Thursday, October 21, 2010

Exercise balls are stupid, "Core Strength"

My ideal training environment has the following in it:

Some sort of ice climbing simulator thing (Plice).
A place to run around outside.
Rings, both Rock Rings and gymnastic rings, place to hang 'em.
Some weight and a bar. A stylie set of Olympic bumper plate weights would be nice, but I've got a bunch of weights we got at garage sales for pennies. They work fine.

Anything after this is gravy. Really. Exercise balls, machines, etc. etc. are somewhere between comfortable accessories and shiny garbage. It's nice to have a squat rack and stands and so on, but it's not necessary. I go work out with my friends down at Athletic Evolution when I want the comfortable gear or a controlled environment (or for fun, good people), but you don't really need anything more than a jungle gym at a kid's playground and a rock. Or a tire.... There are a ton of wicked workouts here that don't require any gear at all.

I figure that about 90 percent of the machinery in the average health club is wasted space. Movements should be done as you do them in real life. A squat is not composed of a quad extension and a hamstring machine, it's a movement that involves just about every single muscle in your body working together. I generally reject Crossfit T-shirt slogans (you shouldn't wear T shirts with bad-ass statements on them unless you're a bad ass) in general, but "machines are the enemy" is a good one.

Anyhow, I had a long discussion with a guy on a flight the other day about all the junk in gyms (he was convinced a lat machine was better than a pullup), and it bothered me so you get to read about it. The most ubiqitous POS in the gyms I visit while traveling (and I do visit 'em even if I can barely see the micro free weight area over the sea of machines) is the exercise ball. Exercise balls should only be used for rolling target practice at 200 yards. Want to involve some more muscles in a situp? Do a front lever or a knees to elbows or a windshield wiper or whatever. If you can't do that then sit on the floor and try to balance on your own butt while picking your feet up. Anything can be scaled. Rolling around on a ball is only extremely useful for sports that require rolling around on a ball. Are you working out to get stronger in a useful way or working out to get better at rolling around on a ball?

But rolling around on a ball is better than rolling around on a couch for sure, so right on if you find it fun to get your ball on...

Now on to "core strength" as it relates to climbing and balls. I often get into discussions with people who think their "core" is weak for climbing. They usually can't get or keep their feet on an overhanging wall. Most "trainers" will prescribe rolling around on a ball like a spastic to increase "core strength." The ability to get your feet on a wall while climbing is NOT determined by your abs or anything having to do with that ball anymore than your ability to do a squat is determined by hamstring curls. To put your feet on the wall you need to be able to do just that motion--hang on two holds, swing up and place your feet and hold them there. You need more shoulder strength and front-lever style training than anything else. You could have the abs of a ball exerciser and not be able to do shit about getting your feet on the wall because, like the hamstring curler, the whole system has to work together. The shoulders, not the abs, are almost always the weak link. If I see one more "core" exercise for climbing that does nothing for actually climbing I'm going to burn the magazine I see it in on the spot. At least I'll be able to work out in my jail cell.

I had coffee with a good bud of mine, Greg from Crossfit Canmore, yesterday, and he made an interesting point that deadlifts improve his "body tension." I had to think about this for a minute, but he's right. If you've ever done a lot of steep-wall training for climbing or deadlifting you'll notice that your hamstrings and lower back muscles (not joints or ligaments, muscle) will be sore the next day. Front lever training gets your feet on the wall, but holding them there takes a combination of dead-lift hamstring/back contraction (and every other muscle involved in that motion) and shoulder tension. If you had bomber footholds you wouldn't even need any shoulder strength once your feet were on the wall, it's all back and legs. Many good rock climbers I've trained with are disproportionately strong on their deadlifts; I think this is because they have strong body tension and REAL "core" strength.

My measures of "strong" core strength would be this:

-Can do 15 knees to elbows in row (and not swinging spastic knees to elbows, controlled leg lifts), or hold a half-front lever for 10 seconds.

-Can deadlift 1.5 times bodyweight.

Anyone who can do that is not in general going to have any problem with "core strength" or body tension in life or while climbing. Very steep routes or tougher forms of life may require more than that.

