If fitness magazine covers were to be believed, “core strength” is just about having beach-worthy, six-pack abs. But while these muscles are part of the equation, they’re only the window dressing for all the others that connect to your pelvis and rib cage. Because these are so essential in protecting your spine, transferring power between your upper and lower body, and achieving sustainable positions in your sport and everyday life, I like to refer to them collectively as your pillar. In this article, we’ll explore the multi-faceted way we approach developing strength and durability in this crucial area at the Performance Ranch.
Starting with Better Breathing
At a basic level, I believe that developing a robust pillar requires a combination of posture and core strength. Before assessing your positioning while you’re moving, we first need to see what your posture looks like when you’re stationary. We observe how you lie on the floor, sit, and stand. At the beginning of your fitness journey at the Performance Ranch, everything can be used as an assessment, so we’ll also want to know if you’re currently hurt or in pain and go through your injury history.
The first thing we’ll want to actively work on is breathing. Specifically, what we call “360 breathing,” which involves taking nasal, diaphragmatic breaths that expand your whole rib cage as you intake oxygen on the inhale and using your diaphragm to expel carbon dioxide on the exhale. Such functional breathing is key to maintaining good posture while you’re still, sustaining a solid pillar when you move, and providing you with the air you need to keep going during even the most intense sessions. I’ve found that if I maintain my focus on 360 breathing deep into the hardest interval workout, I can maintain a high pace and even delay the onset of fatigue. The same has proved true for a broad range of the athletes I coach, from UFC world champions to everyday folks just trying to get fitter. On the recovery side, controlled nasal breathing prompts a parasympathetic (rest and digest) response that encourages rest and high-quality sleep.
On the other hand, if you’re stuck in an apical breathing pattern, you’re minimizing the use of your diaphragm and other primary respiratory muscles and only tapping into about a third of your lung capacity. This requires the muscles of your chest, upper back, and neck to do too much of the work, leading to excess stiffness in your soft tissues, headaches, migraines, and feeling out of breath while you’re training. Taking short, shallow breaths increases your respiratory rate, triggering a sympathetic (fight, flight, or freeze) response in your autonomic nervous system that can leave you feeling stressed out and anxious.
Posture and movement quality are dictated by your breathing mechanics more than you might think. In an article for FMS, Brett Jones wrote: “For years, we (FMS) have been using diaphragmatic breathing as a key concept and tool to improve movement. Routinely at workshops, I will have everyone get reacquainted with diaphragmatic breathing through Crocodile Breathing and see improvements in the weak link on the screen 70% or more of the time. Similar observations are supported by research, as well. A 2014 study suggests there is a significant relationship between breathing pattern disorders and movement dysfunction identified by the FMS. So, breathing impacts movement.”
The 3 Stages of Pillar Development
When we take clients through the FMS, we often find that they have a shoulder impingement on at least one side. When we ask if they experience neck or shoulder pain or tightness, they usually say “yes.” This can be partly because of their faulty breathing pattern and also the forward-leaning mechanics that so many of us get stuck in when we’re typing, texting, and driving. To help correct dysfunctional breathing and the postural and movement issues that often result, we use a three-stage progression adapted from our friends at EXOS. Here are the stages:
- Supported Spine
This might seem simple, but it’s a solid starting point for teaching correct breathing and bracing. You lie on the floor and keep your shoulders down away from your ears, with a nice long neck. Then we’ll ask you to put your hands on your rib cage and feel how it expands as you take a slow nasal inhale. Next, you’ll feel your ribs contract again as you slowly exhale.
The progression is to get into a dead bug position, whereby your arms are fully vertical and you move your legs independently without letting your lumbar spine get out of control, all while maintaining diaphragmatic breathing. We can then get your posterior chain involved by having you do a glute bridge, which involves lying on your back with your feet on the floor and knees bent, tilting your pelvis, driving your hips, lifting your butt off the ground, and holding the top position.
