Written by Hannah Dykstra
CrossFit puts a high value on functional movements that use the body as a whole versus segmenting body parts into isolation training, the classic “body building” routine. This emphasis trains greater measures of athleticism by applying exercise to movement in ways that may mimic patterns of everyday life. The body works within its best potential and function through a kinetic chain, meaning the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons are all synced together. All movements along this chain are initiated from the core and finished through the extremities. This “core to extremity” pattern is often used as an identifying term of what CrossFit movements actually are.
The core serves as a muscular bridge that provides stability and connects the upper body to the lower body. In order for a bridge to serve its purpose it must remain strong without any loose ends or broken parts. If there is the slightest weakness in a bridge, you will find yourself in the water. The same goes for the midline; a rounded back, soft abs, disengaged glutes and an opened rib cage all make up the perfect recipe for injury and failed execution. The stronger the core engagement, the greater force we can generate to reach maximal lifts. In contrast, the weaker the core, the less efficient our transfer of force through the movement and the lower we are able to perform to our potential.
Some of the common cues instructed by fitness trainers for an engaged midline are to “open your hips all the way up,” “ribs to hips,” “stand tall” or “stay tight.” Although cues can be helpful, they can also sometime inhibit an athletes ability to truly “feel” a movement so a true understanding of the core to extremity pattern and balance of the kinetic chain must be met and an athlete should seek coaches that can teach them about their own bodies through well-practiced movement.
When the core is properly engaged, the body can move in the most efficient manner possible through the cohesive chain of reaction required for any movement. The proprioception of the body as a whole is best understood when initiated at the core meaning that your best athletic potential can be unleashed if you start with the basics. The concept may seem overly simple because it is – if we want to perform any functional pattern with a heavy load, we should recruit the largest muscle fibers first.
For movements such as the squat, deadlift, press, snatch and clean, the overall goal is not necessarily to work a specific muscle group, but rather to move the heaviest load in the most efficient way possible. For example, in the snatch and clean and jerk, maximizing full hip extension before the “third pull” requires the most top level mechanics of core to extremity engagement in order to perform the movement best. For lack of athletic experience or training, it is common for novice athletes to begin pulling the barbell with the arms before first maximizing the powerful potential of the hips. Because of the broken kinetic chain in using extremity before core, a lifter at this stage creates damage in the hypothetical bridge and will not perform at their potential, if not possibly miss the lift or create injury.
If you are unsure of your core recruitment, here are some simple exercises for self-assessment or to improve upon your core stability:
Prone Plank Hold A prone plank hold should maintain a neutral spine without a sway, or hyperextension, in the low back. You can use a PVC pipe to position for a neutral spine where if the pipe is laid across the back, the head, neck and low back should all be in line with the pelvis. A very slight “S” curve is a natural position for the spine, but any excessive extension or flexion would indicate an improper setup or weak midline. An individual unable to hold a neutral plank may practice elevated planks to a raised surface or use other resistance training exercises to build core strength.
Push-Up Perform a push-up from a prone plank with a neutral spine. The hips and shoulder should raise and lower at the same time and same rate so that there is no “wave” of the spine. An athlete should be able to perform a full range push-up in which they can contact their chest to the floor while maintaining a perfect plank. If an athlete is unable to perform a full repetition, they should modify the movement in such a way that they can attain full range of motion where the elbows begin fully extended, then the chest meets the plane of the hands, and back to full extension. This could include pushups from the knees or incline pushups to a bench or box. The pushup also involves basics of upper body pressing and therefore not a pure test of midline strength, however, it can still be a good assessment tool in determining core stability as it relates to a functional movement pattern.
Handstand Hold Perform a handstand against a wall, either by kicking to inversion or using a wall climb. The hips and legs should stack directly above the shoulders and the athlete should maintain a neutral spine from head to pelvis. An individual with a weak midline may be unable to hold a neutral position. The handstand hold is an advanced movement of balance, shoulder strength and spinal mobility and therefore not a a pure test of midline strength, however, it can still be a good assessment tool in determining core stability of a more advanced athlete.
If you struggle to maintain proper positioning in the movements listed above, chances are that you will be misaligned in many other movements as well. A strong core will improve all aspects of fitness including running, squats, and overhead movements. An athlete will gain their fullest power potential by gaining core stability and understanding the concepts of the core to extremity kinetic chain. Proper mechanics are essential not only to peak performance but to avoid injury and move more purposely in our everyday lives. When the body moves according to its every purpose and function, it will excel in every single way!