stronger by rotating, side bending, and using various movements and methods. Traditionally, we have seen several progressions of this over the last 10 years. Starting with holding a plate on the side of the body and flexing up, to supporting the body at 45 degrees and bending up and down (holding onto weight), rotational machines where the person sits and rotates against resistance, the list goes on and on. The common ground to all of these exercises: complete rotational ROM with resistance.
The new school of thought is that, this may be incorrect. The new school is that we should actually be encouraging anti-rotation while still activating the torso and obliques. Anti rotational exercises don’t have to be isometric but many are by nature. We see fending drills, one arm walk outs, lateral chops, diagonal chops, pallovs, locked in med ball throwing, the list goes on and on. The common ground to all of these exercises: limited ROM held in by a strong brace.
Food for Thought
In the body we find areas similar in design to the obliques, in that, fibers running one way and others running the opposite. Look at the image below. You can see that the artist has represented the fibers of the external oblique running in a 45 degree downslope and the fibers of the internal oblique running at a 45 degree upslope.
Where else in the body do we see orientation like this? One area comes to mind immediately, the disc. The annulus is designed in the same manner. Half of the fibers of the disc run at a 45 degree downslope, the other half run at a 45 degree upslope. The reason? One half resists rotation to the right, the other half resists rotation to the left. Being at 45 degrees it essentially acts as a rotational shock absorber.
So whats up with this 45 degree orientation? Now I don’t have a degree in physics but it seems that the forty-five degree angle is the perfect angle for both generating and resisting a force in perhaps equal harmony. Research is showing that side to side twisting (generating a force towards or away from center) is not as damaging to the spine as previously thought; in regards to disc herniation. However, the research also shows that such movements will slowly remove the layers of the annulus (de-lamination) over time and repetition. Therefore, the question must be asked: “why would we evolve muscles that would cause damage to the body?” The answer is “we didn’t”. What has happened is mythology and weight room scientists have evolved in their psuedo-understanding at a much faster rate than our true understanding of the body’s architecture and function. The result is “fantastic” new exercises that “hit” the muscle to give it a great “burn”… or something like that. The truth is we can train the muscle with as much mean and peak activation (if not more) by using anti-rotational holds and movements.
The truth is the core is made to protect the spine. Those five lumbar vertebra are small and if you have had the pleasure of working on cadavers you can appreciate the amount of stress they go through on a daily basis. Working one area of the core is about as smart as changing one shock absorber on your car. They are made to work together as a unit and not only within the core itself but more importantly in sync with the upper and lower quarter. Moreover, for sport and life the abdominal region needs to be well defined in speed, reaction, and endurance (more than strength).
My Favorite Anti-Rotation Complex
The AC-130: This is an exercise I started using for rehabilitation, but advanced to a higher level of activation. The victim kneels on the ground, holding onto a resistance band. They are instructed to brace (all muscles) and resist movement from all directions and amplitudes over a 130 degree arc. Major faults to look for is an unlocking of the hips from the shoulders, breaking from the hips, shrugging of the shoulders, and poking of the chin. Try by holding for :20 seconds in multiple directions for 5 sets.
The Walk-Out (Fending): I originally heard about this exercise from McGill and JC Santana (these guys are like rockstars to me and I have massive respect for their knowledge and passion). The victim holds a cable handle in one hand and walks away from the cable machine. The individual may keep the arm in position close or far from the body, the distance determine the lever arm. The longer the lever arm the more difficult the exercise. Major faults are unlocking the hips from the shoulders, breaking at the hips, rounding the shoulders, poking out the chin/head. Try 8-10 walkouts per side.
AR Window Wipers: This is a modification to the fending drill. The victim walks out in the same manner as the fending drill but stabilizes at the end (pulling the “floor apart” with the feet to encourage hip activation) and then makes the motion of wiping a window. Again, the further away from the body the hand goes, the more difficult the exercise becomes. Major faults are unlocking the hips from the shoulders, breaking at the hips, rounding the shoulders, poking out the chin/head. Try 2-3 walk outs per side with 5-8 window wipe reps on each walkout. 2-3 sets
Med-Ball Quick Rotaries: This was an exercise I remember doing years ago but never had a good reason besides getting the heart rate up, my how times change. The victim holds a medball in front slightly below shoulder height and performs short amplitude, high velocity rotations left and right. Think of your electric toothbrush when doing this. Major faults are unlocking the hips from the shoulders, breaking at the hips, rounding the shoulders, poking out the chin/head. Try by keeping up the rhythmic motion for :20 seconds for 3-5 sets.
AC Pillar Response: This exercise takes the shoulder bridge and turns it into a anti-rotational exercise. The victim holds their body up in a press up position with the hands close together, feet shoulder with (or more) apart. The person quickly touches their hand to the opposite shoulder. Gravity attempts to pull the side, no longer in contact with the ground, into rotation; a strong brace will extinguish this from happening. Make this more difficult by elevating the feet and/or bringing the feet closer together. Try by completing 10 touches (less than 10-15 seconds), 5-8 sets.
In My Thoughts
Thinking of the core as a unit that helps stabilize and protect the spine is important when training the core. I know this is an overly obvious and repeated statement but it makes me ponder the mechanism of action regarding the muscles of the torso during a protective bout. Let me explain for a moment. If the core is made to protect (from an intelligent design point of view), then the muscles would be resisting forces in an isometric or eccentric manner. Example: opening a door exerts a rotational force on the torso/spine, therefore, to open the door and protect my spine I must resist this rotation either through an isometric or eccentric action. Thus, I want to train these muscles in an isometric or eccentric manner. However, they are also ment to be dynamic. This means that I want to train them for speed as well. Lastley, they are made to hold up all through the day, therefore, I must train them in a manner of endurance.
Confused yet? Well, we are always learning. Remember the quote: “be skeptic of those who have found the truth and be confident in those seeking the truth.”