- Suspended Spine
Once you’ve got the supported spine position down, we’ll move on to the suspended spine phase. This involves you getting into a quadruped stance, with your hands, feet, and knees providing six points of contact with the ground. Once you’ve shown you can maintain 360 breathing, we’ll ask you to do likewise as you raise an arm or leg independently. Then you’ll perform a bird dog, extending one arm and the opposite leg and then holding them in position. This teaches you how to move limbs while keeping your pillar strong and stable, which you can transfer to any sport and everyday activities like gardening where you have to pair movement with stability. Similarly, when I’m mountain biking, my feet, hands, and butt are contact points and my pillar is the bridge in the middle that enables me to generate power while controlling my body and the bike.
Another go-to face-down, suspended spine exercise is the plank, which I believe you can rarely do too many of as long as you’re in a good pattern. Some people have a kyphotic spine and so struggle to keep their shoulders neutral. This is why I’ll start them planking in a low position where their forearms are parallel tod the floor and their palms are facing up. Spreading the floor out helps to create tension and retract the shoulder blades. Sometimes you can measure plank duration not by time but with the number of 360 breaths. Similarly, it’s best to perform a side plank with your elbow under your shoulder. These plus the ankles, knees, hips, and wrists are all landmarks that need to be aligned as often as possible in stationary positions and during movement.
- Vertical Spine
The next phase is 360 breathing while your spine is vertical. I want you to demonstrate that you can do this while staying upright in a tall kneeling position. We’ll then add some movement as you drop your hips down and back into a hip hinge position. Kneeling is useful because it eliminates the ankle and knee limitations you might have. A lot of people struggle at first because they have an anterior pelvic tilt that creates an excessive curve in the lumbar spine and so have trouble maintaining a neutral pelvis. The coaching cue here is to push your belt buckle forward. When you’re ready to progress, we’ll add in a light overhead kettlebell or dumbbell press in a half-kneeling position. When looking to combine stability with cross-body movement, a kneeling anti-rotation exercise is also beneficial.
When you master kneeling, we’ll get you up on your feet and see how you do with mini-band walks and medicine ball or cable chops that require you to keep a strong pillar as your thoracic spine moves around your pelvis and you manipulate an object in a diagonal pattern. The term I use here is “tension with intention.” You can’t always remain braced because you’ll fatigue, but rather need to know when to get tense and when to relax.
When you’re performing standing exercises, we’ll start with your feet shoulder-width apart and then move one foot forward into a split stance. This progression helps you get a better sense of where your hips are in space. If they’re misaligned, then we could see excessive shoulder rounding in the upper body and too much extension in your lumbar spine.
Building a Solid Foundation for Sports and an Active Life
Carries are a group of highly practical exercises that can quickly build pillar strength and have a low barrier of entry. We start with a farmer’s carry and progress to a suitcase position (if it’s one hand). We then get into the front rack variation where you hold the weight by your collar bone. Then if you have enough overhead capacity, you can add in a waiter’s carry. All of these can be performed in a straight line, with a trip up and down our artificial turf taking about 30 seconds. Later we might have you do carries in a figure eight to test your pillar strength while changing direction. We know that grip strength is correlated with not only functional capacity in earlier life, but also vitality in old age. Carries are a great way to develop this, and we’ll also pair them with exercises that challenge both pillar and grip like trap bar deadlifts and pullups. Putting any kind of object in your hands and asking you to manipulate it while you keep your trunk steady teaches the relationship between grip and core stabilization.
One of the reasons that we favor free weights over machines at the Performance Ranch is that they require you to engage your pillar as part of each movement rather than relying on a piece of equipment to provide stability. This allows you to get more out of each session. Developing a stronger, the more durable pillar is also foundational to living an adventurous life outside the gym walls. Whether you’re standup paddling, swimming, or playing a field or court sport, you’re going to need to combine 360 breathing, steady posture, sound movement patterns, and core strength to generate power, resist external forces, and move quickly while remaining stable. That’s the power of building pillar strength.