Torso Training for Athletes, Part 1: The Basics

TAGS: torso, stability, core, murphy, sports, athlete, strength, training

What is torso training? Torso training is strengthening your body from just above the hips to just below the chest. Training your torso involves many movements, but can be done effectively in just a few minutes, 3-4 times per week.

In the health and fitness industry lately, there are many trends, and “buzzwords.’ A term that is causing a lot of hysteria is “core” training. Core training is abused my many personal trainers. We don’t want you to spend hours dancing on dyna discs or bosu balls. We want you to challenge yourself with other exercises besides crunches.

One of the prime rules of strength and conditioning is to develop strength in the torso before moving on to the limbs. This is because power, or force, is transmitted through the body’s torso, or “core”, from the ground, to the extremities. The torso is also what stabilizes your body when moving, or applying force (lifting weights). A weak torso will quickly reveal itself! Your torso is the center of your body, and is home to many large muscles, organs, and bones.

Let’s start with the spine. Your spinal column is a bunch of disks stacked on top of each other and these disks rely on the surrounding muscles for support. Weak muscles around the spine, specifically, a weak lower back and abs will lead to injury eventually.

Your internal organs are also supported by your body’s musculature. The muscles keep everything from “squishing” around. Strengthening your torso muscles will make you better able to perform every day tasks, as well as improving performance in your sport of choice.

Let’s quickly review the muscles one will be covering in this article, and what they do.

Our primary focus is on the abs. The abs consists of the rectus abdominals (upper and lower), the transverse abdominal, then we move to the obliques. They are on the sides, and consist of internal, and external obliques. Next we have the quadratus lumborum, which is a deep muscle you can’t see, but it’s there, it acts as a stabilizer. Moving on, we have the lower back, or spinal erectors, which stabilize and support the lumbar disks in your lower back.

The hip flexors (psoas) also are involved in what we will be covering.

The torso is also the home of the back (lats, rhomboids, teres) muscles, pecs (chest) and traps. We will not focus on these muscles in this article.

Our first muscle group to be covered is the abs. The abs have several functions. They hold internal organs in place, and they effect movement on the spine.

Movement of the spine by the abs is basically done in two ways: 1) shoulders to hips, and 2) hips to shoulders, or spinal flexion.

Generally, the lower portion of the abs is harder to target, and tire fast, so we will look at them first. The lower section of the abs brings the hips towards the shoulders.

We can work this area with several exercises, presented easy to hardest and we can also incorporate the transverse ab in their movements. Don’t get caught up in the GURU HYPE of maintaining transverse ab activation. Just remember, it’s a part of what we are doing here, not the magic bullet.

When doing any ab movement, we always want to “lift the pelvic floor” to activate more muscle fiber. This is done by, for lack of a better description, squeezing the muscles you would use to stop your flow of urine. Whenever you do an ab exercise, squeeze these muscles first, and keep the squeezed during each rep.

Exercises presented here are basic, we have many more exercises to get you strong, and they will be presented in later articles.

Let’s begin our torso work. Exercises are listed easiest to most difficult. Try to master the easier ones before moving on to more difficult ones.

Hips to shoulders

      1) Pelvic tilt-lie on the floor, and curl your hips towards your upper body, while lifting the pelvic floor. Keep your lower back on the floor, the range of motion here is very small.2) Hip Thrust-lie on the floor and extend your legs towards the ceiling, keeping your knees and ankles as close as possible. Thrust your feet towards the ceiling by using your abs.

3) Hanging Leg Raise-This is a very misunderstood exercise by many people. Most coaches have the athlete stop the movement when the thighs are parallel to the floor. This is only half a rep! You must bring your knees all the way to your head as you curl into a ball. The abdominal muscles don’t really begin to work until your legs are higher than your hips.

All of these can be made more difficult by adding weight, or squeezing a stability ball, or medicine ball between knees, or ankles.

Shoulders to Hips

      1) Basic Crunch – (difficulty increased by lengthening lever arm)-Lie on the floor and lift the pelvic floor as you curl your shoulders towards your hips, and lift your back off the floor. Do not pull on your head.2) Extended Crunch, or Stability Ball Crunch-This is done the same as a regular crunch but is done on a stability ball. The ball adds more proprioception (fancy word for balance). If you do not have a ball, you can roll up a towel and put it under the small of your back instead. .It is not as good as a ball, but it is more difficult than a regular crunch. A word on stability balls, don’t get a cheap one from a discount store. The anti burst balls available from elitefts.com are the best we have ever used. I would recommend them.

3) Roman Chair Crunch-These can be done on a Roman chair, or a glute ham bench. Lie on the bench, and hook your feet through the foot supports. Lower your body down into a situp postiton, and curl upwards, try to make yourself into a small round ball at the top.

4) Situps-Plain old fashioned gym class situps are great for strengthening your torso. Many personal trainers say that situps work the hip flexors, and don’t isolate the abs. To that I say good! We are trying to work the torso. I won’t even get into a discussion on the fact that it is impossible to isolate a muscle.

5) Wood Chops-wood chops are best done with a rope ball, a regular medicine ball can be used if a rope ball is not available.

Wood chops can also be done with a cable.

We like using med balls and rope balls for this because this allows the exercise to be performed explosively.

To perform a wood chop, using a rope ball, assume an athletic stance and hold the ball behind your back, keep your elbows up towards the ceiling, arch your back, and explode downwards to the floor, tucking your body into a crunched position. Exhale as hard as you can when you do this. When using a rope ball, keep your head down until the ball bounces back up. To do these with a regular med ball, do the same thing, and try to slam the ball down as hard as you can at a 45 degree angle from you. Again, all can be made more difficult by adding weight.

There you have it, nothing revolutionary, or secret. Just common sense, and hard work are required to build a strong torso in your athletes. Look for our next article in this series covering rotational exercises.

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