This post was inspired fully by Mike Robertson’s awesome article published a few weeks ago titled: Should We Train The Rectus Abdominus. I strongly recommend you click on that link above and read that article. Mike Robertson has been a huge influence on me and when he says something crazy, there is usually something behind it.
In his article above he discusses a couple of the finer points of the neutral spine. I too have been using the chest-up cue for the entire time I’ve been training clients. It’s a simple cue to help people understand how to keep their thoracic spine extended rather than flexed during various exercises. As a matter of fact, I cue neutral spine for pretty much ALL free weight exercises. I’m fully aware that there are various body positions, where having a rounded back won’t injure you, or cause a decrease in performance (such as supported rows). I still think that if you’re going to teach neutral spine, you may as well have clients using that spine position as often as possible to groove the pattern.
The main point of Mike’s article is that yes, the thoracic spine needs to remain extended, however, your rib cage should not be flaring out. Mike touched a little bit on cueing to eliminate rib flare. Dr. Stuart McGill would tell you to lock the rib cage onto the pelvis during training of the core musculature. They are the same thing. In this article, I want to go over a few exercises I’ve been using with my clients to help them lock their rib cages to their pelvis statically and in the presence of movement. You can begin remedial training, by showing them how to depress their rib cage without movement first.
As you can see in the above pic, the ribs are flared out and visible. The chest is puffed out, and the lumbar spine would be considered extended. We don’t want hyperextension though. We want neutral, or a natural lordosis. In order to do that from the standing position, you can simply tell your client or athlete to depress (move their rib cage down) the front of their rib cage. When you depress your rib cage, you should be able to feel your rectus abdominus contract isometrically. You should be holding this contraction.
This drill of locking the pelvis to the rib cage can be taught in standing position or in supine. Simply, lie on your back, puff your chest out as much as possible, and then depress your rib cage. Hold it for a few seconds then go back to puffing your chest out.
There are a few more exercises that I really like once you learn to keep the ribs depressed. I like the McGill curl-up. Fast forward to around the 3:00 minute mark of this video to see Stuart McGill himself demonstrate the proper form for this exercise:
A few additional points I like to make on this exercise is to get the client to think about locking that rib cage onto the pelvis as they slightly move their head and shoulder’s off the ground. This teaches them the proper feel of that position and strengthens the rectus abdominus without causing injury to the lumbar spine.
The RKC plank is another amazing exercise that I love. It was invented by Pavel Tsatsouline, the creator of the Russian Kettlebell Challenge. The RKC plank at it’s core appears to be a simple plank. However the numerous cues added to this exercise change it substantially. The video below is excellent for learning how to perform this exercise properly.
With this exercise, you should be trembling almost immediately. You’re entire body creates tension, which means you only need to perform this exercise for about 10 seconds. I feel this exercise teaches you a form super-stiffness. Which is a term that Stuart McGill uses often to describe a state in which your entire core is stiff and allows for the proper transfer of energy through the core. Make sure when you are performing the RKC plank that you again are concentrating on keeping the rib cage locked onto the pelvis. I’ve tried doing this exercise without concentrating on keeping your ribs depressed and their is a noticeable difference. When you lock your rib cage onto your pelvis, you can feel your abdominals contracting like crazy and they will get sore (if you like that kind of stuff… Which we all know you are)
Another exercise I like that is super simple is the quadruped rock-back. Here is a video of the exercise being performed:
This isn’t a hard exercise by any standards. It’s meant to teach you a few things. For the most part, it’s to teach you to pull your hips into flexion using your hip flexors while maintaining a neutral spine. Again, you can focus on depressing your rib cage as much as possible during this exercise. The trick is to maintain a neutral spine while pulling your hips back. It’s very hard to “feel” when you lose your lumbar curve in my opinion. This is why I like to use a water bottle or foam roll to give you automatic feedback. Simple put it on your lumbar spine, and don’t let it roll off, also try to not let it move around on your spine while you perform the exercise.
So there you have it folks. A few more cues and exercises to add into your arsenal to help strengthen your core, and make yourself an overall stronger, faster and better athlete. Whenever I lift heavy weights, I use this technique. It’s become natural to me over all the years of practice. This is what you want to happen eventually. It may seem trivial at first, but if you keep concentrating on keeping a proper neutral spine over long periods of time, your strength will increase, you will be able to push more weight, and you’ll reduce your chances of injury. More time pushing heavier weights and staying injury free leads to more muscle and more playing time!