If you’ve ever watched a tennis match with women who were pro tennis players (and I mean pro as in professional, not as in they’re in favor of tennis players), you already know about core pulsing. The grunting, the screaming. But it’s not limited to tennis, any martial artist also includes the ‘power yell’. Why the yelling? Some might say it’s to intimidate or confuse (or arouse) your opponent. Really it’s just good biomechanics.
Today we talk about pulsing – one of the categories of core function. The core is used to stabilize the spine to allow optimal force transfer. Pulsing is when the movement is very intense but very brief. Imagine you’re going to a pool party and you and your friends always, at some point, get in a pool noodle war. The problem, you realize, with using a pool noodle is that you can swing as hard as you want, but the floppy foam doesn’t transfer your force properly. Having a stroke of genius, you decide to slide a PVC pipe inside your pool noodle – and it works like a dream! Suddenly, your hits are landing with proper force and the pool runs red with victory. All powerful sports movements are similar. You generate power in your hips (even if you are doing an arm controlled task like throwing or swinging) – the power must travel through your core and then be transferred to your target. If your core is floppy like the pool noodle, then even if you generate a massive amount of power from your hips, most of it won’t make it to your target.
The idea might occur, why not just keep the core solidly contracted the entire time? You can answer your own question by trying that. You’ll quickly find that by contracting your core too strongly and too long, you’ll be too rigid for fluid movement and not only lose the full motion needed in your sport but also lose the whip action that amplifies your movement. It’s also very draining to do that – physically, to maintain the contraction and mentally, to concentrate on holding the contraction. Finally, it tends to be more difficult to breathe which turns out to be somewhat important.
Learning to use your core to properly improve quick and powerful movements has 3 stages. First, just learning to contract your core voluntarily. Second, learning to generally coordinate this contraction to be fast and at the right moment. Third, learning to pulse in your specific sports’ movements.
Today we’ll talk about just learning to contract your core. There are 5 common ways to pulse your core. The scream, the grunt, the hiss, the snort, and silently. To appreciate feeling your core contract, rest a hand on the crest of your hip so that your fingers are on the lateral portion of your abdomen and press your fingers in to feel your abdominal core muscles. During these drills, you’ll feel the muscles contract underneath your fingers. The first 4 methods all involve making a noise because in order to exhale quickly, your abdominal muscles contract to force the air out. This powerful contraction is helpful due to the abdominals generating spine stabilizing pressure in the abdominal cavity as well as the benefit of the core contraction itself. It is possible to accomplish a similar effect silently (the 5th method) by using the Valsalva maneuver. This is when you close your windpipe and contract your diaphragm to generate abdominal pressure. Think of this as sealing a container (closing the windpipe) and then pressing a plunger down (contracting the abdomen) – this will dramatically increase the pressure in the rest of the container (the abdominal cavity) which stabilizes the spine (amongst other helpful things).
Going back to women’s tennis, it’s pretty obvious how to use the scream and the grunt – you just scream or grunt at the right moment (timing is crucial here). The snort is similar but instead of exhaling through the mouth, you just quickly exhale through your nose. So let’s discuss the other two methods which are more technical. For the hiss, push the top of your tongue into the back of your front teeth and close your mouth enough that when you try to breathe out, there’s resistance (because your tongue is blocking air from leaving). You’ll feel your core tightening when you do this – palpate your abdominals to confirm. Now do this quickly by making a quick hissing noise. Notice that you get a powerful pulse.
Finally, the silent pulse. While it probably sounds appealing to pulse silently to avoid making a noise in public, practically it’s not as useful when actually performing because it’s easier and much more natural to actually exhale (thus making a noise) in some form or another. However, we will go over how to do it now because it is much more useful when bracing your core (the second function of the core). To perform the Valsalva maneuver, pretend like you’re going to make a “k” sound but don’t actually make the sound. You’ll feel pressure in your throat (where you glottis is keeping your windpipe closed) as well as tightening in your diaphragm (which will be lowering down like a plunger) and contraction in your core muscles – palpate them to confirm contraction.
These drills cover the first aspect of pulsing your core – just learning how to pulse at all. The next post will cover the other 2 aspects: general coordination then sport-specific coordination.