Part 1 of our discussion on pillar strength described what pillar strength is and why it is so essential. Part 2 will give you the tools to implement pillar training into your programs.
There are a multitude of different templates that an effective training program can be based around (ex. Upper/lower split, pushing/pulling, total body, etc.) and discussing how proper training of the pillar should be implemented into each type is beyond the scope of this article.
However, regardless of your training template, training proper pillar stability and strength can be separated into planes of movement (as discussed in Part 1).
While every plane can be trained in a given session, it is easiest and less time consuming to focus on one at a time. Perhaps training session one has a sagittal plane focus, therefore exercises are based on resisting or moving through/controlling movement in the sagittal plane. These exercises can often be included within the training block of another exercise (often referred to as “supersetting”). For example, an anti-extension exercise such as a body saw or rollout can be placed with an exercise that has the potential to exaggerate lumbar extension, such as a back squat or bench press, due to the strong anterior pelvic tilt that is associated with these lifts. Placing these anti-extension exercises with extension dominant movement’s train the body to buffer these stresses. These exercises can also be incorporated as their own training block within a training program or at the end of a lifting session. The possibilities are endless!
Pillar training should begin by teaching yourself/your athletes how to properly stabilize or maintain neutral spinal positioning despite external forces, before progressing into controlling movement through these planes. After stability in the sagittal plane has been increased, exercises such as hanging leg raises that incorporate controlled, segmental spinal mobility/stability can be incorporated. Be sure to use caution with this aspect of your training programs as loading the spine outside of neutral positioning is never advised, however when training athletes such as gymnasts or overhead athletes, a certain amount of spinal flexion/extension is required and they must be taught to control it. I have found bodyweight exercise variations to be most effective in training these attributes.
*As a side note, I do not train into excessive spinal extension as this is an aggravating position for a high majority of athletes due to the high amounts of spinal compression associated with these positions.
Below are examples of sagittal plane stability and controlled mobility exercises.
Sagittal plane stability:
Plank with upper and/or lower extremity lifts
Plank with hip flexion (using a valslide or TRX)
Anti-extension or anti-flexion cable press
Rollouts (with a barbell or TRX)
Body saws (using a TRX or anything that allows your feet to slide)
Sagittal plane controlled mobility:
Hanging leg raises
Monkey bar hanging leg raises
Curl ups (many variations)
Deadball slams (if you do not have a deadball, use caution when using a med ball-in other words, protect your face)
Turkish Get ups
**I will train thoracic extension in athletes that must work on it, however I do not advise incorporating this into your programming unless you have a great understanding of how to emphasize thoracic, versus lumbar extension. Very commonly, people will compensate for a lack of thoracic extension with lumbar extension, which incorporates more mobility into an area often predisposed to hypermobility, as well as greatly increasing compressive forces at the lumbar spine, while also reinforcing poor motor control patterns (lumbar paraspinal dominance due to using them as prime movers, rather than stabilizers).
While training in the sagittal plane is essential, I usually spend more time working on the frontal and transverse plane. This is due to the dominance of sagittal plane movement within the vast majority of training programs. Exercises that training programs are often based on take place in the sagittal plane. These include to majority of our double leg power/strength movements such as; squats, cleans, deadlifts, bench press, military press, pull-ups, etc. Therefore sagittal plane pillar stability is being trained with each of these lifts, decreasing the volume needed to focus on it.
As discussed earlier, I prefer to begin by training stability (anti-motion) in these planes before progressing to movement within them. As a continuation of Part 1, Frontal plane stability is essential in any activity that is played on one leg (essentially every sport). Running, jumping, kicking and throwing all require movement to take place over one fixed lower extremity, which decreases the base of support and increases the challenge to maintain the pelvis neutral (along with many other attributes). Furthermore many internally or externally generated forces in sport influence the body into a laterally flexed position.
The ability to maintain the spine and pelvis in a neutral position despite these forces, and avoiding a subsequent energy leak can be emphasized in training.
**As a side note: I generally do not train the movement of lateral flexion, as sports do not contain a great deal of lateral flexion. From a rehabilitation standpoint, I will train lateral flexion to promote segmental spinal mobility if a large asymmetry is present, however it does not appear necessary from a training perspective.
Frontal plane stability exercises include:
Farmers walks (with weight placed in 1 hand or asymmetrical weights)
Kettlebell windmills (also incorporates rotation)
Single arm overhead carries
Finally the transverse plane is an area that receives a great deal of attention from both coaches and clinicians. Many prefer to avoid training in this plane due to the inherent risks that come with generating excessive rotatory forces through the spine, while others do not shy away as great amounts of rotation are present in a variety of sports.
Sports such as baseball, tennis, golf and mixed martial arts incorporate high amounts of rotational torque that must be controlled to enhance performance and avoid injury. As mentioned when discussing the sagittal plane, I first train stabilization, followed by controlled mobility. If these athletes cannot stabilize in a plane of movement, it is unrealistic to expect them to efficiently and effectively move through it. Therefore I will train rotational movement and power once the athlete is ready to do so by first developing a base of stabilization.
Below are examples of different types of exercises in the rotational plane. There will be an overlap between rotational movement and rotational power, with the only change being that once the movement pattern is mastered, speed is incorporated into it (making it more sport specific).
Rotational stability exercises:
Chops and lifts (from ½ kneel, tall kneeling , split stance, base stance)
Anti rotation (pallof) press
TRX anti rotation press
Rotational movement exercises:
Rotational chop or lift (from ½ kneel, tall kneeling, split stance, base stance)
Med ball side throw variations
Rotational power exercises:
Rotational chop or lift
Med ball parallel throws
Med ball perpendicular throws (from waist, shoulder height, stepping into it, etc.)
With each approach and/or exercise discussed in this article, the prerequisites of mobility are assumed. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the multitude of mobility deficits that could possibly limit the effectiveness of a given training program. However once a mobility issue is addressed and rectified, training must occur to integrate it into an athlete’s movement patterning.
Many exercises that you are already incorporating into your training programs likely reinforce proper pillar stability. Squatting variations require sagittal plane stability to avoid crumbling under the weight of the barbell, while closed chain single leg exercises require appropriate frontal plane stability to be properly performed. Make sure to take this into account when creating your programs, as to avoid adding an excessive and unnecessary amount of volume.
This article is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of every way the pillar can be trained, rather it should reinforce or alter the ways in which you approach training. Now go get strong and get after it!