(Almost) Every Exercise is a Core Exercise!

Yesterday was an awesome day at SAPT.  During our 3PM session, we had 6 athletes deadlifting at one time.  Considering the deadlift is one of my favorite lifts, the sound of metal hitting the floor repeatedly was music to my ears.  After sessions, I was fortunate enough to be able to train my sister, who I love very dearly.  She's not the biggest fan of working out, which is pretty funny considering I literally cannot go 4 days without some form of exercise.  Ask anyone who really knows me... If I've gone 3 or 4 full days without lifting, I'm going to be pretty grumpy, I won't really be able to give anything else my full attention, and I just won't be Charlie that you've all grown to tolerate.


Anywho, Lexie has been an awesome "client."  She's made great progress and she's been doing her best to workout 3 times a week, even though she routinely works 10-12 hours a day.  Last night, she came to the gym after a 10 hour shift even though I'm sure that's the last thing that she wanted to do.  She's lost 20 pounds so far, and feels mentally and physically stronger than she has in a long time.  I'm incredibly proud of her, and very fortunate that she's allowed me to help her over the past few months.

During our session, she was performing a set of stepback lunges and mentioned that she could really feel her core working.  It surprised her because a stepback lunge is clearly a leg exercise, right?  Not so fast... This may come as a shock, but a stepback lunge is a TOTAL BODY MOVEMENT!  Let's break it down and take a look...

  • This exercise is working your legs.  Notice how I didn't say "This exercise is working your quads."  Your body does not work in isolation.  Every single muscle in your lower extremities has to contract, whether that be in an isometric, concentric, or eccentric fashion.  Those are all fancy kinesiology terms for a muscle that is "resisting movement," "producing force while shortening," and "coming under tension/producing force as the muscle is stretched." Oftentimes, a muscle will contract in an isometric, concentric, and eccentric fashion at different times during the same movement.  Lets take the glutes for example:  As you stand tall, your glutes are short and, technically, are contracting in an isometric fashion to prevent your hips from flexing and your body from collapsing upon itself.  As you take a step backward with your right leg, your left glute begins to undergo a stretch as the muscle lengthens.  The glute has to contract ECCENTRICALLY as you near the bottom of the lunge in order to slow you down.  If you were to pause at the bottom of the movement, that glute would need to contract ISOMETRICALLY to maintain your hip position.  As your pop forward into the starting position, your left glute needs to contract CONCENTRICALLY as it shortens and extends your hips.  Now that I've bored you with a bit of biomechanics, let's move on.
  • This exercise is also working your arms!  You're holding a weight at your chest.  If, for some reason, the muscles in your arms and shoulders decided not to take action, the weight would drop out of your hands.  Your back is also active, and this segues into our next point very nicely.
  • THIS EXERCISE IS ALSO WORKING YOUR CORE/TRUNK/ABS/AXIAL SKELETON/WHATEVER YOUR WANT TO CALL THAT PORTION OF YOUR BODY THAT CONNECTS YOUR UPPER AND LOWER EXTREMITIES!  I apologize for the caps, but I need to get my point across.  Your core's main function is to aid in force transmission.  During a stepback lunge, you're holding a heavy weight in your hands and your goal is to move it from point A to point B.  For the sake of clarity, Point A is the bottom of the movement, Point B is the starting/ending point.  Your legs need to create force and apply said force to the weight in your hands.  Your trunk aids in that force transmission, and acts as an avenue for the force to be applied to the weight in order to move it's mass from Point A to Point B.  If, for some ungodly reason, your core decided to completely shut off you would crumple into a heaping mass on the floor.  We often see beginners who don't have adequate core strength stumble during these unilateral split-position movements.  We watch their upper bodies teeter from side to side, desperately trying to find the stability that they need in order to stay upright.

The bottom line is, ask any normal gym-goer and they'll tell you a stepback lunge is a leg movement.  This way of thinking is so misguided.  It assumes that the body works in complete isolation.  Now this isn't the fault of the individual, rather, it's the fault of society as a whole.  Walk into any commercial gym and you'll see machine after machine after machine, each highlighting the 2 or 3 muscles that the exercise is working.  It's incredibly frustrating for a strength coach such as myself. Flashback to college.... During my Methods of Human Nutritional Assessment class that I took at Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!), we had one module that was dedicated to introducing us to weight training.  We hopped on the leg press, the leg extension machine, the lat pulldown station, and more.  I couldn't believe they weren't teaching us how to squat, how to hinge at the hips while maintaining a neutral spine, how to press a load overhead maintaining proper anatomical positioning.  I can honestly say that I learned more about my profession by reading blogs and textbooks, watching Youtube videos, and taking part in internships (VT S&C and SAPT) than in class.  That is not to say that what I learned in school did not help. Kinesiology and Exercise Physiology were vital in understanding the basics and principles of exercise science.  If you want to be a trainer, go to college.  Yes, you can take an online certification course and skip that step, but you're missing out on the foundation.  That foundation is what will give you the critical thinking skills to scrutinize training philosophies and decide whether their underlying principles are sound.

Now, after that little rant, let's get back to the title of this article.  Almost every exercise that you perform at the gym (at least at SAPT because we're friggin' awesome) is targeting your core in some way, shape, or form.  Occasionally, we'll get the client who asks to perform more core exercises.  It makes me chuckle inside, because if only they knew...  That deadlift you just performed?  Your last set of squats?  The 30-40 pushups that you've knocked out over the course of a session? Yup, you guessed it.  All working your core.  Anytime an exercises demands that you maintain a neutral spine, your core musculature is working overtime to prevent your hips from sagging and maintain that rigid trunk that allows for efficient force transmission. I really hope this article has helped you look at exercises in a different light.  I hope that it reaches the people who actually need to read it. Over the past year or so, I've had a few of my friends ask me to help them with their exercise routine.  I always ask them what kind of routine they've been on prior to seeking me out, and 99% of the time it goes something like this... "Mon is chest and tris, Tues is back and bis, Thurs is shoulders and core, and Fri is legs."  If you've gotten this far, I don't need to explain why this makes me want to run my head into a brick wall.  These are the people that this article needs to reach.  If you know someone like this, share it with them.  Maybe they'll hop on a 3x/week full-body program, or a 4x/week push/pull routine as a result.  They'll be thanking you once they realize how long they've been spinning their wheels.

As always, please reach out if you could use my help.  Our main mission here at SAPT is to help as many people as humanly possible.  We're in the service industry, so please, let us serve you.  Also, in the next few weeks we're going to be launching a huge sale on training packages as well as expanding our facility to double its current size.  The sale is going to last 2 WEEKS ONLY, so take advantage of it before it's too late.  If you aren't in the area, we also provide distance coaching and fitness consultations.  Just ask.  What's the worst that could happen?

EDIT:I had a reader (Scott Van Zandt) make a very astute observation while reading this article.  He mentioned that we need to make a distinction between what an exercise TARGETS, and what an exercise WORKS.  For example, the deadlift targets the lifter's posterior chain, but it works almost every single muscle in the human body.  This is absolutely correct.  Revisiting the article, the stepback lunge does indeed target the lower extremities, but it also works almost every muscle in the body, just like the deadlift.  I love that Scott made this observation, as it doesn't take away from anything said in this article, but it provides me with a fantastic idea for a follow-up post.  Next week, we'll talk about weak points that hold experienced lifters back in a given lift, and what the most effective method for bringing up this weak link is.  Bravo Scott.  Thanks again for input.