So, if you're a climber that has a hard time holding your feet on the wall practice by hanging onto two good holds in a roof and swinging your feet up and "catching" holds with them, repeat with holds to the side, etc. The good news is that this strength does come relatively quickly compared to pullups or something. Some deadlifts may also help, as will knees to elbows etc.

Send your used exercise balls to me, I'll take good care of them.


Toby Gadd said...

I have an exercise ball, and I'm proudly using it to strengthen upper-body muscles for mountain biking. I place a bar across it, and then I do some weird rolling and bouncing push-ups--sometimes with my knees on a stool. It looks absurd--and my son has taken to calling it "humping the ball." But it seems to hit all of the necessary muscles, and I don't get numb hands or sore shoulders when riding anymore. Yes, I could probably get the same (or better!) workout by riding highly technical trails more often, but this fits the bill when time is tight.

If you don't love your balls, you're just not using them right!

Jenn said...

A couple of things:

There is no way that practicing "grabbing two good holds in a roof and swinging your feet up and "catching" holds with them, repeat with holds to the side, etc." wouldn't leave you totally burning all through your abs (unless you were already incredibly strong), a clear indication that in fact you do need a significant amount of abdominal strength to make that movement and to stick it. I can say that personally any time I've been working a roof problem where my feet cut loose and I have to get them back on it is always my abs that are sore the next day and not my shoulders.

Also, you're interchanging core strength and abdominal strength which are two different things. Core strength means having endurance and strength in the stabilizing muscles of the torso including the pelvic floor, low back (multifidus etc) and transverse abdominus. Core strength can help you do almost any activity with less pain and more control while abdominal
strength helps you to flex your torso when your legs are fixed (deadlift) or flex your legs when your torso is fixed (catching and sticking to a roof with your feet).
As for the ball, there is some controversy in the research as to whether just sitting on a ball to do office work does anyhting to improve core strength, but if you are aware of how to engage your core muscles then the dynamic movement of the ball can help to increase the strength of those stabilizing muscles as you attempt to keep yourself in control while exercising on a ball.

Clyde said...

Time to play devil's advocate, though overall I mostly agree that climbers are seldom limited by the core. But first, it's great to see that Jenn actually knows what the "core" is, something I'd wager 90% of trainers get wrong.

I think the best of the machines are a hell of a lot better than kettlebells or whatever the fad du jour may be. More time efficient, less chance of injury, every bit as effective. To say all machines are bad is just ignorant...a common crossfit trait ;-)

The hamstring curl is one of the few single joint machines that more people should be using because there is a strong correlation between weak hamstrings and blown ACLs. Deadlifts are great but many people have spinal injuries that make it risky. Lat pulls actually can be better than pullups because you can target different angles quickly and easily; just don't use the leg brace until you're beyond body weight.

The ball can be useful for more than crunches or silly balancey time wasters the "functional" people have been shoveling. Makes a pretty good bench for chest and shoulder presses. There are worse things you could have in a home gym. But I do like the idea of target practice!

Anonymous said...

Put 60 or so pounds in a pack and go for a walk. Run if you want to. Hanging on a roof in good form dosen't work the core. Maybe you're not doing it enough. The ups, push, pull, sit, throw, all do well for the core. Change the angle on each for a bit more intensity. Just get out and do something long and hard. Work is good. Carry concrete blocks over a construction site. Work concrete. Bundles of shingles up a ladder. Help someone move. Leave your balls alone and try something new.

Will Gadd said...

Toby--any training is better than no training. If it works for you then cool. The best shape I ever remember you being in was the summers you spent wrestling a chainsaw and lifting logs like Anon posts below, you were strong as fuck back then.

