David Weck: Enhancing the Core of Athletic Movement

There is a time and place to brace your core and keep your spine neutral.

And then there is everything else you do, which includes moving athletically, without bracing your core to maintain a neutral spine.

David Weck Coiling Core

Movements like throwing, swinging and running (yes, running—see below) are impossible to do optimally with a braced core.

Stiffening your torso and tightening everything around your spine to keep it neutral is functional for weight lifting. There are sport activities, such as performing an iron cross in gymnastics, and similar movements where core bracing is applied. But you can’t throw, hit or go anywhere (except for straight up) with speed and power when your core is braced to keep your spine neutral.

This does not mean core bracing is not an essential aspect of athletic training. It definitely is. In addition to protecting the spine under loads, the functional carryover of core bracing includes better posture as well as the ability to pressurize the torso to increase core stability (even when the spine is not positioned in neutral).

However, there is another kind of core strength that must be trained to move most athletically.

In this article, I will share with you how we, at the WeckMethod Performance Training Center, train core strength with a focus on both a braced core, as well as what we call the Coiling Core. Everything we do creates the maximum carryover to more explosive, powerful and graceful athletic movement.

The priorities of our training are focused first on Tensional Balance and then on Rotational Power as they both relate to locomotion.

Why Locomotion?

The mantra for my training methods for more than a decade and a half has been “relate to gait.” Bipedal locomotion (walking, running, sprinting) is humanity’s most fundamental and universal functional movement. It has the greatest degree of carryover to the widest array of other movements and it can be measured with 100% objectivity. Click . . . click. Faster is faster and the clock never lies.

You simply do not brace your core to locomote with speed and efficiency, which I will describe below. For training locomotion, training the Coiling Core is key.

When you are able to optimize the biomechanical essentials of locomotion (that which you must actually do) and make this the foundation of your training, you have the formula for performing, better than ever before, anything athletic you wish to do.

Tensional Balance

The biomechanical architecture of the human body is said to be a tensegrity structure. Tensegrity (short for ‘tensional integrity’) structures consist of compressive elements (the bones) that are suspended by tensile elements (the myofascial matrix). In essence, the bones ‘float’ within the surrounding musculature and connective tissues.

Tensional Balance refers to the optimal state of internal suspension within the body that distributes and transmits forces (to and from the ground, as well as to external objects and/or an opponent) without any compensatory, or wasted, tension.

You cannot perform your best at any sport if you do not move with Tensional Balance. To be your best it is essential that you develop and improve your strength and coordination upon a foundation of Tensional Balance.

Tensional Balance on Two Feet with a Bracing Core

To lift the heaviest loads possible to build maximum baseline strength in order to ultimately produce the most athletic power you can—think deadlifting or squatting—you have to stand on two feet with your weight evenly distributed between both feet and train with a braced core.

Conventional deadlifts and squats are performed by driving force into the ground through the heels. This helps recruit the posterior musculature to lift as much weight as possible. However, there are at least three significant disadvantages of this approach if your number one objective is to maximize the carryover of the lift to athletic movement.

The first disadvantage: You don’t play sports on your heels, so lifts performed this way do not develop the ability to transmit such intense forces through the balls of the feet, where sports are played.

The second disadvantage is the disruption of Tensional Balance from performing max lifts driving through the heels. Almost everyone has some degree of right/left imbalance. Rooting into the heels and essentially anchoring the skeleton to the ground under extreme loads forces the musculature and connective tissues to compensate for any skeletal imbalances up the kinetic chain. This is one of the reasons foam rolling (and other forms of myofascial release) are so necessary to unwind the hot spots where compensation patterns are concentrated from this kind of lifting.

The third disadvantage of driving through the heels under extreme loads is the stress it puts on the lower back. Athletes are often not technically expert at lifting heavy weights. They can often injure themselves performing heavy lifts, which is worse than not training at all. This is one of the reasons some programs have given up on performing heavy deadlifts and/or squats for many of their athletes.

Our solution for building maximum baseline strength and power at WeckMethod is a modified version of the deadlift called the WeckMethod 45 Trap Bar Deadlift. Through years of experience and always relating everything I do back to enhancing locomotion, I discovered how to deadlift as much (or more) weight balanced through the balls of the feet as you can with conventional deadlifting with a trap bar. The key is the stance, ground-loading strategy and matching spine and shin angles throughout the lift.

