The Foundation: Building Your Pillar of Strength
We have a tendency to think of movement as starting from the limbs. If we reach out to grab something or step forward, we think of those motions as originating with the end result -- we've reached out; therefore, we've used our arms. We've stepped forward, so we've worked our legs. Uncountable exercise programs promise bigger arms or sexier legs as a primary benefit.
Movement, however, starts from the very center of the body, the core area of the torso. Amputees still can function and have fulfilling lives because their cores remain intact. Frost-bite begins at the fingers and toes, areas farthest from the core, because the body wants to protect what's most important and concentrates its lifesaving heat around the vital organs at the center of the body.
That's why we refer to the torso as the pillar -- it's the structural center of movement and life. The way we maintain that pillar and its alignment and function directly correlate to the health of our organs and the rest of our bodies. Everything is interrelated.
Pillar strength, thus, is the foundation of movement. More specifically, it consists of core, hip, and shoulder stability. Those three areas give us a center axis from which to move. If you think of the body as a wheel, the pillar is the hub, and the limbs, the spokes.
We want to have the hub perfectly aligned so we can draw energy from it and effectively transfer energy throughout the body. It's impossible to move the limbs efficiently and with force if they're not attached to something solid and stable.
The better you can transfer energy through your body, the more efficiently you will move, and the less wear and tear there will be. If you have good pillar strength and take a step, force will pass evenly through your foot, calf, and hip -- right up the pillar and through the top of your head.
If you lack pillar strength, specifically hip stability, the energy "leaks out" at the hip, and the body must compensate. More pressure is placed down toward the knees and up toward the lower back, which over time can cause degenerative problems.
Parents are always telling their children to sit or stand up straight. There's a reason for that. Without pillar strength, without what I call perfect posture, you will significantly increase the potential for injury in a chain that starts with your lower back, descends all the way to your knees and ankles, and rises up to your shoulders and elbows.
Everything in your body is connected and related through this pillar of strength. Your shoulders and spine are related to the core and gluteus maximus (or glutes), and they're interwoven in cross patterns that need to be tuned for maximum efficiency.
Think of a rubber band wrapped around your body. If one end is not attached, you will not develop enough tension. The band is fine, but unless both ends are attached solidly, there's no way to store, release, and transfer energy throughout your body.
For every action, there's a reaction. If I fire and move one muscle, it causes another muscle to react. The muscles stretch and snap back. This dynamic, multiplanar transfer of energy from front to back, side to side, and top to bottom creates fluid movement for people with the greatest pillar strength.
Marion Jones, the world-class sprinter, has tremendous pillar strength. As she sprints 100 meters, there's a smooth transfer of energy through her stable pillar that allows her to run at such great speed. There's perfect harmony between coordination, muscular strength, stability, balance, elasticity, and flexibility.
All movement starts from a remarkable muscle called the transverse abdominis. Think of the TA as nature's weight belt. It originates from the lower spine and wraps around and attaches to the ribs, abdominals, and pelvis. When we draw the belly button in toward the spine and up toward the ribs, we're essentially tightening a belt, ensuring the protection of the pelvis and lower back. Your natural weight belt stabilizes the pelvis and supports the torso.
Whenever movement begins, the TA is the first muscle that fires -- or, at least, it should be. For many people, that ability is lost over time on account of injuries or sedentary lifestyles. We spend so much time in front of computers and televisions that we develop bad posture. Injuries are a result and exacerbate the problem further.
Workers at home-improvement stores are required to wear snug belts around their backs and abdominals when lifting or moving objects for safety reasons. They need to wear such devices because their bodies no longer activate their natural weight belts.
If we can learn (or relearn) how to activate the TA, we can rely on nature's weight belt and not wear additional support. We'll be able to stabilize the pelvis so that the leg and torso muscles can turn to it for support. That, in turn, prevents back problems. The body will be able to transfer force efficiently through the muscles rather than through the back and joints.
You'll relearn how to activate your TA early in this program, and though it's an easy process, you'll have to make a conscious effort at the beginning. Soon you'll find that it's second nature, and you will no longer have to think about it.
Now that you are conscious of the role of the transverse abdominis in core stability, we need to address your shoulders, another key element of perfect posture. Think of a skeleton hanging in a classroom. Its shoulders are naturally hanging back and down, giving it perfect posture and alignment.
Unfortunately, most people have a tendency to slump forward, with their shoulder blades sliding forward and up. If you spend much of your day in front of a computer, as many working Americans do, you're probably slumping over, even if you're not conscious of it. Unless you make some changes, you're going to end up hunched over like so many of our elderly friends who, sadly, never were exposed to a program like this years ago, when they most needed it.
I want you to keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down toward your waist, as if thrusting your chest up. You'll hear me reiterate it ("SBD") during the instructions for many exercises. It's important to keep your shoulders in this position throughout the program and throughout life.
Another key concept to understand about pillar strength is the fascial planes that wrap around the body. Think of these planes as the ropes that tie your muscles together. They ultimately tie a glute into your opposite shoulder and your hip muscles to your lower back.
Let's say you were standing on an observation deck looking directly down upon golfer Tiger Woods at the tee. As his club comes back, his shoulders turn, and his lower body remains stable, if only for a moment. At that instant, from your vantage point, his body would form the letter X. He's able to disassociate his shoulders and hips as he moves across the transverse plane to generate incredible power. Why? Because he's developed incredible mobility and pillar strength.
Reprinted from: Core Performance: The Revolutionary Workout Program to Transform Your Body and Your Life, by Mark Verstegen and Pete Williams © 2004 by Mark Verstegen 1-57954-908-X Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.
Mark Verstegen directs a 25-person team of performance specialists and nutritionists to train some of the biggest names in sports, including soccer star Mia Hamm; baseball's Nomar Garciaparra, Roberto Alomar, and Vernon Wells; WTA tennis players Meghann Shaughnessy and Mary Pierce; golfers Jim Carter and Billy Mayfair; NFL veteran Trace Armstrong; hockey goalie Nikolai Khabibulin; and NBA forward Rick Fox. He serves as director of performance for the NFL Players Association, is an advisor to Adidas, and serves as a consultant to numerous athletic governing bodies, including the U.S. Tennis Association. Verstegen and his wife, Amy, a former Washington State University soccer player, live in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Pete Williams is a contributing writer to Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal and USA Today Sports Weekly. He has written about fitness and performance for numerous publications and is the author of two books on the sports-memorabilia business: Card Sharks and Sports Memorabilia for Dummies. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he lives in Florida with his wife, Suzy, and son, Luke.