When it comes to “core” training for fight athletes, it is very common for coaches and athletes to get caught up with training in a single plane of motion, eg hip flexion or ‘crunches’ and ‘leg raises’, while neglecting some of the more effective core movement patterns and anti-movement patterns.
Training only the traditional ab exercises through the hip flexion movement plane has proven to be effective to a point, and can help increase the amount of intra-abdominal tension to withstand body blows, but this type of training alone can bring about a whole set of overuse issues. Generally speaking, these exercises can cause imbalances by overworking the upper abdominals and hip flexors while under utilising the lower abdominals and pubococcygeus (pelvic floor musculature). This imbalance can cause a weakened and stretched pelvic floor, which in turn can have a negative effect on sphincter control - not the kind of issue you want to be developing, especially later in life.
Another issue caused by this imbalance is that overworked upper abdominals can actually pull the upper body forward off it’s natural line of gravity, creating a kyphotic or round shouldered posture which in turn can create excessive postural stress on the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae. In this instance, a spinal issue may have been developed where there was no issue previously. Fight athletes generally have enough injury or potential injury to deal with already, there is no need for creating spinal issues.
Additionally, normal function of the diaphragm is negatively affected by the overuse of the upper abdominal muscles. If the upper abdominals are overworked, they become shorter and tighter, which can impair the diaphragm’s role of drawing breath down into the bottom of the lungs - in turn creating naturally shallower breathing patterns. For fighters, efficient respiratory function is critical for all aspects of performance, and by creating diaphragmatic issues you are literally destroying your cardiovascular conditioning.
Finally, overuse in the traditional hip flexion abdominal exercises more often than not will lead to tight and painful hip flexors. Anyone who has suffered from this will know exactly how limiting it can be - all of the lower body lifts are affected, range of motion through most compound exercises will suffer, and you will have to spend a significant amount of time in stretching/mobilising/treatment.
A more healthy and effective alternative I am about to suggest will not only mitigate most injury potential, it will stimulate both stability and strength through the “core” which will translate into several areas of athletic development.
Training the spinal erectors as stabilisers, not prime movers
Instead of selecting exercises in which the spinal erectors are actively involved in hip/lumbar flexion/extension, lateral flexion or rotation, consider exercises which force the spinal erectors to stabilise and resist against these movement patterns.
Specifically for strikers, punching power is generated from rotational force initiated by the lower body - it is the legs which drive down into the floor, initiating the upward force to be transferred into the the upper body and into the target. This rotational force is not generated by the spinal erectors, but stabilised and transferred by them. By creating proximal stiffness through the lumbar spine, the rotational force is more effectively transferred through the upper body, through the arm and fist into the target.
Exercises which train the spinal erectors as prime movers by focusing on generating rotational force through the spinal erectors actually increase the risk of degeneration of the intervertebral disc annulus, which should be avoided at all costs.
For grapplers, stiffness and stabilisation of the lumbar spine is essential for maintaining position and controlling your opponent. In all main planes of motion, flexion, hyperextension, rotation and lateral flexion, grapplers must be able to stabilise and resist against multiple force angles to maintain posture and positional control.
Training the spinal erectors to resist movement patterns
The following are exercises which train the spinal erectors for high levels of stability and transfer into athletic performance. By resisting against rotation, lateral flexion and hyperextension, the following exercises are great ways to develop lumbar stability and stiffness.
These exercises can be very easily added to your existing training program, and may drastically increase your stability, proprioceptive control and the strength control profile of your major compound exercises, as well as increasing your ability to generate punching power and positional control on the mat.
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