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This article is for yoga teachers, pilates teachers, personal trainers, and any movement teachers who are looking to add valuable tools to their toolbox.

Core strengthening tests to help assess if your client uses the core effectively

We can all go onto YouTube and search for the “best” Core moves, find thousands of videos and tutorials on that subject, and teach them to our client’s. However none of us wants to be a mediocre movement teacher and what sets an amazing teacher apart from the cookie cutter pack is the ability to analyze, assess and troubleshoot our client’s core as they execute their exercises. There are two standout reasons that adding assessment tools to your repertoire is a good idea.

  1. 1.Ensure your client is strong enough for the core strengthening task:

    It goes without saying that for a variety of reasons, many people cannot access their core appropriately. They think they are engaging their core when really they are overusing their superficial core: rectus abdominis. I see this with seasoned movement teachers all the time: in their own bodies they struggle to differentiate between deep and superficial core engagement. Learning to assess this in your client sets the tone for their whole scope of practice especially if their work is to first be able to engage correctly. You might need to regress a client in order to progress and that is key in both them being set up for success and you being set apart as a discerning knowledgeable teacher.

  2. 2.Ensure he is doing the task well / appropriately:

    When our client’s can perform the exercises efficiently and correctly, they stop compensating, their movements become more clear and their work is effective. I wish I had a penny for every client who came to me after getting injured in a core based movement class.
    We certainly do not want to fall prey to the myth that all “core” exercises are created equal. Not only that but how you do a core exercise makes a huge difference in whether the exercise is part of the solution or part of the problem.
    Just doing a core exercise does not ensure that ideal / optimal core engagement is happening. I can do a dead bug exercise 6 different ways, 3 of those might be helpful while the other 3 might be harmful.

If we want our client’s to change and transform and to come back for more, we need to not only offer them quality instruction and techniques but also feel confidant that we can spot their compensations and enable them to exercise and move better.

The tests in this article can be used on any client, ranging from the one with chronic back pain to the one with core and pelvic floor issues to the postpartum mom. The tests here take into account that the core is much more than just 2-3 muscles, rather it is a system that is dynamic and integrity depends on system congruence.

To that end, core function and congruence is affected by and dependant upon both breathing and spine mechanics so our first 2 tests dive into those regions to help uncover important patterns and habits. Our third test has us assessing the core in an “ab” task.

Let’s dive straight to these 3 tests every movement teacher, yoga teacher, pilates teacher should use to assess their clients core.

Test #1: Cat and Cow Task

Directions: Have your client do cat and cow slowly 4-8 times as you watch them.

The Cheats: In cat your client will excessively round their upper back but not their lower and their lower back remains “flat”. Their pelvis will tuck minimally or not at all. They will usually drive the movement from their mid backs and not from their pelvis. In cow your client will drop their shoulders together, overextend their lumbar spine, overextend their cervical spine and barely extend through their thoracic region.

Analyze Your Results: Ask your client to move slowly through cat and cow and check if they are sequencing the movement evenly or if they are over mobilizing some parts of their spine and under mobilizing other parts. This will give you a pretty significant idea about what their strategy is in many other tasks that require extension and flexion of the spine: both of these movements being crucial to core strength. When the spine becomes “stuck” and unable to properly segment for a task, it also means that our core is not firing, supporting and stabilizing our bodies appropriately for our movements and exercises. Clearing this up is one of the first steps that should be taken when addressing core function or lack of it.

Test #2: 3 D Breathing Task

Direction: Have your client lie supine or sitting and practice 3D breathing for 4-5 breaths.
The Cheat: Most people will cheat by forcing their ribs to expand and pulling them open, they will do a lot of up and down rib movement but barely any side to side, and they will belly breathe. The majority of them will not be able to bring the breath into their back ribs either. Check for all of these cheats.

Analyze Your Results: Most people cannot for the life of them move their ribs in a relaxed, non forced way when breathing, which is why many resort to belly breathing. Their diaphragm is tight, tense and immobile and their ribs barely move. The ribs not being able to expand will affect rotation of the torso and can lead to excessive neck movement and when tasked to rotate, they compensate and cheat around the task. Furthermore, the ability to get a good core engagement depends on our inhale strategy. If our strategy is one where we belly breath, then we are increasing intra ab pressure excessively and losing core stability before we even do a movement task. It will be hard to get an effective exhale and core recruitment when the inhale is poorly executed and largely a belly breath.

Test #3: Tabletop Task

Directions: Lying supine, can your client brig one leg up at a time into tabletop without the following cheats?

The Cheat: Overarching back, abs bulging, bracing the body, pushing their lower back to flatten into the ground.

Analyze Your Results: In this task we want our client to be able to bring one leg up at a time to tabletop while maintaining neutral spine, lower back curve intact, cervical curve intact, and abdominals not pushing up, bulging, but rather corseting in and staying that way the whole task. Ensure that your client does not suck their abs in for the task: sucking is very different than effectively engaging their core and keeping it engaged for the whole task. We never want to have a client perform this core task if they are cheating. We need to regress the exercise to a modified version – of which there are many choices where they can build strength progressively.

In summary, if you are looking to be a standout teacher / trainer then you should tailor standout tests and processes to your client’s. Any one of us can do a multitude of core exercises to get stronger but if our spinal, breathing and core mechanics are not effective then those exercises are pretty useless. Use these tests in order to understand where your client’s are, if they have an effective core or a weak core, where are they compensating? Then tailor the workout session to the level your client’s are. At the end of the day – they will thank you.