Jenn--Thanks for the comments, I bet we'd have some fun together. Of course any body tension exercise is going to leave your abs worked, especially if that's all you've got to work with... Please re-read my post; I make the point that body tension relies on a whole chain of muscles working together, including abs. If you're like many people I see in the climbing gym the reason your abs primarily get sore is that you likely almost totally lack the shoulder muscles to do what is required, so you're using the muscle you do have (abs) to compensate. Here's a challenge: Hang on a bar and do 10 straight knees to elbows with a one-second hold with your knees touching your elbows, let me know how that goes. I'm going to bet one exercise ball you can't do it, and that therefore your shoulders (leaving aside specifics on that) are weak as a kittens. Oh, and your abs are gonna feel it too!

Agreed on the core and ab strength, I was more focused on blasting the body tension vs. core/abs commentary I see (and which it seems you're still unclear on, my bad writing). As for the ball, well, I've yet to hear anything convincing on why using a ball is more effective in producing useful strength... Thanks for the comments, you're obviously thinking about this a lot, cool.

Clyde--Good work on the Devil's Advocate, nice. I'm gonna respond to your comments in sections, as there is a whole mess of stuff swirled together in there.

Crossfit: I'd agree, a lot of Crossfitters are ignorant and arrogant. It's like teenagers shagging for the first time who thinks they've just discovered something new. I've made that point previously. But the thing is this: the "traditional" gym training world, which I've seen a lot of over the last 25 years, is just as ignorant and arrogant but has less results to show for their way of doing things. Even a misguided Crossfit (or Gym Jones or whatever else) program is still likely to kick ass on the average 24-hour fitness program. If we took 100 people from a 24-hour fitness and 100 from a CF box the CF team would destroy the 24-hour gym people in any meaningful event except maybe reading comprehension while riding an exercise bike.

Lat Machines: I've spent literally days of my life on these, and yes, they can be useful. But given a choice between a pullup bar and a lat machine which one would you take? I know I'd take the bar. You can always use rope to make pullups accessible, hang rings off the bar (TRX style stuff), etc, it's just a better piece of equipment all-in.

Do you have any evidence that doing hamstring curls will help to protect the ACL more than doing squats, lunges, deadlifts and other movements that require a stabilized knee, unlike a hamstring curl?

And let's say you're going to get stuck on a desert island. You have a choice of one hamstring curl machine and a lat machine, or a kettlebell and a pullup bar. Me, I'd take the kettlebell and pullup bar... If I had to take the lat machine and hamstring curler I'd dismantle the curler use the weights in the stack, that would be second best.

My own training has not been effective lately, too much time on other stuff, but I'll put up a video of the latest joy "machine" today, yeah!!!

Kim Graves said...

Will, I like you list of gear - almost exactly what I have here. A real cheap set of weights – found them on the street. Various kettlebells. I do have a cheap squat rack and a 20 year old Nordic Track that I also got for free. I'd like to add five things to your list: 1) a heart rate monitor with stopwatch function; 2) a Gymboss ( for timing intervals; 3) a scale; 4) calipers to measure body fat; 5) a good plan. With the first four you can measure whether 5 is in fact good and change it if it's not.

PS: from your recommendation several weeks ago I bought "the book" about periodization. It's really good. Hopefully this is what I need to stay healthy. Thanks.

Toby Gadd said...

There's no doubt that throwing logs and chainsaws around for ten hours a day will make anyone strong. It's fun, too! Alas, those days are history.

A hard bike commute and some ball humping fit into my day a little better these days. It's not "better than no training," as you state--it's actually damn good training! Now, doing traditional pushups in a hotel room on a business trip, that's "better than no training"--and I do those too!

Ball humping requires balancing while under load, which seems to recruit a bunch of smaller support (core?) muscles--precisely the muscles which burn like hell after 10+ hours on my bike. There's also a decent range of motion from the rocking and bouncing, which helps build those muscles responsible for controlling my bike in technical sections.

I don't expect to see a bunch of guys wearing "FORGED" shirts humping big purple balls anytime soon--and I'm OK with that!

Will Gadd said...

Kim--I'd get rid of the calipers and scale, but that's me. Neither number is meaningful except to Bicep International Mag. Time yourself on a 5K, note your max squat, bench, how hard you're climbing, etc. These are meaningful numbers, weight and BF are characteristics secondary to the actual act of doing stuff. I onsighted more 5.13 at around nine percent body fat than I ever did at five for example... I used to own a very accurate scale and calipers, haven't looked at either number in 10 years and am doing OK.

