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We all want to be able to pick up our dropped pencil without creating some painful back incident, right? That’s where the whole “inner” core control bit comes in (transverse abdominis etc… Stu McGill’s contentions notwithstanding).

Controlling your own body in space? That’s about full-on core control, which here I will define as keeping a solid torso and neutral spine while using the hip hinge to drive most lower-body movement.

And if we want to pick up something that feels medium-heavy? That’s about using good mechanics, and bringing in the diaphragm as a spinal stabilizer.

If you’ve followed my writing and approach over the years, the above should all be old news. It all requires structural, focused, low-rep learning on the neurological level as well as on the physical one.

It all can – and should! – be scaled to respect and challenge the abilities of the body implementing the principles. One such example, the StrongFirst hardstyle sitback, actually makes a modified appearance in the Osteofit manual. How low to go with the sitback? Well, this person looks pretty good getting almost down to the floor. Here, this person transitions into the hollow hold with sort of a controlled roll. (Note that a deconditioned body, or one with high blood pressure, may not do well with this type of breathing.)

V3.0: Increasing Work Capacity

And what about when we want to move from “good enough for our purposes,” whatever that may mean, to “I want to be able to do a lot more!”

(Hmm, have to say, that whole “work capacity” concept sounds a bit like CrossFit… not surprising, given that I’m immersing myself in the Level One manual at the moment.)

I see two possibly complementary approaches to take. One is to continue to cultivate yet more control of existing structural strength, and the other is to gain muscle mass. (FYI, either way, a “flexion intolerant” spine is not a good starting point; see below for more on that.)

Structural Control

If we already have relatively solid mechanics, we can continue to work within the paradigm of mobility → stability → strength by further advancing within the strength end of things.

To maintain a high ratio of strength to bodyweight, gymnasts and calisthenics practitioners take the approach of controlling one’s own body in space against an increasingly challenging application of physics and levers, often against gravity. (Personally, I’m starting to work on this now that the StrongFirst bodyweight certification is in my long-term sights.)

This approach focuses mainly on the spine resisting movement (flexion, extension, and rotation) as movement occurs elsewhere in the body. It ties in well with not wasting or leaking energy relative to what’s actually supposed to be happening (for example, a squat). (BTW, that movement elsewhere will often be about hip extension — wouldn’t be surprised if that’s my next article 😉 )

This structural approach does require – and further develop – a certain degree of body awareness.

Hypertrophy

The other approach is to support the pillar of the spine by adding muscle mass around it. This usually requires actively moving the spine, often under load (i.e. resistance is used).

Building mass can be a less mentally fatiguing approach; it’s often much easier to work against something external than to have to do so much internal sensory processing.

A Spiny Question: Which Approach is Better?

The first part of the answer is, as usual with almost any type of training ever in the entire history of the world, “It depends on your goals.”

In this case, though, there are a few other considerations.

First, are your mechanics actually good? I see a lot of teenaged boys in particular flailing around on back extension machines and doing cable-resisted crunches. True, a younger body tends to have more leeway than an older adult’s, but still, I prefer the cautious approach of knowing that the spine in question can move well before starting to load it.

Second, are you one of those people with a “flexion intolerant” spine? If so, more foundational mobility and structural work is in order first to avoid (further?) injury. Please be in touch if you need help with that.

Finally, esthetics. Do you actually want increased muscle mass around your torso? Because to be balanced and safe for your spine, if you’re packing on muscle, that includes flexion exercises to work the front side of the spine. Many people don’t want a lot more stomach on themselves, even if it is composed of rock-hard muscle (the so-called “turtle shell abs”…yes, it’s a thing).

Really, Do What You Want

No matter what approach you choose, your body will always demonstrate the results of the habits you’ve cultivated. I encourage you to work with the power of habit to represent where you want to be going in your life. Again, please be in touch if you’d like any input on how to make that happen.