I realize that by putting “twerking” in the title of this post, I am guilty of a shameless marketing tactic (thanks Miley!), but once you watch the videos, and see my explanation, I think you will agree with me on how appropriate it is to call the exercise I am showcasing “Rib Twerking”.
This post has to do with positioning and alignment of the core NOT twerking your booty around, though I must add that there are definite connections. What I will talk about today is connecting ribs down, abs on and bracing the core. Hence rib twerking. Sorry if you were hoping for something else.
I started off this post to showcase one of the best little exercises I found to teach “bracing” and develop core strength and proper alignment; ribs, abs, low back, pelvis, etc. But alas, the topic is vast! I would appreciate if you read to the end and understand that this post is but a fraction of the discussion that is movement and alignment. But I at least wanted to get this out there sooner rather than later especially after months of shelving it, experimenting and more reading. It is useful as it is, though not nearly as thorough as I would like.
The name came to me as a joke during a recent Craig Liebenson (from LA Sports and Spine), seminar for the trainers at my gym. And then I hit on the idea to put it out there in the world to help people grasp the idea of core alignment especially as it relates to lifting since we all can visualize what twerking is, applying it here will also aid in getting this concept across. I think. I hope? In case this is an area of discussion that I think needs more exposure especially given the common cues for teaching set up in lifts, specifically squats and deads.
In case you are living under a rock and don’t know what twerking is, please watch this excellent tutorial.
This is the most awesome twerk vid ever. Pretty R rated, but you gotta respect the mechanics.
And…….please stay safe.
Let’s transfer that concept one step up, to the ribs.
What I am about to show you is thanks to Craig teaching me this exercise, reading more and more about postural alignment, biomechanics, loading the body and the cleaning-up of my thought processes about how to teach the idea of core strength and build good movement or fix shitty movement problems. It is also the result of much frustration with certain movement and alignment issues I encounter with clients, other lifters, and myself along with the constant challenge of developing stability and mobility in the right areas in the quest to build a strong body.
At the core of this is the core (pun!). That bridge between upper and lower. That complicated orchestra of muscles working together or against eachother and encasing the most valuable part of our skeleton; the spine.
Before we delve into the specifics, here is something to think about.
Load is not weight. Load is how your body adapts to carrying the weight. So someone with good alignment can squat 100 lbs and experience an adaptation in their butt and legs, and another person can squat 100lbs and experience an adaptation in their hip flexors and low back muscles (very simplistic example). This is because of how we load our body! You want to load the muscles and joints properly to develop the qualities of strength, power, speed, mobility etc. A lot of pain and what “dysfunctional” movement can be a result of improper loading for your body and structure.
We need to bridge theory and application.
I have written about posture and breathing before, and how vital it is for understanding how to get the most out of your hips, leg/hip/glute drive, keep your back safe and transfer force aka lift, sprint, flip whatever.
*Disclaimer: Gonna use the word core as a blanket term for the torso musculature.
The core is the “bridge” between upper limbs and lower limbs and their muscles. You cannot lift powerfully, safely or effectively without understanding the role of the core. Are you loading your body in the best way possible for YOUR structure? Is that “bridge” transferring power from your hips? Are you hips able to work powerfully? Do you experience regular low back pain, anterior hip pain, SI joint pain, low back tightness or immobility?
Where do we want the most movement for big lifts? Hips and shoulders. The big ball and socket joints. Where do we want stability? The spine. Stability does not mean immobility fyi. Your spine is meant to move. So don’t mistake that please. Its healthier for it to move in certain ways, with the correct support from your muscles.
Now when twerking at the club you like that back arch, that rib flare and that loosey-goosey midsection….because hey you got to know how to pop it out. But when lifting we don’t like a hyperextended back, loose abs and spinal shear. We want to transfer FORCE! And for that we need a solid bridge, not a suspension one. Its just a different functionality needed. Both forms of function are useful, (lifter+twerker=the ultimate woman?)
But what happens when we are often cued to have an upright chest? We pop the ribs out instead, creating shear on the spine and displacing our torso over our hips, so that our force transfer gets screwy and abs do not stabilize well. Especially when we then go plop weight on top of ourselves ( like in a back squat or overhead press, or handstand). We want the chest to stay tall WITHOUT our spine wiggling around when lifting. This change in positioning is often hard and feels different because:
1.) We have not developed core strength properly in such a way that transfers to good alignment while lifting (aka functional?)
