Rethinking Sets and Reps for Core Training

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Stuart McGill is one of my favorite people in the fitness/training/strength and conditioning field to learn from.

The guy pretty much knows everything there is to know about the back from injury mechanisms to how to train out of pain.

The amount of spines (not human) that he had crushed in his lab is astounding as well.

I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. McGill present this past June at the Perform Better Summit and it was awesome.

Not only did I learn a ton about training for back performance, but he was also a great presenter.

One of the most important takeaways from his lecture and hands-on sessions was what core stability actually consists of.

The muscles of the core are predominantly slow twitch muscles. They are designed to provide a lot of low force, long contractions.

This is important because without the engagement of the core muscles our spine would snap in half and our body would have no structure.

The bones, muscles, and connective tissue all work hand in hand. Due to this, the core is not supposed to generate large amounts of movement and force.

These two qualities start in the lower or upper body and are transferred through the core musculature, which are resisting excessive movement. This creates efficiency in the body.

One of the ideas that Stuart McGill brought up was the idea of sets and reps. When most are training for stability, they are maybe doing 6 or 8 reps before taking a long rest.

This is not the best way to build muscular endurance.

In order to properly train endurance, we need to have holds for a certain amount of seconds and then repeat the number of holds that we are performing.

An example is a side plank. Hold the side plank for 7 seconds, come down for 3 seconds, and repeat 5 times on each side.

side plank

This is much harder than most core exercises, yet it is so simple. In this case we are holding the contraction and then the repeated reps allow us to train for muscular endurance.

You can get creative with the different amounts of sets, reps, and time under tension.

I think one example he used was up to 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off of stir the pot. This is not an easy feat and is way too hard for the average person. The person in his example was an elite level MMA fighter.

That being said, we have both ends of the spectrum. The shorter interval is the starting point.

Start by performing the side plank for 5 reps each side. After that you can add in more sets.

Another option would be to figure out how many reps would fit into the specific time intervals and perform them that way.

When I have a group of people that all finish at different times, I may just tell them to do 75 reps of stir the pot in each direction. The specific sets and reps are irrelevant.

By giving a high number of reps, the athletes are forced to be under tension and then repeat the effort. It might not be ideal but group training is usually not the perfect situation.

This is a little bit of a different thought process because many people still haven’t accepted the fact that situps and crunches are terrible core stability exercises.

Give it a shot and see how it goes. You will find that any exercise is insanely difficult when held for a while and then repeated.