Workshops & Masterclasses

Understanding the Mid-line

Understanding the Mid-line

The much misunderstood “core”. It might be the most misunderstood structure in the body. There is no way that I can make a real dent on the whole subject in one short post but hopefully I can elucidate you in some small way.

When the average person thinks of “core” (which is actually a great term which has unfortunately been bastardised to the extent that it actively annoys me) it’s usually just abs on their mind. Which is fine, abs are cool, they look great and the 100% have a role to play in performance and aesthetics.


Abs and core are not synonymous.

You know that the core is way more than that. When I think of what core training involves I block it as everything above mid thigh and everything below the shoulders (abdominals in the front, paraspinals and gluteals in the back, the diaphragm as the roof, and the pelvic floor and hip girdle musculature as the bottom, inside all of this there is 29 separate pairs of muscles that help stabilise the spine and pelvis (2)). Another way to look at is everything that isn’t peripheral. Whilst I like to define it as above (mid-thigh to shoulders) for ease there is a very strong argument, which I wholeheartedly support, to include the muscles of the jaw and neck into the core, the reason why I’ll cover below (way below, I can already tell I’m going to get carried away.)

Before I go any further into it though what the core is we need to define it’s role as best possible within the confines of this article.


Whilst there is no common consensus on the exact anatomy, physiology, and methods of how to evaluate a clients “core” functionality, the role on the core is undeniable in terms of proper load balance in the kinetic chain, maximising a persons functional range of motion (proximal stability = distal mobility (7)), providing a base of support for maximises force production as well as protecting the joints by decreasing/minimising joint load, shear, compressive, and translational forces throughout the body (1,2).  From a performance point of view it’s easy to see that there is a huge benefit from training “core stability” but one of the most common pathologies we come across as coaches is a client with lower back pain.

Punjabi has described clinical instability (i.e. instability when there isn’t a structural defect cause which may necessitate surgical intervention) as “the loss of the spine’s ability to maintain its patterns of displacement under physiologic loads so there is no initial or additional neurologic deficit, no major deformity, and no incapacitating pain”(3). Clinical lumbar instability in this sense has been cited as a significant cause on lower back pain (4, 5). A meta-analysis of 39 (this is good) randomised trails that investigated treatment of chronic low back pain of non-specific origin with an exercise intervention found a “beneficial effect for strength/resistance and coordination and stabilisation exercise programs over other interventions (6). It’s worth noting in the same meta-analysis that they found little to no benefit from combining the strength/resistance work with “cardio”. From a purely anecdotal point of view with evidence I’d suggest that this is down to people losing pelvo-lumbar control when one hip is in flexion and the other extension (assuming that the cardio prescribed is running, x-trainer, cycling, swimming) and the stability in around the hips and lower back, so as you’re teaching a more stable, controlled lumbar and hip complex with the strength work you’re teaching a less stable/more unstable hip complex at the same time which results in a conflict of adaptation (the adaptation being what any intervention is actually about) and no real change hence no alleviation of lower back pain symptoms. Again, complete conjecture on my part and would need further study.

Riiiiight, I’m aware that this is getting on a little bit. So a really quick round up of this so far:

  • Core means everything which isn’t arms and legs (and even then it’s a little bit of legs).
  • Building a strong core is hugely important for increasing your CrossFit performances.
  • There is a statistically significant benefit on lower back pain from consistently performing core stability exercises.

More than Sit-Ups and the Breathing-Bracing Continuum,

Looking back to developmental movements when, as babies, you first started moving, the first thing that happened was you start wriggling around like a madwomen and learning to, at a very basic level, activate and control all the muscles above. To quote directly from the work of Kobesova and Kolar,

“This allows for basic trunk stabilization, a prerequisite for any phasic movement and for the locomotor function of the extremities.“(9)

So we know that not only is core stability a prerequisite for movement (from crawling, to walking, to gymnastics and lifting) but on top of that recent research into the “mind-muscle connection” shows that by  understanding what muscles we’re trying to activate, including there position and function, can improve the contraction and activation (10,11).