2.) We are tight in the shoulders and hips but loose in the core (so mobility is created in the spine, not the hips or shoulders where it should go)
3.) We don’t have the right “feel” for a solid core DURING a lift (this often has to do with intermuscular coordination rather than “weakness” per se). I often see people do plenty of “core” exercises that are proper, and even good, but since their alignment is off, they are not doing much good and just compound their issues! They also don’t understand the role of the abs. As Pavel said ”Most people do not realize that having muscle is not the same thing as being strong. If that was the case, weightlifting competition would end at the weighin and bodybuilders would collect all the trophies.” Some people have visible abs, or a good physique, but are experiencing pain or injury and can’t move in certain ways.
Here is an example of the positioning (slightly exagerrated) in which I started my lifting because I wanted to “keep my chest out and my ass out”. Again, this is not everyone! It was over the top in me, because I am hypermobile, but I see it enough that it is an issue for sure. I would also say a bit more in women, then men, because we generally start out “looser” in the joints to begin with. Remember flexibility and mobility are also not the same thing. We want to focus on mobility. The ability to move well for your body and capabilities. This essentially was the position I started squats and deadlifts in. This pic was taken on the floor, and I flipped it for illustrative purposes. Can you envision where the load was going? Alignment has a lot to do with structure, and everyone’s structure is different. So you might have two people doing the same thing visually, with drastically different load effects. Which is why there is no such thing as “perfect form”. So while reading this, please bear in mind that there is no blanket statement for what a movement should look like. But you can teach certain principles like ab bracing, etc, even though the finished form will look different. That is why you need to pay attention to 1.) individual variances 2.) individual responses (where do they feel it? where do we experience muscle hypertrophy? tightness? pain? etc)
Here are a couple more visual examples of my old alignment. Can you see the shitty spine position I am encouraging through the “chest out, ass out” common cue I followed religiously? Believe me, I had/have heard plenty of lifters and experienced coaches talk about bracing the abs, using the abs, etc. Everyone “knows” what they should do, but there is a disconnect in GETTING IT during movement and with clients. And I have seen this frustration repeated, even in those that have lifted for awhile. I also had had people watch me lift, who never were able to pick out certain things I did that were putting me way out of alignment. In hindsight it seems pretty obvious, but its not unless you practice looking, study bone and joint structure and THEN understand how the muscles act on them. Bones first IMO.
These pics are between 1-1.5 years old. The ones in the pink hat are from my first semester taking an Oly lifting class (was not useful to me), and the squatting ones are older than that when I was following Starting Strength and first started lifting.
Breathing and posture exercises were a turning point in my personal training! It opened up understanding for me about how we transfer force through the body, how we load joints and muscles (or not) and how vital it is to good movement. It also helped me understand how I was able to move weight “hanging out on my joints”, but this is why I kept running into the same nagging issues! It is also an area I think a lot of coaches and trainers are missing out on.
I will mention here that hypermobility is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I can put my flexibility to BETTER use now that I understand how to position my joints and bones well and support them with my muscles. Once I was made aware using my muscles properly through better alignment, my muscles could take the load. Not everyone will need to get so particular, because they don’t have the same issues, but the underlying principle remains the same.
Can you see all the movement going on in my core in the first pics? That is just a sample. Sometimes it is very subtle! Get good at watching the human body move if you are a trainer, or if you are training for yourself, pay attention to what you feel, what nagging issues crop up. Just pay attention. If you are a trainer, get familiar with anatomy and biomechanics. You need to be able to visualize the body as a whole in movement, and then hone in on what needs work, and HOW to get what you are envisioning for someone movement-wise. Do your homework.
I guarantee that quality breathing and bracing exercises will transform your workouts, make you feel it in the right muscles better and give you a new appreciation for how force is transferred. You will also literally stand taller. As a bonus, deep and proper breathing reduces stress (meditation anyone?), gives our body more oxygen (guess what keeps us alive and muscles contracting happily?) and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (that stress reduction again).
