A Case for Spinal Flexion In Core Training

Spinal Flexion

A Case for Spinal Flexion In Core Training

In the training world, fads come and go quickly. (See the shake weight and any other infomercial on TV promising a Greek god-like physique in 20 mins twice a week). Similarly, new concepts and schools of thought develop and fade as the pendulum of thought swings to the extreme and ends up settling back somewhere in the middle over time. One of those schools of thought is Functional Training. As with all things, there is good and there is bad. My job as a coach is to wade through the quagmire and find what’s worth keeping and discard that which won’t help us.

One thing that functional training harps on is the concept of neutral spine and core stability. I want to say in advance that I love both concepts, but much like the pendulum, it can swing to the extreme if unchecked.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to dive into the concepts of core stability and spinal flexion for abdominal training; at the end of which, I hope to have made a case for a degree of spinal flexion when training the abdominal musculature. Will it get “sciency?” It could a bit, but I am writing this with the hope that my grandmother could read it and understand, so hopefully, you will be able to as well.

To get the ball rolling, I will define some of these terms for you as we begin our trip together.

  • Neutral Spine: maintenance of the natural lumbar and thoracic curvature of the spine without excess extension or flexion
  • Core: commonly thought of as four abdominal muscle groups (rectus abdominus, internal and external oblique and transverse abdominus; IN SHORT, MOST PEOPLE THINK SIX PACK)

Abs and Hips

In reality it is much more. Dr. Shirley Sahrmann (who is a stud BTW) says, in Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, that the role of the core is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk which, as discussed, is limited in the lumbar spine. Any muscle that is possibly involved in maintaining neutral spine is therefore a core muscle. Envision holding a heavy weight in your right hand. Naturally your body will want to dip towards the right as the weight pulls you down. Opposing that force will be the muscle of my trunk on the opposite side, as well as the legs and hips, and even those in my lower legs and feet. (There is no such thing as an exercise that works only one muscle group.)

  • Flexion: forward bending of the spine
  • Extension: backwards bending of the spine
  • Lateral flexion: the muscles of the spine working in different amounts to create side bending

Now that we have a few definitions to work with we can go forward with talking about the best ways to train the “core”.

Functional Training and Core Stability

There is no doubt that our core musculature must help us maintain stability of the spine. Without such action, our favorite (well, my favorite?) heavy movements like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses would not be possible.

I often tout the benefits of bracing your core to maintain stability and create an easy transfer of power as we prepare for our big movements. (Taking that deep breath before we squat and deadlift, locking your abs in place like you are about to get punched all help us create core stability)

So here the functional crowd has a leg to stand on with their claim that core musculature is designed to keep the spine in line when we move. Make no mistake, these movements are extremely applicable to daily life (hence the term functional) We are constantly going up and down stairs, in and out of cars, sitting in chairs and on the toilet (all squatting patterns); picking up groceries, our children, nieces and nephews, or heavy boxes and bags (all deadlifting type movements); putting things up on shelves or hangers, changing lights, etc. (all overhead pressing motions)

Anyone who has ever hurt their back helping a friend move something or working around their house can appreciate the need for core stability and strength. We do lots of things in here to help build that foundation on a daily basis. Our main lifts are obvious ones, but we go further. Planks and all the variations of the former are specifically designed to strengthen core stability. Using the AB wheel helps us resist extension and strengthen the core musculature; anti-extensions and body saws in the straps do the same.

As you can see we are no strangers to core stability here in the gym. It is a fundamental need for all my clients to establish and maintain, and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t remind someone to “keep their core tight” on a main lift. (Just the other day I had a woman improve her squat weight just by bracing the core, nothing else)

However, much like the pendulum of thought I mentioned earlier, some in the functional crowd will claim that this is the only thing that should be done when training the core. Is this the end all, be all for core training? In some minds, yes. In my mind, no.

In part 2, I am going to dive into spinal flexion and how it can benefit us both from a performance standpoint as well as an aesthetic standpoint. As always, I love to hear your feedback, both online and in person when you come in to see me. Let me know what you think and keep an eye out for part 2.



About the Author: Marshall Ray

Marshall Ray is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Level 2 Poliquin International Certified Strength Coach (PICP), Biosignature Practitioner and a certified Precision Nutrition Coach (Pn1). He is the founder of Faster Fitness and co-founder of Femme Fit. He's passionate about building a community of people who love fitness and taking control of their health.