Home Blog Does “Feel” Matter with Core Stability Exercises?

Does “Feel” Matter with Core Stability Exercises?

Written on August 20, 2015 at 10:01 pm, by Eric Cressey

Just the other day, an online consulting client asked me why he didn't "feel" an anti-rotation chop in his abs if it was supposed to be a core stability exercise. This is a common question in folks who are being exposed to more "functional" core training for the first time.

Really, there are multiple reasons why you won't necessarily feel chops, lifts, and other drills in this regard. I figured I'd use today's article to highlight why that's the case.

1. You're not near the end-range of a muscular action.

The muscular "burn" we're accustomed to feeling at the top of a dumbbell fly or top of a biceps curl is occurring because it's the completion of the concentric phase and the muscle is fully shortened. The length of the rectus abdominus, external obliques, etc. shouldn't change if the drill is done correctly.

2. You're working isometrically.

Most of the time, the "pump" lifters feel with various exercises coming from the "pistoning" action of going through concentric and eccentric motions to bring blood flow to the area. You won't get that feeling as easily when you aren't bringing a muscle in and out of these positions - and with a chop like the one featured above, the goal is to keep the core positioning unchanged. You're working to resist extension and rotation.

Additionally, while you can get a good feel of muscular activation on some isometric drills (e.g., holding the top of a supine bridge with the glutes activated), it can prove to be difficult on drills where adjacent joints are moving simultaneously - as with a chop or lift. With the chops and lifts, you want good rigidity - but not outrageous rigidity that doesn't allow for good movement through the thoracic spine (upper back).

Think about a prone bridge. I can make it be a drill with incredible core stiffness by adding full exhalation and an aggressive bracing strategy; this would really light up the "abs."

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If, however, I want to add a reaching component, or even just transfer this bridge into a push-up variation, then I need to tone down my rigidity a bit. The reach can't happen if I don't.

On this front, spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill has spoken about the importance of learning to differentiate between high-threshold and low-threshold core stability exercises. You don't need to brace as hard on a bowler squat as you do on half-kneeling cable chop, and you don't need to brace as hard on a cable chop as you do on a heavy deadlift. Different movement challenges and external loading parameters must equate to different core stabilization patterns. Nobody ever worries about feeling their abs on a heavy deadlift - and it's because it's so far to one end of this low-to-high-threshold continuum.

3. Some muscles can't get a "pump" easily - and potentially without risk - from an anatomical standpoint.

If you do a biceps curl, you can feel a good burn "feel" at the top of the rep because it's not hard to get full elbow flexion and supination. It's easy to shorten the muscle and go through sufficient reps to make that pump happen.

Your spine is a lot different. You've got to go through quite a bit of spinal flexion to truly shorten your rectus abdominus to get that burn - and some people (particularly those who sit all day) don't handle this position well, especially if repeated "cycles" of flexion-extension are needed to get to this burning point. In fact, if you look at the research, repeated flexion/extension cycles is how you herniate an intervertebral disc in a laboratory setting. This is why a lot of military recruits develop back pain with sit-ups.

In short, sometimes, finding that "feel" is a quick path to musculoskeletal pain - so don't force it.

The take-home message is that you don't have to necessarily "feel" an exercise in a particular place in order to have it be a productive inclusion in your training programs. Sometimes, we have to fall back on the fact that if the movement looks good, the muscles are doing what they're supposed to be doing.

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  • suzp

    Thank you for this. I just had a client ask me this a few days ago, particularly in regards to the bird dog, and I wasn’t sure how to answer her. It was at the end of a session and I told her we’d try some other core exercises next session to see if we could get her abs firing more. I’m glad to have this explanation in my back pocket for the future.

  • Mallory Petrus

    Perfect! This gave me some new ideas on how to explain to patients and clients that not everything needs to burn (or hurt for that matter) to have benefit!


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