Toby--Glad it's working for you, that's great. And if you feel it's damn good training then cool. But you won't truly know how effective that training is without some sort of performance metric to judge it against. If your rides feel better then that's enough maybe, but the acid test will come in the form of performance. I may believe my mixed training is more effective than what other people do, but if I get my ass kicked in a comp or can't climb the hardest routes then it wasn't. If you can ride without pain and are stoked then it is for you personally, but that's not a measure of the regime in an exterior sense. And good on you for doing pushups in a hotel room, beats most hotel fitness centres.

Put another way, some people swear they're getting fit by locking both arms out on the treadmill and moving their legs while reading Bicep International Mag. But they aren't going to be running six minute miles, or performing against any sort of external measure.

I'm out for a bit, gotta get some other stuff done, fun discussion!

Toby Gadd said...

I don't expect to win the races that I'm entering next year. And it's not because humping the ball is an inferior workout that fails to satisfy the "acid test" of putting me on the podium. It's because I don't train as long as those the guys who do win. Many are sponsored athletes (like you), or they dedicate most of their time to training and competing.

Humping the ball is a damn good part of my workout because it thoroughly addresses a key weakness for me--the ability to stay pain-free and to maintain control of my bike for hours on end in difficult terrain. Eliminating a major weakness is a crucial part of riding faster and longer--which is a legitimate "acid test" of any athlete--whether a winner or not.

Will Gadd said...

Toby--I figured you might be looking at things something like that, good luck with the races and training.

For those who haven't figured it out, Toby is my brother, lives in Ft. Collins, had a good time in the 2010 Great Divide Trail race, which looks like a real bitch.

Toby Gadd said...

Oops, not the Great Divide Race. The Colorado Trail Race. Similar concepts, but different type of riding.

I hope to be the first guy to do the CTR next year on a big purple exercise ball. ;)

Kim Graves said...

Will, the scale and calipers are motivational tools for me. I'm not 9% and at 20 years your senior I doubt if I ever will be. I'm at 17% down from 21%. I work out for health reasons as well as to be able to enjoy my time outside more. My doc says if I can get down to 15% maybe I can stop taking some of the drugs I'm taking. That's motivation!

Will Gadd said...

Kim, you're likely the only guy I know over 60 who has his own squat rack--and all the other stuff going on, cool! May we all be doing half of what you get after at any point in our lives.

Now, go get down to 15 percent!

furry said...

While I share Will's disdain for exercise balls (from a functional, real life perspective born out of Crossfit style training the last 4 years), I must acknowledge that there could be something there. The most analogous piece of equipment we both love would be the rings. Like the exercise ball they recruit a host of stablizer muscles all the way down through the core for any movement performed on them, be it something as simple as pushups. Another similarity is that they present a movement/ROM unlikely to be encountered in the real world: for example anything I grab onto and hoist myself over (muscle up) is going to be fixed and not freely rotating. Don't expect to see me on an exercise ball anytime soon, but perhaps they can be used to blast your core/abs after a "real" workout for that final sting.

Clyde: not sure why the animosity towards kettlebells, and I fail to see how a lump of weight with a handle is a "fad." Are buckets, paint cans, bags, baskets and all other carrying vessels fads too? I would be more inclined to say that a Cybex machine with a singular fixed plane of motion, recruiting one muscle in a way its never called upon to act in the real world is more deserving of the "fad" moniker. If I were training someone with a spinal injury then all the more important they strengthen their back, hamstrings, and "core" with movements like the deadlift to prevent further degeneration. Just start super light and progress slowly.

Jenn: Gotta agree with Will on this one. Many climbers have very poor core strength but enough sport specific strength to mask it when they're on the vertical. For example, I have a friend who is a 5.13+ sport climber (including the steeps of Rifle) and when I showed him some basic exercises like knees to elbows he could barely do my warmup sets. Armor chink exposed. Imagine how much more efficient he'd be with some balanced out fitness.