Our set up begins with a 45 Stance—turning the feet out 45 degrees with the heels relatively close together. 45 degrees is a guideline, it really means turning the feet out to the angles that feel most balanced and comfortable for each individual. We balance our weight and load the ground through the fourth and fifth metatarsals. The fourth and fifth metatarsals tie directly into the calcaneus which enables us to leverage the power and connection of the heels to the posterior musculature forward to the balls of the feet. This location on the foot is also the initial ground contact point for athletic movement. During the lift, we can kiss the ground with the heels, but at no time is there any weight driving through them.

How we help athletes set up the WeckMethod 45 Trap Bar Deadlift. Notice how the green circles are located at the ends of the fourth and fifth metatarsals—which leverages the power of the heels forward in the foot—which enables us to develop and harness the large powerful posterior muscles (the haunch) balanced through the balls of the feet.

Then we always maintain matching spine and shin angles throughout the entire lift, and of course we brace the core to keep the spine in absolute neutral. The result of these three key technical adjustments is a massively strong deadlift balanced on the balls of the feet with no stress whatsoever in the lower back. All of the work is generated from the ‘haunch’ (glutes and upper hamstrings).

Matching the angle of our spine with the angle of our shins is critical for maintaining Tensional Balance within the body when balanced on the balls of both feet with our weight evenly distributed between both feet.

Because we are never driving into the ground with our heels under such extreme loads, there is room for minute adjustments in vertical displacement to counteract any right/left imbalances. Our athletes don’t get hurt and we don’t need to foam roll like we did before discovering this method of training. Also, this form of lifting doesn’t make them sore and tight—they remain ‘right now ready’ after training and the following day.

We follow the exact same protocol that Barry Ross created in terms of only performing five concentric-only reps or fewer, only as many sets as you are stronger than the last set, plyometrics immediately after the deadlifts and five-minutes rest between sets (which we fill with non-metabolic skill training with a rope).

Tensional Balance on One Foot with a Coiling Core and Rotational Power

It is essential to realize that Tensional Balance with your weight evenly distributed on two feet is very different than Tensional Balance on one foot at a time, or when shifting weight from one foot to another.

Bringing everything I do back to “how does this enhance locomotion?” led to the revelation that the fundamental law for balancing on one foot with a neutral spine is having Head Over Foot™ alignment.

Try this right now: Stand normally with your weight evenly distributed between both feet. Without moving your head or your spine at all, lift one leg.

You can’t do this and remain standing . . . Can you?

Speed is a function of how much force can be applied to the ground in as little time as possible on one foot at a time over a given distance. If your head is not aligned directly over your foot at the moment of maximum ground loading, you are not balanced and cannot apply maximum force to (and from) the ground. To make matters worse, your body is forced to compensate for this imbalance which results in detrimental repetitive stress.

Commentator Rich Eisen running his annual 40-yard dash at the combine. Notice how his core is braced and his head is off from the optimal position of balance for loading the ground with efficiency.

So the question becomes, “how do you get from one foot to the other and land each stride with Head Over Foot™ alignment?” The answer is by Coiling your Core with Head Over Foot™ technique.

Serge Gracovetsky coined the term Spinal Engine which describes how the spine is the generator of rotational power. Unlike a bracing core, which is only a force transmitter, the Coiling Core (which is how you harness the Spinal Engine) is a force generator.

This is what the skeleton looks like when the core is braced to maintain a neutral spine. Core-bracing is an essential skill, but not functional for the majority of athletic movement.

It’s all about the biomechanics of our anatomy. Because the spine is as curved as it is, flexion in the frontal plane (side-bending) causes axial counter-rotation of the spine in the transverse plane. Side-bending to the left causes the left shoulder to rotate down and back and the left hip to rotate up and forward.

Still image from Gracovetsky’s video of a man without legs walking on his ischium. Notice how his side-bending movement in the frontal plane creates axial counter rotation of his spine in the transverse plane. His shoulder moves down and back and same side hip moves up and forward.

Gracovetsky shot an incredible video of a man without any legs “walking” upright on his ischium. If you cover the bottom of the frame, you cannot tell if this man has legs or not.  Your legs amplify and express force to the ground.

It is your Spinal Engine that drives locomotion.

I’ve analyzed hundreds of hours of video footage of many of the world’s best and fastest athletes, both sprinters, distance runners and athletes from myriad sports. One thing they all have in common is Head Over Foot™ alignment when they run. Some of them do it better than others, and none of them run with a braced core.

Side-bending and lateral head movement are greatest at the start of a sprint. This is when the athlete’s stride is the widest and their bodies are coiling the most to move forward with aggressive acceleration angles. Their heads are forward of their feet at this stage in the sprint (transitioning to ‘over foot’ when they are upright). You will see their heads moving side-to-side to a large degree to align with each step in the frontal plane at the start.

