Do you have what it takes?

August 20, 2015

Do you have what it takes? Are your core muscles strong enough? The term “core” is used often to refer to the trunk muscles responsible for stabilizing and moving the spine and rib cage. Some call them abs and the anatomists like to use the correct terminology and name each muscle. Regardless of what you call them, the ability to coordinate their muscular contractions to create correct movements and to stabilize the spine can make a world of difference displays of power, strength and explosiveness on the field, court, track and in the water. Some just want them to look good. I want them to perform at their best.

Some athletes and fitness enthusiasts use weight lifting belts to accomplish what the abdominal muscles are supposed to do. These muscles are supposed to exert an internal pressure to stabilize the body during movement, and when they can’t do it folks tend to say things like “I just can’t do it….its impossible” or “its too heavy.” And then they throw on a weight belt and now they can do it. Unfortunately not only can you not normally wear a lifting belt when competing, but you can become dependent on them and your core muscles may stop working the way they need to. Examples of this happening can be seen all over in warehouses, factories and stores where people are moving boxes or other pieces of merchandise and equipment. Go into the stock room of just about any store and you will see someone with a wide belt on with suspender like shoulder straps. This belt is supposed to decrease the incidence of back pain and back injuries by doing what your abdominal muscles should be doing. For athletes a belt can help them lift more weight once their strength levels have gotten to a certain level, and is the only way they can progress.

Dan John, a strength coach based in California and a highland games competitor, called this ability to use your abdominals right “anaconda strength.” Anaconda strength should be developed before turning to using weight belts, unfortunately many individuals (notice I did not say coach or athlete) are only concerned with the weight on the bar being moved. Anaconda strength is the secret behind many athletic movements including what I like to call the David vs Goliath moments. David vs Goliath moments are those times when a smaller athlete bests a larger, seemingly stronger athlete. A wide receiver taking a big hit from a linebacker and not losing stride or getting injured, and a smallish lineman besting a much larger lineman are good examples of a David vs Goliath moment.
Dan John uses a handful of questions to determine if you have it: Can you deadlift double bodyweight? Can you walk with bodyweight in each hand? Can you make a catch over the middle, get hit sideways by a linebacker, crash to the ground, and then pop up and say, “That all you got?” Now these aren’t the only way to determine if you have anaconda strength, but they do work.

Certain exercises are more effective than others at building anaconda strength, with some of them being effective due to maintaining correct technique. My personal favorites in no specific order are snatch grip deadlifts, thick bar overhead work, offset loaded carries, sled pulls or drags, tire flips. My #1 favorite is a harnessed sled pull while bear hugging a heavy sand bag or slam ball (we have a 80lb ball that works great).

The most effective of these exercises is probably the offset loaded carries. This can be done for time or distance. Whichever you choose, time or distance, make sure you challenge both sides of your body equally. The basic loaded carry is a suitcase walk (aka single arm farmers walk). Hold a heavy dumbbell, kettlebell or, if you have them, a farmers walk handle in one hand to your side and walk without tipping over and the repeat holding it in your other hand. Sand bags are also great for this by holding it on your shoulder and walking. With any loaded carry, whether it is offset or not (weight equally distributed) try walking not only forward, but backwards or sideways. Walking backwards or sideways provides a different challenge and is also very effective.

If you use a belt see if you can deadlift double body weight without it or walk with body weight in each hand (with or without straps). If you can’t, try ditching the belt for a while and work on your anaconda strength then see what happens.

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