Eric said...

This a great discussion although it making me feel as though I have horrible body awareness. I've long though that the one thing that holds me back in climbing is my core strength. At the end of a climbing session I'll often do leg lifts and that foot hold seeking exercise. What I feel the next day is blasted abs and sometimes a sore lower back. I tried the knees to elbows on thursday too. Again it blasted my abs. I did 3 sets of ten nice and slow but was falling apart on the last 5 of the last set. My shoulders were not really worked at all. So my question is, what am I doing wrong to compensate so much with my abs/core? What climbing shoulder specific exercises should I do???

Thanks and keep on bloggin'

Will Gadd said...

Furry--Gymnasts do rad stuff on the rings. I've yet to see anyone do anything I'd consider at all cool on a ball... However, you can do a sort of GHD situp on them that may introduce you to rhabdo pretty quick, so I guess they must be good for something other than target practice? Give 'er.

Eric--Sore abs are hard to misdiagnose I figure, your body awareness is likely just fine! A few things:

--I don't think all that many people actually know how to recruit the shoulder muscles necessary to do a front lever or hold true body tension in a useful way. The basis for this theory is that everyone I've trained body tension strength with improves MASSIVELY after only a couple of exercises. Nobody actually gets 200 percent stronger in two sessions, so it's recruitment (or use another word that means "head learns how to control muscle"). Gains are slow after a half-dozen sessions or so.

-Usually the sore abs will go away after at most a couple of weeks of training 'em to hold your spine in place instead of doing what most people do with 'em ( twitch around on the ground or on a ball). Even if you do all sorts of fancy "ab exercises" a good session of knees to elbows (full range of motion so your back gets parallell with the ground) or scaled front levers will destroy your abs...

-The sore lower back is likely the same sort of sore back you'll get doing deadlifts if you don't do 'em right or you're really weak and use too much weight. Once your feet are on the wall it's pretty much all hamstring and lower back to keep 'em there (along with being able to stick the handholds of course).

furry said...

If someone managed to give themselves rhabdo with a medicine ball I don't know whether I'd take their "Forged" gear and burn it, or give them a medal.

Dejan Miškovič said...

I enjoy the debate and have some pratical advice to enter and discus.

Couple of thoughts: Hard Work, drytooling, olimpic lifts, kettelbells, technical climbing(roofs "kill" the torso) and similar recreation did the most for my abs and core strength...result wise.

Additional exercises I found usefull are:

-Bar work and rings(swinging bar and big diameter bars add difficulty), the tip is good technique(exercise: dead hang-tilt the pelvis into the cealing-knees to elbows(straight legs add diff.)-legs going up into the cealing-pullup the torso as high as possible with control! and going down slowly and with control and maintaining the pelvis tilt when returning onto dead hang...and one more repetition..if you can do 10, you can usually do a front leaver)

- Floor work - gymnastics - pilates, works well if you know what your goal is and how to attain it or to add to your original sport (holding a handstand in good form,..), again I found the pelvis and shoulder tilt if lying on the ground one of the things to add diff.

Similarity to real life is the way to go.

I train other people to climb better(novice to intermediate) and core-abs-shoulder link is one of the weakest parts(in fitness level). So I experiment with exercises when I see results in climbing I am happy.

Balls, wheels, rubber bands are in my opinion good to warm up, finish up or do fizio work if you are not fit enough to do real work.

As Will said...if you have no gym access get a bar some cheap weights and use your imagination.

Activation of the shoulders is on my mind next..straight arming overhangs when climbing???


Jenn said...

Well, I took you up on your challenge and it looks like I owe you an exercise ball (although I won't have disputed being weak as a kitten in the first place!) Thanks for your response, I hadn't really thought about the scenario of abs compensating for weak shoulders.

I think that the whole discussion comes down to the fact that the best way to train for your sport is by doing that sport. Climbing, like any sport other than maybe weightlifting (if you consider it a sport, I don't think I would), is super dynamic and you need everything working together, this is why training by doing knees to shoulders or by climbing roofs is more effective then "rolling around on a ball". I think that's the point - and I totally agree.

