As a personal trainer, the toughest part of my job is formulating a workout program to allow my clients to achieve the goals they want to reach. Weight loss, muscle gain, performance, a better looking body. These are all the results that people have requested to me on what feels like an everyday basis. This is great and all, but in order to get to these goals, there’s something missing in 99.9% of these people. And the missing link to the equation is always strength.
- Can’t have adequate weight loss without developing our strength levels.
- Can’t gain muscle without lifting some heavy ass weight!
- Can’t become a better athlete without being able to develop and transfer power, which comes from strength and the velocity at which a force is produced.
- Can’t develop a nice body without doing anything. 6 hours of television a day just isn’t going to cut it!
As you can see from the bullet points, everything always comes back to strength.
Now the question becomes, how do we develop strength? Simple! Compound exercises like the squat and deadlift develop strength and mass like no others.
“But wait, I’ve never done either of these before.”
Don’t worry, I’m well aware. We’re still quite some time away from performing either of these with a weight load. So…if strength comes from total body exercises, and we aren’t ready to perform these exercises, what do we do?
As I’ve stated before, we have to build from the ground up! Figuratively and literally. You can’t build the tallest building in the world without a stable base. Same guidelines go for our body, we aren’t going to squat 225 properly for reps when we can’t even do a bodyweight squat correctly.
Whenever I train a new client, the majority of the workout comes from a variety of exercises on the floor. I do this because I want them to get a feel for proper spine alignment for the different lifts that will be performed in the future. In order to get this feel, I provide cues which give them an understanding as to why rib positioning and core stability are crucial for keeping the lower back healthy. This is why, in my opinion, mastering the movement patterns we perform on the floor are the first step in the right direction to reaching our goals in the gym.
With everything becoming all “functional” in the fitness industry, physioballs, BOSU balls, tubing, resistance bands, and all other equipment seen in gyms today have taken over the spotlight. Sure, this stuff is nice and all, but you can’t get to the 3rd floor of a building without entering through the lobby. The first thing we must do is regress every exercise back to its most basic version and master it, before we even think of progressing it. It has been said plenty of times in the fitness business, “the right regression is the best progression”. What this means is, we’ll get a much greater benefit from mastering an “easier”* version of the exercise rather than butchering the tougher variation presented.
*I put easier in quotations because regardless of the exercise, if you’re doing it properly with enough weight, it’s going to kick your ass!
So, in order to develop a stable structure for our building, the first thing I hammer with my clients is the plank. Core stability is going to be a huge factor on hip mobility and overall quality of the lower back. I can’t tell you how many people’s lower backs are killing them simply because anterior core strength is non-existant. This effects our posture, causing an extended posture of the spine (anterior pelvic tilt) which prevents the muscles of the lower back from truly ever relaxing. Just by cleaning up this one issue, we can naturally clean up this lordotic posture in order to keep that lumbar spine from screaming at us every time we pick something up.
The reason I love the plank is because it is an isometric muscle contraction. What this means is, the muscle being worked contracts without lengthening (eccentric contraction) or shortening (concentric contraction). The total body tension we create in the plank carries over to every other exercise we execute.
Just think about it, would you rather have muscles that are nice and relaxed or firing as hard as they can with 500 pounds on your back performing a squat? Easy answer, fire those muscles as hard as possible to prevent yourself from collapsing under the weight. That doesn’t sound too pleasant now does it?
(First time speaking in front of camera, don’t judge!)
Just breaking it down a little further, we must make sure our ribs do not “flare up” as we bring our hands overhead. If this does occur, it tells me that the anterior core is not properly firing to keep an ideal rib position. This causes us to perform in an extended posture where the muscles of the lumbar spine are basically always “turned on”. Because these muscles don’t know what it feels like to be fully relaxed, they eventually fatigue, causing one of the possibilities of lower back pain.
Along with keeping the ribs down as we set up, the other cues I give during the plank are…
- Set up the hands in a prayer position directly below the nose.
- Create a double chin to keep our cervical spine in a neutral position.
- Brace the core as hard as you can, imagine a punch is being thrown at your stomach and you want to avoid getting the air knocked out of you.
- Walk one leg out at a time, making sure the glutes and hamstrings are as tight as they can possibly get.
- Take nice deep breaths in through the belly rather than the chest to keep our spine in alignment.
- Ribs must stay down!!!! This is the biggest thing people have a tough time grasping, it just takes time and getting comfortable with the way your body works.
I make sure the plank is a part of all of my client’s programs. I tend to use it as a warmup exercise, simply to get those muscles firing before we get into more complex movements. I usually assign it as the first thing we do on the day. An example of this would be…
A1) Plank 4 x 10 – 15 breaths
A2) Miniband Walk 4 x 20 yards
A3) Glute Bridge w/ Foam Roller 4 x 10 – 12 reps
So there you have it, that’s the gist of how I create the ground level floor with all of my clients to building their skyscraper. As I constantly stress, there is nothing more important than developing a functional, strong, foundation when it comes to working out. Give the plank a shot and start to understand why it is so important!