I’ve never been punched in the stomach. I’ve never even been threatened to be punched in the stomach. I have two older brothers, but growing up, they chose to sit on me rather than pummel me. And, you know, that treatment probably made me a sturdier person in general, but still: Not a punch in the stomach.
So whenever I hear a trainer say, “Brace your core like you’re going to be punched in the stomach,” it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I mean, I get the concept. But it’s not a reflex I’ve ever engaged, nor, for that matter, one I ever hope to engage.
To be honest, many cues for core engagement don’t make a whole lot of sense to me: one of my pilates-instructor buddies likes to talk about squeezing an ice cube between your navel and your spine and it’s like– what the fuck? Who does that? It’s about as practical as imagining I’m trying to hold the Alien spawn inside of me so I can save all of mankind (On second thought: I think that cue makes more sense to me than the ice cube cue.) Really: Why is the ice cube there? Why an ice cube? Where does the ice cube go if it’s not held between my spine and navel? Etc.
Something I’ve noticed when training women to deadlift– or to hinge at their hips in general– is that they often have a difficult time bracing their cores on command. Engaging the deep stabilizing muscles can be particularly difficult for those who are especially flexible or have a lot of joint laxity. Hell, it’s difficult simply because, when deadlifting, your brain is usually focusing on a variety of other issues– like grip strength, pushing through your heels, etc. Core stabilization is essential, but easy to let slip into the background. Thus, a hip hinge movement can result in a lot of lumbar spine movement as well. And lumbar spine movement, when loaded with more weight than the muscles are able to handle, means a lot of shearing forces on the spine and, as a result, pain.
Most folks don’t like pain.
Now, there are a lot of reasons that core engagement is particularly important for women when we deadlift. In particular, because of our reduced upper body strength, it’s much easier for a loaded bar to pull the shoulders into a rounded position, thus pulling the spine down, and so on. While upper back strength is also an essential feature for training deadlifting for women, you can’t get very far without proper core engagement.
Furthermore, when we think of core engagement, we often think about core engagement in some form hip extension: planks, side planks, paloff presses, etc. I’ve found, for myself and my clients, that training core engagement through the hinging motion helps prep the muscles for staying engaged throughout the deadlift movement.
Here’s a look at the move:
First, to get this core engagement is to hand your client a weight while her arms are extended. If she keeps the arms from moving when you hand her the weight, she should immediately feel her core brace. Then, keeping her arms fully extended with her shoulder blades retracted, she should be able to move through the hinge motion fairly easily while still keeping the spine nice and stable. A set of 12-15 reps, with a 10- or 25-pound weight plate works well as a warm-up. Give it a shot and tell me what you think!