To start to delve into how we might address “core training” we need to move to a slightly more global view of what the core musculature actually does. As noted above above the core consists of:

  • abdominals and accompanying fascial complex in the front,
  • paraspinals (think lats, spinal erectors (lumbar and thoracic ), traps as a whole and rhomboids) and gluteals in the back (personally I’d like to include hamstrings in here as well),
  • the diaphragm as the roof,
  • the pelvic floor and hip girdle musculature as the bottom including
  • internal stabilisers of the spine and pelvis (External and internal obliques and Transverse Abdominus (TvA), Mulitfidus, Quadratus Lumbrum (QL), Psoas, Illiacus (preferably not to be thought of combined with Psoas (8)), and various ligamental structures that I’m not going into right now).

I’m our case we’ll move away from specific muscle action as soon as possible but before that we need to have an idea about what muscles are working and where they are so we can address bracing and core stiffness with some specificity as well as improved performance

*NOTE: It’s our responsibility as coaches to educate our athletes as much as will help them. I’m not saying they need to read something like this but whatever you can do to help them understand why they’re doing something is a big deal and will help create buy in and trust.*

When anybody talks about core stability a huge part of this can be perceived as “bracing”, defined as:

“anything which imparts rigidity or steadiness”


“to furnish, fasten, or strengthen with or as if with a brace.”

“to fix firmly; make steady; secure against pressure or impact”

“to make tight; increase the tension of.”(12)

Whilst it isn’t an exact comparison to what we’re talking about it nicely gets across the message that when we talk about bracing and core stability we are really talking about increasing rigidity,pressure, and tension throughout the body.

And here is finally where we can talk about application!!

When you ask most people who lift about bracing you get a lot of big breathes into the stomach, which is okay. It’s like having half the answer and is way better than hollowing which is, frankly, detrimental to sports performance (13). Application for you is tuning up or down the stiffness you’re creating as it’s applicable to you goal. If you’re doing a 2000m swim then maybe you don’t need to create the same tension as you would for a maximal loaded carry.

I know this isn’t super actionable, at least not straight away, but with some practice and consistent employment of the principles you can learn where and when certain levels of bracing is appropriate. More importantly you should now understand what you’re trying to achieve and why.


  1. Kibler, W., Press, J. and Sciascia, A. (2006). The Role of Core Stability in Athletic Function. Sports Medicine, 36(3), pp.189-198.

  2. Akuthota, V., Ferreiro, A., Moore, T. and Fredericson, M. (2008). Core Stability Exercise Principles. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 7(1), pp.39-44.
  3. Panjabi, M. (2003). Clinical spinal instability and low back pain. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 13(4), pp.371-379.
  4. Delitto A, George SZ, Van Dillen LR, Whitman JM, Sowa G, Shekelle P, et al. Low back pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2012;42(4):A1–57. doi:10.2519/jospt.2012.0301.
  5. Long DM, BenDebba M, Torgerson WS, Boyd RJ, Dawson EG, Hardy RW, et al. Persistent back pain and sciatica in the United States: patient characteristics. J Spinal Disord. 1996;9(1):40–58.
  6. Searle, A., Spink, M., Ho, A. and Chuter, V. (2015). Exercise interventions for the treatment of chronic low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Clinical Rehabilitation, 29(12), pp.1155-1167.
  7. Mattacola, C., Kiesel, K., Burton, L. and Cook, G. (2004). Mobility Screening for the Core. Athletic Therapy Today, 9(5), pp.38-41.
  8. McGill, S. (2009). Ultimate back fitness and performance. p.78.
  9. Kobesova, A. and Kolar, P. (2014). Developmental kinesiology: Three levels of motor control in the assessment and treatment of the motor system. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 18(1), pp.23-33.
  10. Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M., Jay, K., Colado, J. and Andersen, L. (2015). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(3), pp.527-533.
  11. Critchley, D. (2002). Instructing pelvic floor contraction facilitates transversus abdominis thickness increase during low-abdominal hollowing. Physiotherapy Research International, 7(2), pp.65-75.
  12. Collins, W. (2011). Collins dictionary. London: HarperCollins.
  13. McGill, S. (2009). Ultimate back fitness and performance. p.75-76.

