Core Progressions for Young or Underdeveloped Athletes

Proper core development is a must when considering the long-term impacts we can have on our athletes and clients. Teaching our athletes how to “brace” their core will pay dividends when approaching squats, or movements that involve weights being compressed.

Here are a few ways to teach proper core development.

Technique 1: McGill Crunch

Developed by Dr. Stuart McGill, a very well-known back specialist, this movement specifically helps athletes learn how to “turn their rib cage down” rather than flaring their rib cage and putting their lumbar spine into extension. If we successfully help our athletes develop this ability we will be taking the first step in teaching them the Valsalva maneuver, which will minimize the athlete’s chances of any impingement, herniation and other spine related injuries from movements that are axial loaded.

How to Perform the McGill Crunch

Instruct your athlete to lie on their back with one leg flat, while keeping their other leg bent flexed with their foot flat on the ground. While the athlete is lying on their back, instruct them to extend their arms and point directly up at the sky. At this point the athlete is in the “starting position” for the movement. Next, instruct the athlete to pull his/her upper back/scapula off the ground by activating their core muscles. 90% of the time, athletes will allow their hands to drift towards their toes. Do allow them to. Cue them to find a spot on the ceiling right above their head and to try to touch it.

Technique 2: RKC Plank

While the normal plank is good for promoting stability and maintaining a neutral spine, it doesn’t effectively teach an athlete how to maintain a neutral spine under the stress of tension. Keep in mind, if an athlete cannot effectively do a normal plank without their lumbar spine going into extension, they should not be promoted to an RKC plank.

How to Perform the RKC Plank

Get into the plank position. As a coach cue your athletes to activate areas or individual muscles of the athlete’s body starting from their heels or calves and working up to their glutes (heels, calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes). After the athlete is flexing the muscles you told them to, cue the athlete to “pull.” The athlete will be instructed to try to pull their elbows to their toes. While they obviously will not be able to do so, this will force the athletes to maintain a neutral spine under very high tension. Some athletes with a weaker core will allow their lower back to go into extension when instructed to pull. If this happens, try to help the athlete understand the goal of the exercise and try to instruct them to “pull their belly button into their body.”

Technique 3: Dead Bug

The dead bug is my personal favorite. With a multitude of progressions there are always different ways to challenge your athlete. The dead bug can be a difficult movement for those who struggle to brace their core. To start, have your athlete perform alternating dead bugs if she/he can successfully do this for multiple reps and sets with their lower back remaining in contact with the ground you can progress them to a full dead bug. The dead bug is the perfect core exercise for teaching athletes how to successfully do the Valsalva maneuver, which is the best way to “brace” your core for heavy strength training.

How to Perform the Dead Bug

Have your athlete lie on their back. Make sure the athlete has their whole back against the floor. Instruct your athlete to extend their hands straight up in the air and also have them bend their knees to 90 degrees and have their legs off the ground so there is a 90-degree angle at their hip as well. At this point the only thing on the ground is their whole back and the back of their head – this is the starting position.

Instruct your athlete to inhale a big breath through their nose and hold the air in the stomach. After the athlete has braced his/her core, instruct them to extend their left leg and right arm straight out, have them hold for 2-3 seconds, then bring each limb back to the starting positioning, alternate to the opposite arm and leg.

This will challenge the athlete to maintain a neutral spine. Remember the goal is to keep their back completely flat when each limb is extended. As a coach, try to slide your hand under the small of your athlete’s back. If there is a gap, then your athlete is allowing their lower back to go into extension. Have them reset and squeeze their core. Try to maintain that tension while extending each limb again.

If your athlete cannot do this, return to planks, McGill Crunch, or any stability-based approach. If your athlete can successfully do an alternating dead bug, try to progress them into a full dead bug, which is the same set-up. Just extend both arms and legs at the same time.

Brady Bonte, CSCS