Chris Johnson, who ran a 4.24 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine for the 2008 draft, provides a great example of how the fastest athletes in the world actually run. He, along with just about every other athlete running at the combine (including John Ross who beat Johnson’s record with a 4.22 in 2017), exhibits a great deal of lateral head movement as they land each stride with Head Over Foot™ alignment.

Chris Johnson running his 4.24 40. Notice how his center of mass moves forward in a straight line as he Coils his Core to each side landing each stride with Head Over Foot™ alignment.

Usain Bolt, the fastest man in recorded history, shifts his head dramatically from side-to-side as he Coils his Core to land each stride with Head Over Foot™ alignment.

Usain Bolt running with his signature side-bending Head Over Foot™ technique. This is thought to be a flaw in his technique by conventional wisdom, but is actually a demonstration of excellent sprinting form.

Head Over Foot™ was a cue I had used for more than 10 years, but only from the perspective of viewing running from the side (where you can see critical angles, as well as who wins the race). When I realized the cue must also be viewed from the front (where you can see the actions in the frontal plane), everything crystallized for me.

In sports and in life, rotation is power. And the key to maximizing rotational power is found in the expression “Frontal Plane First.” Side-bending generates axial rotation of the spine. Without side-bending, rotation of the spine itself is weak and stressful.

Landing each step with your head aligned over your foot is the most important factor for walking, running and sprinting with balance and efficiency. If you fail to do this essential movement right, there is nothing you can do to make up for this deficiency. The simplest and most effective cue for running your best is land each step with Head Over Foot™ alignment.

Remember, I said above that locomotion is the most fundamental and universal functional movement with the greatest degree of carryover to the widest array of other movements? The reason is that the side-bending rotational power that produces efficient locomotion applies to everything else that involves spinal rotation. Fortifying the essence of locomotion (Tensional Balance and Rotational Power) gives you the ultimate foundation to build upon.

The Greatest Shift and Positive Disruption in the History of Athletic Training and the Larger Mission

Now for the real kicker . . . everything I’ve described above is completely at odds with conventional wisdom.

Today’s experts and world-renowned authorities on speed, running and sprinting insist that side-bending is a flaw that will make you slower. They teach runners and sprinters to keep their cores tight, and maintain lateral stability (no side-to-side head movement permitted). None of the elite runners actually do what they’re coached to do in this regard. But countless lesser caliber athletes listen and obey—and fail to realize their potential as a result.

There is really no argument to be made once you are presented with the evidence. It’s like suddenly the lights are on and the Sun isn’t revolving around the Earth anymore. What do you say when you’re a career coach with 40+ years of experience, numerous Olympic athletes you’ve trained, hundreds and hundreds of coaching clinics you’ve taught—and suddenly the very foundation of what you’ve been teaching about core strength and the fundamental position of balance to run faster and most efficiently is wrong? What is there to say?

Because the athletic training world has been so misinformed on this subject for so long, what is happening now will circulate the globe soon, and every athlete will become better than they are today as a result.

I’m on a mission far beyond making elite athletes better (though this is very cool, and a necessary step in the process). I envision a world where physical education begins with the basics (locomotion being the most basic) and learning by seeing and mimicking remains the primary means of education . . . but the patterns being copied are different. And the instruction being given is accurate with what works best.

Because this information is so groundbreaking, and is now simply aiming at what we actually want to do to move best (instead of shooting arrows off-target like what’s happening today), the world of athletic training is experiencing a tectonic shift. The first institution to jump aboard and integrate WeckMethod Training into their program is Cal Poly University. S&C Coaches Chris Holder and Chris White and I are working together to educate coaches, trainers and athletes to bring this new training to the world. (You’ll be hearing a lot more from them.)

When all of the world’s best athletes and athletes at every lower level are improving their training at the fundamental level—based upon enhancing locomotion with Tensional Balance and Rotational Power at the core—it will create awareness and motivation for the parents and coaches of the next generation to help them grow up moving smarter.

Stay tuned for my next installment where I will get into the specifics about how to train your Coiling Core and take your athletic movement skills to a level higher than you ever thought possible.

Want to learn more from David about WeckMethod?
His free half-hour lecture delves into more detail on Head Over Foot™ alignment and Coiling Core.
David Weck WeckMethod Head Over Foot

Chris Holder: Strength and Conditioning Coaches,
Are We Lifting the Athleticism Out of Our Athletes?
(Head Over Foot applied in a collegiate strength and conditioning program)

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