Torso Training

In my practice, most of my trainees come to me wishing to lose weight, especially around their middle. Many of them were athletes when they were young. Now they are middle-aged businessmen who have achieved some of their most important goals in life, but can’t believe how out of shape they’ve gotten. Many of them also have preconceived notions of how to lose weight but just can’t get started on their own.

Give the deluge of fitness information Americans have been bombarded with-some good, some not so good, some atrocious-it’s not surprising that people are confused or misguided about how to manage their weight. I encourage these folks to get active and to start with a well-rounded exercise program. By that, I mean a program that addresses each of the primary areas of physical fitness: cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, body composition, and coordination. The one thing that all these areas have in common is that they rely on the safe and effective transfer of force through the torso-the musculature of the abdomen and lower back. I place a big emphasis on torso toning in the early stages of a "fitness recovery" program.

With that said, let’s take a broader view. Clients come to us with a variety of goals-fat loss, general fitness, sport-specific performance enhancement, bodybuilding, etc. Almost every goal can best be met if the exercise program includes exercises for the torso. In my opinion, if a trainee doesn’t do strength training for any other body part, they should at least exercise the torso muscles because they play such a significant role in everyday activities, in recreational sports, and in any aerobic exercise. Healthy torso muscles also prevent back pain-the single most common minor ailment in America today. I teach and strongly encourage my trainees to do a good variety of torso-toning exercises. When they feel the results, they thank me for it!

Though we’re frequently not conscious of it, most of our motions generate force. All force generated by the upper body or lower body presses on or through the torso when we are in an upright position. The torso must be firm and well balanced to provide a platform or conduit for this force. Flabby muscles in the midsection may absorb or deflect some of the force that would otherwise transmit through the body to the object of the lift. Flabby torso muscles may also fail to support the spine properly or allow its alignment to slip under the torque generated by the upper or lower body. Alternatively, if a trainee has a muscle imbalance between the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lower back, the stronger half will "give" less than the weaker half and may cause muscle strain. Toned, balanced muscles in the torso provide good insurance against this type of minor injury. They guarantee the safe, effective transfer of force through the middle of the body, whether it is in picking up a sack of groceries, jumping for a rebound, or driving a golf ball.

New trainees, especially those that are middle-aged and out of shape, should be advised of the importance of strengthening the muscles of the midsection. This applies to a broad variety of goals: weight loss, to provide a firmness beneath the soon-to-be smaller tummy; sport specific training, to provide for the effective transfer of force; general fitness, to prevent back pain and give that trim look to the middle; or body building, to build six-pack abs. Most new trainees fall into the weight loss or general fitness categories, so let’s look at those a little closer.

Trainees seeking to lose weight especially male clients that drink a lot of alcohol, or used to, frequently have bulging bellies. A distended abdomen pulls the spine and lower back muscles forward and causes lumbosacral pain. I prescribe a fat-mobilizing, high-rep resistance-training program for these clients and exercises to strengthen the lower back and lower abs. I emphasize the lower abs because that end of the rectus abdominis is usually the weakest and takes the longest to get toned up, so that’s where we start. I have adapted several back strengtheners from yoga and the Pilates methods to prescribe to my trainees and they report satisfaction with the results. Some clients prefer to use traditional aerobic methods, such as treadmills, exercise bikes, cross-trainers, or cross-country ski units to lose weight. Torso toning exercises are even more critical for these clients since they are not gaining the same muscle development that accompanies resistance training. Therefore, we must prescribe torso-toning exercises at the end of their aerobic session to balance it out.

Trainees interested in general fitness usually have one of two motivations: they want to look more attractive or they want to get in shape for a recreational activity. Frequently it’s both. And in both cases he or she needs to do torso toning to support and balances the rest of the routine. He or she will need a trim, tight waistline to look good with their shirt off or in a bathing suit. A little definition in the abs goes a long way toward telling people "I take care of myself." Even clients in their forties and up, male or female, can make such a statement just by having smooth contours to their waistline. They need not be "cut up" to a six pack to look and feel in charge of their health and appearance. Smooth contours in the muscles of the lower back give an attractive look as well.

General fitness trainees preparing for recreational sports should be advised that their sport would almost certainly require torso strength to support bending, lifting, jumping, and twisting motions. These motions require good lower back flexibility and balanced musculature. Name any game or sport-hockey, golf, softball, racquet sports, basketball, volleyball, wrestling and rowing-and I can show you a need for strong torso muscles. To get our clients to their best performance readiness, we need to include torso exercises targeting their game. Not only will it give them maximum performance, it will ensure that they have minimal next-day soreness from playing and it will reduce their chances of sustaining minor back injuries.

Torso toning makes good sense. It only takes a few minutes in an exercise program and lower back exercise can be included in a trainee’s warm up. Lower back and abdominal exercises look easy, but when you’re on the mat doing them, they get hard quickly and they effectively raise the core temperature before a workout. On the other hand, certain abdominal exercises make an effective cool down after an aerobic workout because they prevent blood pooling in the legs and can foster a slow descent of the heart rate. Regardless of where you place them in the program, torso exercises must be included. There are many good torso exercise references on the market and I’m preparing my own encyclopedia of these exercises as well.

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These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.