Stopping the flinch: getting serious about core control

For many, it happens the moment they start pulling when doing a pull-up or a climb. It’s also there all too often as soon as they begin an inversion on the silks/static trapeze/lyra/rope. It’s happening very often during the takeoff from the platform on the flying trapeze. It’s the kind of thing that we should really nip in the bud and get under control. What is it, you might ask? It’s the flinch and it’s time to put a stop to it.

The flinch (or, to use its full name, the rib flinch) is that sudden break in position that happens because of a loss of core control and it manifests as a moment of rib flare. You may have seen it before, you may even know exactly what it is and why it’s an issue, but just in case, let’s do a review of some fundamentals.

Standing Neutral

Consider trying the following exercise: stand up. (Hooray for standing!) Make sure your head is in a neutral position. Keeping your gaze straight ahead helps with this. Since I have a flying trapeze bias, for this exercise I’m going to say ‘legs together’.

Now, squeeze your butt. Tight.

Make sure your ribs are down. Zipped or knit together, depending on your preference of imagery. Then make your stomach tight. Think of using your core to shrink-wrap your spine. Do one full breath cycle: in and then out. In order to really own a body position, you should be able to breathe in that position (thank you, Gray Cook).

Let’s call this body position standing neutral.

Not neutral

From standing neutral, raise your arms above your head without losing this position (meaning ribs stay down). Again, breathe.

(Having trouble getting your arms all the way over head without keeping your ribs down and your core tight? Start with a set of back-to-wall shoulder flexion—and be strict with yourself about prioritizing ribs down, core tight over getting your arms higher.)

Hanging Neutral

Let’s try this exercise hanging from a bar (or lyra or silk, if that’s more your speed…regardless, I’m going to assume you have access to something from which you can hang).

Before you reach up and grab the bar, get into standing neutral. Now reach up and grab the bar, maintaining the contraction in your butt, the tight core that shrink-wraps your spine and your ribs stay down.

If the bar/apparatus you’re grabbing is not high enough for you to keep your legs straight, at the very least keep your feet/legs in front of you. And if you’re hanging such that your feet are no longer on the ground, definitely keep your feet in front of you. I’m not talking about a pike here, just having your feet slightly ahead of ‘right underneath you’. Maybe like a hollow.

Hanging Neutral

Are you still squeezing your butt? If you’re hollow (and even if you’re not), is your stomach still tight? Are you still breathing?

Now here’s the first challenge: Can you keep your ribs down while you’re in this hanging position?

If not, let’s add a set or two of dead bugs to your workout.

The Pull-up

Here’s where it gets interesting. So you’re hanging from your apparatus and you’re in a beautiful position with your butt tight, your core is powerfully switched ON and your ribs are locked into position. (Consider having a friend or training partner or wonderfully helpful instructor at your side to watch your form here).

Now try a pull-up…and don’t let your ribs flinch and flare out like your best peacock impression. Can you do it?

So why does this matter?

Assuming you’ve started in a good position, by making your stomach nice and tight, your core musculature is providing your spine with stiffness and stability. For your body, this means the spine (and thus, your Central Nervous System) is safe and secure. If you allow your ribs to flare, you break from your strong neutral position, instantly and significantly reducing that spinal stiffness. For your body, little to no spinal stiffness means an at-risk spine. To protect against possible injury, the force-production capabilities of your shoulder/arm muscles are inhibited. (That’s fancy-speak for your muscles suddenly aren’t as strong).

Wanna test this? Find a friend. Stand in a strong neutral position and then extend your arm out straight in front of you. Hold it where it is and have your friend push down on it. Be strong. Hold it there as powerfully as you can. Have your friend push down like they mean it.

And then try flinching your ribs out and see what happens. It’s like a sudden power drop.

My ribs flare out and I can still do a pull-up. What’s the big deal?

It’s true. Lots of people can still pull with lots of power, even when their ribs flare out of position. What results is power/force generation that goes limb to core—arms pull, then core (re-)engages. While this does result in some pretty decent shear forces being transmitted through the vertebrae of your mid- to upper-back, you won’t often feel that. At first. As we’ve discussed before, the body is remarkable and tough. It can put up with all sorts of abuse for quite some time.

Until it doesn’t anymore. And then that sucks.

There’s also this overhead hanging business. Hanging from stuff means your shoulder joint is under tension. When you’re lifting stuff overhead, the joint is under compression. This pushes everything together and provides a degree of passive stability. When your shoulder joint is under tension, stability is created entirely via active restraints (i.e., your rotator cuff!). If you break position with some rib flinching, and your rotator cuff powers down, that means a bunch of extra strain for those cuff muscles.

Again, they’ll handle it…until they don’t.

And, if you’re pulling yourself up with your ribs flared (and thus, your core not completely and effectively engaged), you’re just working harder than you need to!

So what to do?

Well, the good news is that you’ve already got a couple of exercises that you can add to your workout and/or warm-up before class/training. The thing is, that’s just half the battle. The rest of this equation means being mindful of your form.

When you climb the silks.

When you pullover onto the trapeze.

And, dear flyers, when you take off from the platform. (Watch for it in that moment when you’re hopping up to grab the bar). And when you pull as you force out.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s going to feel harder at first. It will seem especially difficult if you’re trying to pay attention to your most basic body position and to the trick you’re working on. My suggestion would be to prioritize good body position and core engagement first. Work on it in low-stakes situations, like your warm-up climb or your warm-up on the low-bar…and then in your warm-up swing. [Flyers: before your next takeoff, check in: are you squeezing your glutes? Is your stomach tight? Good. Keep it there as you lift-keep-your-ribs-down-hop-with-your-ribs-still-down-and-grab.] Work on it until you can do it without needing to think about it.

If you haven’t tried it already, I’m pretty sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how much stronger you feel when you try some butt and tummy squeezin’. And who doesn’t like stronger?

1 thought on “Stopping the flinch: getting serious about core control”

  1. Richard Huffman

    Mike, can you please explain again “keeping your ribs down.” Is that something that happens when one keeps shoulders down and back?