I am not a biomechanical expert nor do I have my PhD in anatomy, biology or the like. However, I do have a ton of experience when it comes to picking up on the subtleties of training. I am fortunate enough to have a wide variety of members at my gym, some more advanced than others, some high level athletes, and some weekend warriors. This gives me an excellent laboratory in which to see what works and what doesn’t. One of the things that I have noticed that works every single time is stabilizing of the spine and the equivalent force production that comes with it.
I remember while I was still training back in the PIT, in my basement, before I moved into the new compound. I had this football player (he still trains with me), and his dad wanted him to bench press all this weight and lift all these heavy things, but he couldn’t even do a proper pushup! I tried a number of different things, but the thing that worked the best was having him contract his glutes, abs and back muscles as hard as he could before he tried to push up off the ground.
This made a huge difference and I’m now proud to say that this young man is one of the strongest in the entire gym. But let’s examine what the spine has to do with force production. Remember, I’m not a PhD so don’t get caught up in all the technicalities or you will miss the point.
From what I know about the spine and suffering numerous disc herniations, the body will not produce maximal force if the spine is injured or not fully stabilized. This is a protective mechanism of the body. Sure, you can lift some decent weight and maybe slide by without ever learning how to fully stabilize the spine, but you will never reach your true physical potential.
Think about why all great powerlifters inhale (diaphragmatic breath) before squatting or deadlifting. The stomach area will act as a balloon and fill up with air, pressing on the spine, adding a more stable and braced environment. I’ve learned from both Louie Simmons and Smitty on this topic and for those of you that have never had the chance to do a plank under Smitty’s coaching, look out! I was sore for 3 days after doing an all out bracing plank, squeezing the requisite muscles of the glutes, abs, lats and just about anything else I could.
When the spine is stable, it sends a message to the central nervous system (CNS) that all is safe and it is okay to exert as much relative force as you humanly can. When I take first time members at my gym and teach them how to stabilize the spine, they can get a few more reps on the pushup, pull-up or inverted row, showing the importance of this concept in upper body training as well.
I actually went ice skating yesterday for the first time in 30 years. On an icy surface, I had to struggle to stay up, doing everything I could to try to stabilize myself. Do you think you could squat a lot on an unstable surface, or throw a hay-maker punch on ice? Of course not, because the spine won’t be fully stabilized. Seems obvious, but I have found it is foreign to 99% of trainees. The biggest focus of our core training is planking and spine stabilization (also in standing positions).
To finish up, where is the connection between spine stabilization and a moat? I like to be creative, so it might be a far out idea, but if you leave a draw bridge up, that would be like not stabilizing the spine. Can you get across or in our case, send some of the messages to the muscles to produce force? Of course you can, unless there are gators in there. Will it be optimal? No way. If you lower the draw bridge (stabilize the spine), you now have full access to the castle and all the power you are currently capable of producing!