Programming 101

The goal of getting in the gym and working out is to change your body. It doesn’t matter what the change is, you just need to understand that you’re there, primarily, to see a change to your body in one way or another.

Typically the goal for most people is to look great naked. For others it is to be strong or improve sports performance. Maybe even a combination of all the above.

You need to figure out what your reason for being in the gym is before you even start thinking about writing your own program. Only once a goal is in place can you start planning how to achieve it.

And that is all programming is.  A long-term plan, structured in such a way to bring about (or at least advance towards) the stated goal. It can be as complex as the below to take Hikaru to the IPL Worlds

Or as simple as do 5 sets of 5 reps and each week add 2.5 kg.

Both are legitamate programming style and effective for the right person. What we are interested in though is giving you the tools to let you build the right program for you to get you to your goal.

Disclaimer: Whilst the will be as simplied as possible it is expected that you understand some basic programming principles

What you will need:

  • Excel or another spreadsheet software to track your numbers (at a push you can go pen and paper but it’s going to get complicated VERY quickly).
  • The patience and self-belief to stick to the plan you wrote
  • Self-awareness to admit to yourself what has and has not worked. You will not ever write the perfect program, best realise it now.

For the sake of ease, we’re going to assume that this program is being written with the goal of building maximal strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. I’m choosing this because even if the goal is merely to look good naked or as complex as building sports performance you can do much, much worse that getting brutally strong.

Whenever you’re looking at planning anything it’s always worth measuring twice and cutting once. Know what you’re dealing with to start with, where your faults and weaknesses (both physically and technically) are, and be realistic about it. Very few people are going to go from not being able to execute a competent bodyweight squat to a 100kg back squat in 12 weeks.

Step 1: Assess yourself (or hire someone to):
If you don’t know what this means its best that you hire a great coach with a track record of producing high level athletes to do this for you. If you have an idea what you’re looking for but aren’t quite certain then I’ll suggest:

  • Video 3 to 5 doubles (2 reps) of squat, bench press, and deadlift above 90% of your max. The goal here isn’t to impress yourself with half reps but to give you a realistic idea of where your lifts are falling apart
    • Squat
      • Watch out for your chest and bar staying still but your hips raising. This is a very common fault and usually can be attributed to a technical understanding issue or weak quads.
      • Not reaching depth, it’s not down to poor ankle mobility or tight hips. You’re just weak or lazy. Drop the weight and work for the long-term results
      • Are you rounding your upper or lower back? Then your need to address how strong your trunk is. If you’re not strong enough to keep a position constant through the lifts then something needs fixing there.
      • Knee collapse, a lot of people are very quick to jump in and shout weak glutes at this but more likely you’re letting your feet do something wrong. Work on planting your feet strongly and screwing them into the floor.
    • Bench Press
      • Are you not managing to reach the bar t your chest every single rep. Lower the weight sunshine. You’re just not strong enough for that weight yet. It’ll come but for now focus on moving a load that you can do well and recover from.
      • Missing or grinding reps halfway up could be down to a weakness of the chest or lacking speed off the chest.
      • Not quite being able to lock your arms out at the top. This would be an unusual issue to come across in a normal gym but it could be down to weak or fatigued triceps.
    • Deadlift
      • Can’t even get the bar off the floor
        1. It’s too heavy
        2. Your set up is wrong
        3. Your core is too weak
        4. It’s probably too heavy
      • Can’t squeeze your hips through to stand up straight at the top means that your butt is weak, or you’ve taken too much time to get the bar that far. You have the video make the call
      • If you drop or feel like you’re going to drop the bar then your grip strength is letting you down.
      • And obviously any deviation from a long, straight spine position means that all of the first points fixes AND you need to check your ego because it’s going to get you hurt.

