The Centerline Principle of Strength & Power

by Matt Schifferle on April 26, 2016

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Matt Schifferle Centerline

I first learned about the magic of the centerline principle in martial arts. Everything from powerful kicks to dodging punches involved moving in relation to the center of my body as well as the center of my opponent.

As it turns out, the centerline is not only the key to powerful kicks but also developing strength and muscle when applied to progressive calisthenics.

Technically, your body has 3 center lines, one for each plane of movement. The scope of this post is focusing on the centerline that divides your right and left side along the sagittal plane.

Each plane has its own centerline. This article focuses on the frontal plane centerline.

Each plane has its own centerline. This article focuses on the sagittal plane centerline.

Focusing on your centerline is critical towards your strength and muscle building efforts. It opens the door towards developing more muscle control as well as improved performance. It also greatly reduces stress around your joints. Even your balance and agility will greatly improve by directing your muscle tension towards your centerline.

MattSchifferleMusculardiagramThe image to the right shows how the muscles are arranged to direct muscle tension inwards towards the centerline. Almost every muscle has at least a few muscle fibers that direct force inwards towards the spine. This is yet another reason to practice back bridge progressions, as they develop all of the muscles in this image. While the bridge is classically described as a move for the posterior chain, it is also one of the best techniques for developing tension towards the centerline.

Knowing about the centerline is good, but it’s even more important to know how to use it in practical application. Below are three lessons on how to apply the centerline principle in your training.

 

Lesson #1: Avoid the “splat”

The centerline principal works because it encourages the tension in your muscles to converge between the right and left halves of your body. This serves as a powerful transfer of physical energy up against gravity.

You can find evidence of this even in nature, as anything that has been pushed up against the force of gravity is the result of two converging forces. A common example is the Rocky Mountains here in my home state, which were formed through converging forces deep within the earth pushing upward.

Converging forces push mountains up against the pull of gravity, just as they lift you up as well.

Converging forces push mountains up against the pull of gravity, just as they lift you up as well.

On the contrary, an object that does not have converging force holding it together eventually flattens out. A quick example is dropping a snowball or a glass bottle against a concrete sidewalk. As gravity pulls against the object and it meets an unyielding surface, the matter of the object spreads outwards. This is what I call the “splat effect” and it can happen to your body anytime you are working against gravity.

Gravity causes objects to spread out against the ground or floor. In this push up, I have to use my chest muscles to keep my elbows from spreading outwards.

Gravity causes objects to spread out against the ground or floor. In this push up, I have to use my chest muscles to keep my elbows from spreading outwards.

Through directing your muscle tension towards your centerline you gain stability and muscle control so you can more effectively drive yourself up against the pull of gravity.

 

Lesson #2: Progressively apply force closer to your centerline

Many of the progressions in Convict Conditioning involve moving the hands and feet closer together. Close push-ups and squats are a great example of this. When you employ this style of progression you are putting force in a more direct perpendicular line against gravity. This brings you a host of benefits including greater flexibility, balance, muscle control plus more range of motion in the joints. It also forces you to be stronger since you are pushing your centerline in the most direct vector against gravity for the greatest distance possible.

Going narrow in grip or stance is a great way to make use of the centerline principle.

Going narrow in grip or stance is a great way to make use of the centerline principle.

It’s important to understand that simply pulling your hands or feet closer to your centerline is only part of the progression. You also want to pull your elbows and knees closer in as well. To a certain degree, you can even pull your shoulders and hips in slightly. I like to think of trying to make myself as narrow as possible. This helps me draw myself inward sort of like a guy sucking in his gut on the beach, only now I’m pulling myself in sideways as opposed to front to back.

 

MattSchifferleScrewLimbsInwardLesson #3: “Screw” your limbs inwards

Many of the muscles in the legs and arms “wrap” around your body’s bones and joints, sort of like stripes on a candy cane. Even muscles that look like they run straight up and down the limb have an origin and insertion point that is slightly offset from one another. The reason for this is to partially create inward torque along the limb as you move about. This inward torque is very important for creating that converging force within the body when doing unilateral movement such as throwing a ball or taking a step.

Screwing in your limbs is a little counter intuitive at first because your arms and legs torque in opposite directions to one another. Your right arm and left leg torque in clockwise while your left arm and right leg torque counterclockwise. It’s sort of confusing at first, so I just keep in mind that the knees and elbows both torque inwards. The knees torque in towards your centerline as they bend in front of you, while your elbows toque inwards as they bend behind you.

As the elbows torque in or out the tension in the back follows towards or away from the centerline.

As the elbows torque in or out the tension in the back follows towards or away from the centerline.

It’s important to note that torquing your legs inwards doesn’t mean your knees cave inwards. When your torque is applied there should be very little lateral movement in both the knees and the elbows. This is why I refer to applying limb torque as “locking up” the limb. It makes it stiff and stable just like twisting a towel makes it stiffer.

