This is the second part of understanding a fundamental skill in strength and conditioning. The first part is what the core is. You can read the full piece here, or the brief summary is right below.
The core in 5 bullets
The core is a catch-all term we use without much precision. And often, we think we are referring to the area around our abs or something along our midsection. Which is fine - the focus on our trunk or midsection is ideal. Let's call it the pillar instead because core could mean something else (depending on the movement).
- The core's function is to keep your back safe. And to transmit power efficiently.
- The more efficient it is, the better. Else, you are wasting energy creating power but that's dissipating. Think of the power lines that bring electricity to your home.
- Pillar is a better term than the core. The pillar is a 6-sided box. Our pillar is 360 degrees - think of wearing a corset. Plus the bottom. And the top that we are ignoring (for now).
- The limbs move. The pillar provides a stable pathway for the energy to move.
- Think of straps running down vertically and diagonally, from shoulder to hip, all around. Tighten the straps (like a backpack strap being tightened, so that the backpack does not jostle) and hold them there and lift/move.
That's good enough to start. When you lift heavy enough, you will outgrow part of this definition, and add more layers.
Metaphor: A Car Tyre
When your car tyre is flat, there's a leak somewhere. That's why it has gone flat. When you plug the hole and then pump air into it, it fills up nicely and the shape is restored and it feels solid and firm. The ride quality is restored. If you persist in driving around with a flat tyre
- You are damaging the wheel components, the axle and whatever else.
- You cannot drive fast.
- You are in danger of ruining the car over the long term.
- The time and money the car is going to spend in the repair shop is increasing the more you use it.
Likewise, when you do not engage your pillar properly and do not practice breathing and bracing, what do you think happens when you try to lift heavy?
Most people get frustrated by a lack of progress, after the initial phase of lifting. You cannot lift heavier because your pillar cannot support it. Just like trying to drive fast with a flat tyre, you either cannot, or you are going to injure yourself.
Likewise, you cannot perform ballistics i.e. explosive movements. You cannot sprint fast, or throw or jump. Or again, you are inviting injury.
The muscles of our pillar are the rubber of the car tyre.
The air that we fill up at pressure is the air that we inhale and exhale to brace.
Just the muscles alone do not have to do the job. They can but when you add the two components together, you are capable of a lot more.
Tying the pillar together with skill and technique is a journey that you will be on for a long time. Adding in the breathing and bracing as well is a skill you will continue to improve on. And slowly, you will keep improving how much weight you lift (the simplest way to explain output - you might want to run faster, jump higher etc - all are built on the same principle).
The top of the box
We neglected the top of the box.
How we breathe in is the top of the box. We should be breathing in (almost always) with our noses.
We should be breathing in while our muscles of the pillar are braced. But that might take a while.
We use a muscle called the diaphragm to breathe. Or rather, we should. Most of us have stiff necks because we breathe shallow and use the wrong muscles to breathe.
Lie face down, and breathe so that your belly pushes into the floor. And slowly feel your pillar expand all-around, rather than just into the floor.
That's about it. More here at the start just confuses.
Brace for a punch
Stand up. Poke your bum. Yes, really. Feels squishy, right?
Now, squeeze your glutes as hard as you can. Harder. Now, poke your bum. Solid and firm!
The car tyre when the air is not full or at proper pressure has a lot more give. It is squishy. But when you fill it up, it feels solid. Most of us give the car tyre a kick after filling it up, right?
The full tyre. The solid butt. That's what we need to do as well with our pillar muscles plus the air.
Brace yourself for a punch. Don't push it out in the front. Fill it up like the car tyre fills up. Inhale into your belly and firm up. Your pillar will fill up all around. It will "increase" in size a bit.
Once again, do not push your stomach out.
And definitely do not suck your stomach in.
Poke your abs (and your sides) - it should feel like how your glutes (butt) went from squishy to solid.
Engaging your pillar muscles by tying them together, and then using the proper breathing mechanism and padding all areas with air makes a tight brace!
Now, you are going to lift insanely!
The actual breath
Breathing properly is not an easy skill. Breathing behind the shield, or breathing while braced is going to take you a long time. Don't worry. You have the right mental model to approach it.
Think of a sport where the effort is obvious. Say, a fast bowler in cricket. Or a tennis player blazing a shot, or hitting an ace. You can feel the power and hear the grunt.
That grunt, that exhale aids the output.
In slow, heavy moves, you breathe differently and you generate much higher tension levels. In sport, in ballistic, you breathe and brace at different tension levels. This should be obvious to you as you think about it.
When you begin, as long as you are bracing, you can practice this safely by grunting, similar to a tennis shot. Brace and grunt, and you will see that the grunt helps you tighten up a bit more and exert. I have a drill for you below.
A note on tension
The air pressure of some car tyres is high. For some tyres, it is lower.
Similar, the amount of tension you create for different movements is different. High for slow, heavy movements and lower for faster movements.
The deadlift (high) versus sprinting (low). The right amount of tension allows the best expression of strength (and power).
Creating and expressing and manipulating tension is a key skill.
Going deeper into this concept is unnecessary for now.
Note: Folks with blood pressure issues and hypertension should be careful with all of these. Please talk to your doctor.
Blow out some candles
A drill you can practice safely to learn to breathe and brace before you try these in the gym is to blow out some candles.
Light a candle or ten. Stand a few feet away. Get into a standing plank.
Now, while holding the brace, blow out the candles.
See what happens to your pillar! It will get even stronger.
Note: I am not going into hardstyle breathing and how we can exploit Bernoulli's principles to generate higher levels of tensions and all that.
Putting it all together
- Engaging your pillar by connecting the straps together.
- Bracing the pillar muscles at the appropriate tension levels.
- Breathing i.e. inhaling and exhaling while maintaining #1 and #2.
Putting all these together is a skill you will practice and hone for a long time.
Strength is a skill. Learning the technical movement, the right mechanics etc is one huge part. Learning to tie your body together and breathing and bracing (and tension) is a common thread to all physical endeavours and it will spill over into every physical activity.
Practice it in simple moves. The plank is one where you can work on squeezing the muscles for maximum tension and going for maximum pressure. While running, you can work on minimal tension. Remember, minimal is still non-zero.
What I've found crucial is the integrity of the straps i.e. focus on ensuring there are no leaks. Once you can do that, turning up the tension and the squeezing of the muscles will work magic.
Because if there's a tiny leak in your car tyre, it is just a matter of time before there's a flat.
Learn to tie your pillar together with zero leaks. With that one skill, you will be far ahead of the curve!