Step 2: Know what adaptation you want to create

The most common error I see in watching amateurs (and most professionals) do their own programming is that they program by exercise. You MUST program by adaptation. I’m going to say it again so you really get it


To explain what this means. You need to understand that the exercise isn’t important, what is important is getting to the goal. The goal is the goal. The goal is always the goal. So if my goal is to have the best squat I can but what’s holding me back is quads so week I’m not even being able to hold a good position to squat then whilst my skill work might be looking at building a great squat at a lower intensity (utilising whatever technical squat progressions you adhere to) the strength work doesn’t have to be based on squatting it can just be building quad strength in whatever way works for you.

To bring this back to programming by adaptation. In this case the change that we are looking for in increasing quad strength, how we get there is completely up to you. You are not tied to any exercise, you don’t have to do any exercises. You HAVE to do what gets you the changes in your body which gets you closer to your goals.
In step 1 when I explained the common faults in the squat, bench, and deadlift it should have given you some clues to what adaptations you are trying to create.

Step 3: Volume and Intensity

This can be thought as simply as sets, reps, and weights. You need to be using the right ones for the right adaptations. There is a few ways to do this. Something like Perilipin’s table:

Where there is up and down sides. Upsides it’s super simple to use and laid out in convenient blocks based upon adaptation and % intensity. Downsides, just because a % intensity is written in at these sets, reps doesn’t mean that is the adaptation that works for you personally.

The other option is to go back to the work of Helms and Morgan where the prescribe doing a total of 40 to 70 reps per muscle group per session and hitting each muscle group 2 to 3 times a week (so 80 to 210 reps per muscle group per week). If the goal is strength 65 to 75% of these reps should be at a greater intensity than a weight you can lift 6 times (that’s 52-60 reps and the bottom end and 136 -168 reps at the top end per week at above 6 rep max).  And the rest of your numbers at between your 6 and 12 rep maxes. Conversely if there goal is for muscle size then there proportions of sub and supra 6RM is inverted.

My personal preference is to use Helm’s method and a baseline and build from there.

Step 4: Pick exercises that appropriately fulfil your desired adaptation goals, sets, reps and intensity.

This is where you can start considering exercise selection. But you must be clear about your personal selection bias as well as what exercises are appropriate at what rep, sets, and intensity ranges. Furthermore, there must be consideration as to what the crossover in terms of muscle groups used in different exercises throughout the week. It’s very easy to overload the lower back when you forget that it’s a significant player in the majority of lower body movements.

To work through some short examples. It might sound great to consistently use a back squat for all your movements. After all it covers most of the lower body and lower back. Practically however have you ever tried to do multiple sets of 12 rep max set of squats at the end of a week where you have already done 150 heavy reps. The injury risk and just plain uncomfortableness makes it a bad choice. Maybe at this point you might be better off adding in some quad isolation work or leg press.

This lean towards machine and isolation work becomes even more noteworthy when you start adding in other movements, such as deadlifts, and, as previously mentioned, the lower back starts being used more. It suddenly becomes extraordinarily easy to do 300 reps of lower back work inevitably running into soreness and injury.

Step 5: Repeat the week until you stop improving

This is where you need the tracking and self-control. If you have followed the above instructions and used a little bit of good judgement, then you’ve made a pretty solid week-long program. The only to do now is to repeat it until it stops working.
This might sound counter-intuitive to do the same thing but if it’s working and you’re getting better than it’s nonsensical to discontinue. There is, however, a caveat. The sets, reps, intensity and exercise selection stay the same, but the weight should go up as needed.

This needs the introduction of a paradigm shift.

Intensity, whilst guided by % now becomes a how hard you’re trying. Say you must do 3 sets of 5 reps of squats in the first week at 80% you need to rank on your spreadsheet how hard you tried. The next week you should try work at the same difficulty but hopefully with more weight. I have people rate between 1 to 5 AND from “Easy” to “Pushing the limit” but it’s just as good to say you worked at an 8 out of 10 difficulty or a 7 out of 10 difficulty.

Please bear in mind that learning how hard you’re working out of 10 in a skill just like squatting and will take you a long time to learn. If every week the weight doesn’t go up that’s ok, if one weeks it goes down that’s also okay the trend however should be upwards (track this on a graph on your spreadsheet for ease).

When the trend stops going upwards you can consider these exercises spent for the time being and it’s time to redo the whole process again.

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