MattSchifferleTowel1


Lock it up! Applying torque on your legs or arms will make them more stable. Lock it up! Applying torque on your legs or arms will make them more stable.

If you can apply all three of these centerline lessons you’ll quickly discover more strength, stability, and power than you’ve had before. More importantly, your strength will become more functional and you’ll prevent joint stress that will erode your health and vitality. Just like any aspect of progressive calisthenics, using the centerline principle takes time and practice, so be patient with it. Also, look for opportunities to apply it even if it doesn’t impact the moving limbs. You’ll be amazed at how torquing in your arms can improve abdominal activation with hanging knee raises. Keeping your hands together is also a great way to make narrow and single leg squats more challenging.

Best of luck with your training and let me know if you have any questions down below in the comments!

***

Matt Schifferle a.k.a. The Fit Rebel made a switch to calisthenics training 5 years ago in an effort to rehab his weight lifting injuries. Since then he’s been on a personal quest to discover and teach the immense benefits of advanced body weight training. You can find some of his unique bodyweight training methods at RedDeltaProject.com and on his YouTube channel: RedDeltaProject.

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Eric Bergmann Calisthenics
Yup. My friend sat on my thumb.

We’ve all been injured at some point, and most of us are familiar with how it can derail our training. In response to the sprain I suffered, I had to decrease the size of my training repertoire and remove everything that required an opposable thumb.

Those who’ve had the dubious privilege of seeing me train know that my workouts consist largely of picking things up and putting them down with the help of said opposable thumb.

Switching gears was tough for me, especially since my training was going so well at the time. In fact, I was in the middle of the best training year of my life. It was tough for me to believe that an adjusted and, in my mind, adulterated training program could provide the same level of benefit. It was even tougher for me to be cool with doing only the following types of movements:

Squat variations, push-up variations, and pull-up variations (with thumb-less grip).

First, a confession…

I didn’t put my heart and soul into the planning of this thumb-less program. Looking back, I could have made some different choices and put together a more comprehensive regimen. Instead, I just looked at which exercises I felt I could do without risk of further injury and hoped that I wouldn’t lose much ground from my last several phases of training. Unconvinced that these bodyweight-only movements were going to successfully maintain my hard work, however, I was prepared to lose some strength.

That said, I didn’t just throw in the towel and half-ass my training. I pulled out my PCC manual.

Eric Bergmann with PCC Manual

I chose the hardest variations of each movement that I could manage for a handful of quality reps, backing those up with variations I could do for a moderate-to-high number of reps. In essence, this was an attempt to mimic what I had already been doing in successful programs rather than suddenly switching gears or starting all over.

As I explored the variations available to me I took advantage of the leverage concepts from the PCC Certification. This allowed me to transform movements that I could do for 0-2 reps into movements I could do for 4-6 reps, movements I could do for 25+ reps into movements I could only do for 15-20 reps, and so forth. These variations or “hidden steps” allowed me to tailor the movements to my abilities and to use that as a platform for continued growth.

During the “strength” oriented movements (I used multiple sets in the 4-6 rep range) I noted a marked increase in full-body tension/contraction/stabilization.  What does that mean? It means that during one-arm push-up variations, I found abs of steel, quads of quartz, and rotator cuffs of coordinated reactive stabilization. It means I found and minimized imbalances between my ability to stabilize my left lateral chain and my right. It means I got strong. Really strong. Way stronger than I’d thought I possibly could with a busted thumb.

During the more endurance oriented movements (I used multiple sets in the 12+ rep range and in the 20+ rep range) I found minor but important losses in active stabilization. What does that mean? It means I found and was able to close gaps in endurance that caused subtle lumbar extension (low-back sag), thoracic flexion (upper-back rounding), and cervical flexion/capital extension (chin jutting). The higher reps gave me the opportunity to lock down my form during my sets, making my positions and joints healthier and stronger, thereby making me more bulletproof.

Bulletproof.

Overall, this has proven to be one of, if not the most successful training phases I’ve ever enjoyed. From the experience I’m taking improved strength, endurance, and ability to create balanced tension through my body, but the lessons I learned go beyond the physical changes.

I didn’t expect that using calisthenics alone could be brutally hard yet readily adjustable to my current capabilities. As a modern fitness culture we are so accustomed to adjusting loads rather than body positions, and to measuring success in pounds and kilos. What I learned during the calisthenics-only phases of my training has expanded my understanding not just of bodyweight movements, but all movement, and will impact how I train both myself and my clients.

Perhaps the most important thing I’m taking with me is that limitations can often free our creativity and expand our horizons.  Injuries are going to happen.  It’s what we do in response that determines our long-term success.

 

***

Eric Bergmann is a New York City based strength coach, movement specialist, and proud member of the PCC family. He co-owns Bergmann Fitness—a boutique training and nutrition service—with his wife, Beth. You can find out more about them at bergmannfitness.com

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