My comments were made more as a physical therapist because I often see people with chronic pain and injuries that are caused because their big muscles are over powering their stabilizers. Big muscles get fatigued, overly tight and painful and stabilizers get atrophied and forget how to do their job. This leads to imbalance and injury. For people like this exercises on a ball can be very helpful as they start to retrain their stabilizing muscles.

Thanks, this discussion has really got me thinking. And also made me realize that I really need to work on shoulder strength!

Will Gadd said...

Dejan--sounds like you're having some fun destroying yourself as well as a sound understanding of climbing strength, cool.

Jenn--You're doing something very useful in terms of helping people actually get back on their feet, cool, and injuries are of course a different set of parameters.

One thing in all of this that I'm curious about is why people get wildly "imbalanced" in the first place. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the dominant for of gym training today, which is to work muscles in isolation while sitting.... Compound movements kick ass on isolation movements. The ball adds muscles in, but it's still/lying down and taking the weight that our muscles and joints should be if they are to develop in a "balanced" way.

Toby Gadd said...

Will, if you can recommend an exercise that better simulates the weird motion of descending steep technical terrain on a mountain-bike, I'd love to give it a try.

Kim Graves said...


I think the other answer to your question of why we become imbalanced is that specific sports are by nature imbalanced. For example, in climbing pulling is much dominate to pushing. I have a current shoulder injury caused by pushing a sheet of Sheetrock over my head to the ceiling. I can pull down just fine. But pushing up, I was weak. The answer, I would guess, is always train you weakness.

Anonymous said...

What a good discussion. Solid input all around. Toby, I believe hand stand pushups, although not simulating the motion would certainly build the Triseps. Done well that's one hell of an exercise. Use a wall or tree or have someone catch your ankles as you go up. Someone you trust. It can be humorus. Hand clap pushup with feet on a chair could help as well. Seems like form is the common thread in all this core stuff. With all this infromation I think I'll to Lowes on Saturday. Plice time.

JD LeBlanc said...

Dood, always entertaining on this blog. Various exercises are good for the off season, but what's wrong with instead of training, trying to get better while doing the actual activity. I am sure that there are some 5.14 ball workout'ers, but in order to climb 5.14, or above 12a, requires the actual activity. The Euro's are better simply because they get to climb all year round, and rarely need to walk more than 15 minutes. Maybe the best way to use a ball to get better as a mixed climber - carry it into Haffner and use it to sit on, climb actual rock/ice and then carry it back to the car ...

Will Gadd said...

Toby--drop me an email, I'll drop you a program. I'd prescribe variants on pushups, some form of kettlebell style swing, handstand pushups, maybe some ring work, deadlifts, etc. etc It all depends on what you equipment you have and how specific you want to be--for the winter I'd go very general, and up the specific stuff as the season comes. Email and we can sort it out.

JD--yes, as usual, and let's get out.

Kim--I'm not so sure about this imbalance theory as it relates to climbing. While popular, it's not a theory I've actually seen much of. Most climbers end up not with overdeveloped lats but "overly" developed pecs.... Most climbers look relatively well-rounded to me. We're primates, not gazelles. Your drywall injury was maybe due to something other than climbing I'd guess, injuries do suck. Train smarter...

Anonymous said...

what are your thoughts on TRX

Will Gadd said...

Anon--TRX is a good idea and likely a better use of space than most machines, but fundamentally the "system" is a pair of messed-up rings that don't work right for dips, muscleups, etc. For the same money you could get some real rings that will be far more functional. They're like those training scissors you give to little kids--harder to hurt yourself, but don't function so well. Get some real rings!

Will Gadd said...

Oh, and if you want you can put some little nylon loops on your rings for your feet. The gym I train at has TRX, fun to play with, but limited.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to get a set of rings. I have to agree 100% on KTE and shoulder strength and deadlifts have helped my body tension. The type of cross training you suggest for ice climbers would be functional training with some isolation stuff (hammer swings, one arm lat pulls ect) I guess what I am wondering is would you suggest a different training plan then is in your ice/mixed book?