Thursday, May 10, 2012

When Planks Become Boring: Enter Cable Rope Crunches

I can still remember the image in my head like it was yesterday. As I sat and watched "Pumping Iron", the scene of Arnold kneeling before the cable tower and using the rope for some abdominal crunches. At the age of 17, I had not seen that exercise before...albeit, at that tender age, I hadn't seen much of anything in the gym. But that exercise caught my fascination. I mean, c'mon,...it came from the movie "Pumping Iron", which is equivalent to the movie "Titanic" for the bodybuilding community.

It was an exercise that looked cool. It targeted a popular problem area for many lifters. It showed off the upper-body, and made the rope attachment more useful for other things besides tricep pressdowns. 

I know what you are thinking. Crunches are forbidden. They ruin your spine and will eventually make your lumbar discs snap like a credit card folded over and over and over again. My DVD product, "Shatterproof Spine" does not contain one crunch. It emphasizes Dr. Stuart McGill's work and focuses on the core and abdominals as isometric spinal stabilizers. So, with that being said, dare I ask....?

Should we plank everyone to death?


I like planks, but they tend to get boring, monotonous, and butchered if not properly supervised. I think a plank done wrong is worse than not doing planks at all in a program. The challenge of the plank is often over-simplified and misinterpreted. Hold your body up. Simple right?

The problem with this challenge is once the plank is instructed, it's easy to do. For some, its easy to perform because the body chooses the path of least resistance, and cements the wrong muscle recruitment to accomplish this. Basically, when a trainer is yelling to a client to "Hold, hold, hold..."; that trainer is too busy watching the client's stomach and hips from falling. The challenge is to simply hold the position for the longest period of time with no regard for optimal execution. So what you get is a mish-mash of synergistic dominance and over-activation of the wrong muscles; that continue to fortify the faulty patterns forever ingrained within the nervous and muscular-system:


Plank Contest

But this is not another post about poor coaching or spinal stability. Sometimes, we have to strengthen the abdominals with resistance. I'm not talking about supine crunches or the abdominal crunch machine at your local gym. Today, we are going back to the classic exercise that was used by the fore-fathers of bodybuilding and using it to achieve rock hard abs and a strong mid-section.

Today is about anterior loaded trunk flexion. Enter the cable rope crunch:


This exercise is typically performed on the knees in front of a cable column. Attaching the triceps rope, and using a mat for your knees, it  takes up little space. If your gym is crowded, this is a perfect exercise to use or even share with the guy doing rope pressdowns. The exercise can get butchered. So, I'm going to explain a few coaching cues.

1.) Rope crunches cannot and should not be performed by beginners. The reason? You need to use a substantial amount of weight to really allow progression in abdominal force. As indicated by this study, abdominal force really only responds to external loads in excess of 20% of the 1RM. With that being said, its a fantastic exercise for young, healthy athletes or exercise enthusiasts. Is it appropriate for your Auntie Georgette that is trying something new outside of her regular Zumba routine? No.

2.) The rope should become part of your body. Back in the day when Arnold and the boys were performing this exercise, they held the rope away from the body. My guess is they felt that it was a great  stretch and subsequent lat, chest, and serratus recruiter. However, with the load held further from the Center of Mass (CoM), the slack of sheer force was picked up by the chest, shoulders, lats and triceps. I've toyed with that version years ago and that is what I got. Basically a kneeling cable pull-over with minimal abdominal involvement. The trick is to hold the rope as close to the forehead as possible. In the video, you will see that I actually tend to rest my fists on my forehead to "connect" my torso with the load. This will take some experimenting with different loads and positioning. I have more body-awareness because of my training experience, so it will take some practice to allow the "connection" between the movement arm and angle of resistance.

3.) Stabilize the hips and anchor the body to produce trunk flexion. You wanted stability? Here it is in a very functional form. A while back I wrote a guest blog post for Mike Robertson regarding how we must use the ground for force production. It was a widely accepted article because many readers understood that the ground (or surface) at which you perform any activity plays a vital role in force production. This is the basis for making things "functional". In order to flex the trunk forward with a load, there needs to be a stabilization anchor to allow the lever arm (in this case, the torso); perform the movement. In the photo below, areas in RED are stabilized, including the arms---which become an extension of handles for the actual  resistance path.


You will note that the lowerbody is anchored by way of plantar-flexion in the feet. This contribution from the ground allows my entire lowerbody to stabilize as the trunk moves forward. The shoulder joint stabilizes the upper limbs and allows the abdominals to be "sandwiched" between two "walls".

Most beginners do not have the ability to control the weight without losing stability in the hip or shoulder joint. This "force leakage" allows compensations during the execution and renders the exercise useless. Stick with these coaching cues and give the exercise a try!


1 comment:

  1. I LOVE these and have been doing them forever, however, I do them a bit differently. My hips are set up the same as yours, but I am a little farther away from the weight stack and I do NOT flex my spine as I lower my elbows to the ground; I focus on keeping my back level. I thought that was the more correct way to do it, I can certainly feel it - it's like a version of a weighted plank to me. In your opinion, what's the difference in affect on the core in these two setups? Thanks and keep the great posts coming!

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