In understanding the function of the abs and core, we often wonder why we “shouldn’t crunch”. Pavel explains that “The primary function of the abs is not to pull your ribcage and your pelvis together—unless you are a crunch junkie or you chop firewood for a living—but to provide a stable platform for other muscles to pull from. For instance, tensed abdominals balance the pull of the psoas on the spine—thus maintaining its normal curve.” This FEELS different for people that are used to sucking the abs in or crunching for a “burn”. Tell them that! A different feeling is a scary thing for someone who either does not know how to use their body, OR has been “feeling” something different for a long time (like in more experienced lifters having problems).
I have played around with teaching people correct bracing and pulling in as opposed to “tucking” in or “sucking in” that most people are stuck on for ab or glute “activation”. This puts their spine in a unnatural position and does not allow the muscles TO ACT in the ways they were meant to mechanically. Tony Gentilcore beat me to the punch on T-Nation with his article “Lift Big by Bracing, Not Arching”. Please read it as well. I didn’t finish this article in time, and my creative approach is slightly different, but this is an area of so-called “proper form advice” that was really bugging me, so I am glad he addressed it as a well-known trainer and writer. Elsbeth Vaino, another coach, just linked this article on the thread on my FB wall, that is another good read about abdominal exercises and common myths titled Core Issues by John Paul Catanzano “Abdominal & lower back guru Dr. Stuart McGill recommends that you brace the abdominals — as if you’re about to accept a punch — but don’t suck ‘em in if you want spinal stability. And after adopting this method with my own clients: no more complaints and performance started to improve. Louie Simmons and Dave Tate of Westside Barbell (these guys are renowned for producing world-caliber strength athletes) have stated numerous times that if you want to increase core stability, do the opposite — push out your gut! “
Yes! The difference is huge in feeling. I tell my clients to save their vanity for later, but to not suck in the gut when lifting. Inevitably they can brace correctly, and be more successful in all lifts.
What Tony says about cueing good posture and extension in the lifts, echoes my own thought-processes though I am not nearly as experienced; “Moreover, when referring to trainees who exhibit poor hip or ankle mobility and would otherwise default into spinal flexion, it’s not uncommon for them to be coached to excessively arch in an effort to keep them in “neutral.” While this train of thought isn’t wrong, it’s far from ideal. Something that’s made me reexamine how I go about training my athletes over the past year is a concept that physical therapist, Mike Reinold, brought up.”
Cue Joy as exhibit A.
He goes on to say (please just read the article too) “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who complain that the front of their hip always feels “tight,” and as such, conventional wisdom kicks in and dictates they should constantly stretch that area. Most will end up stretching while in anterior pelvic tilt (misalignment), which forces the femoral head to glide anteriorly (femoral glide syndrome), thereby causing “protective tension,” which then just feeds into the issue more, causing the cycle to repeat.” This is extremely common. In fact, I would put it down as one of my top 3 “issues” with clients or colleagues who are lifters, have lifted, have experience lifting, or start lifting. So….a lot of people.
Tony calls this “encouraging misalignment” and I couldn’t agree more! In fact, this conundrum I faced between “good form” and pain/tightness resulting from it, made me examine what I was assuming was correct in terms of form, alignment and force transfer. I have the good fortune of being on the more extreme end of “looseness” as well. More needs to be said on the debate of “good form” and a lot of the presumptions as we ride on as trainers, but I will leave that for now. Alright, last quote from Tony, but please go read his article. I can’t stress it enough.
As a disclaimer; “Listen, before someone chimes in and accuses me of being soft, I realize that lifting heavy things isn’t going to look pretty 100% of the time. As a coach I don’t start to hyperventilate into a brown paper bag every time someone happens to round his or her back or excessively arches into hyperextension. I will say, though, that a large part of my job is to help keep my athletes healthy for the long haul, and while an aggressive arch isn’t the end of the world – and has helped many people lift ridiculous amounts of weight – it’s certainly not the healthiest thing for your spine long-term. Besides, the safer way may also be the more efficient way.” I quote him cause that is exactly what I say as well, but since I already smeared him all over this article, if I wrote something “so similar” it might look like plagirism.
What exercise have I found most useful for teaching this alignment?
The Rib Twerk – I named it that. But the exercise is Craig Liebenson’s. Pavel Tsatouline shows it as well, though not on a foam roller.
Here is Craig Liebenson demonstrating this exercise. This, along with Crocodile breathing, is hands down the best breathing drill I have used so far to teach clients to brace, “pull” the ribs down (not in), turn on the anterior abs, and get across the concept of “core strength”, as well as get them on their way to deep and healthy breathing. Takes a few minutes to watch, but its worth it. Go to 2.50 and onward to see the exercise on the foam roller aka Rib Twerks that I am talking about, but preferably watch the whole thing. This WILL change your life.
Pavel Tsatouline demonstrates the Janda situp in his book Bulletproof Abs, which is the same concept of turning on the abs while minimizing the work of the hip flexors, and Craig talked about where this alignment talk came from initally (Professor Janda). I got a wonderful “aha” moment practicing the janda situp awhile ago, but to be fair there is a big of confusion about this exercise. For my part I have had good success using this with certain clients, who feel a strong and complete ab contraction everywhere. The janda sit up purportedly works by eliminating the hip flexors from the sit-up movement by tensing its antagonists – the hamstrings and glutes. But Prof. Stuart McGill proved through EMG that the Janda does not “turn off” the psoas muscles, but in fact makes them contract even harder. Given this controversy, Craig Liebenson offered this insight, which I am including here for anyone trying the exercise. He commented: “Prof. Janda & Prof. McGill discussed this face to face in Buffalo, NY in 1999. Pr Janda’s sit up has been mis-understood by many including Pavel Tsatsouline who in a very humble way asked me about his intrepretation. Many thought he was advocating pulling the heels towards the buttocks, but actually he was advocating that the heels be pushed down to the floor.” – Craig Liebenson
Here is me when I first started practicing it.
Check out Tony Gentilcore’s excellent cues and examples for the same concept here: Lift Big By Bracing, Not Arching
What do we want when lifting weights? We want alignment for force transfer through the muscles and joints! In general we all want alignment that is right for our bodies, once we get that we can develop the other athletic qualities we desire more effectively. Strength, power, mobility, etc. And proper alignment is efficient! Proper alignment feels right.
Ask yourself these questions when doing it to get additional insight into your personal alignment issues:
1. Do I tilt my hips up no matter what > Hip flexors might be over-active, weak glutes, weak anterior abs, “breathing” with the flexors.
2. Do my shoulders curve forward? > Tight pecs, thoracic hypomobility, very common in men, especially when muscle-bound in the upper body.
3. Does my chin pop up and do I feel tight and uncomfortable in my neck? > See above, and tight scalenes, shallow neck breathing, weak diaphraghmatic breathing. This exercise will help release that tightness, so you can open up movement in the upper back (thoracic) and create better tension in the abs, and possibly a better looking chest?
4. Short and shallow breaths, feel like you are choking on the way out? > You suck at deep breathing. Keep at it. Your stress levels will thank you also!
Last tip. Take your time practicing breathing drills like this. I have found with my clients that it’s not until about the 3rd or 4th deep breath that they ACTUALLY start breathing deep and getting that big inhale and exhale and strong ab tension. Don’t rush it. And consider breathing drills, and anterior core work a staple of your training.
Read: Pavel Tsatouline’s Bulletproof Abs. Short, sweet and mindblowing. And will get you corrugated abdominals COMRADE!
Read: Trouble With the Tilt; Correcting APT by Elsbeth Vaino (brilliant, brilliant read, and related). In fact if you have had a lot of APT problems, SI joint pain etc, PLEASE READ THIS. I came to many of the same conclusion Elsbeth did in regards to the “fixing APT” debate, and use the same exercises. Was thrilled when she published this somewhat controversial approach. What she writes her is highly related to the discussion above, and she also has great videos showing the exercises she uses. I have a lot of commentary to add to the discussion of APT, but again, will have to hold off for this post.
Read: This PDF by Craig Liebenson The Core as a Punctum Fixum in Sport: A Key to Making Movement Patterns More Efficient
And remember, “Motor control research demonstrates that there is not one way of moving: interpersonal and intrapersonal examinations. We move different each time, no matter how simple the movement. Different people move differently, sometimes drastically”. — Eric Kruger