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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  • Brad Sadl

    Awesome article! I like the aspect of mindfulness that you promote for lifting. Keeping our focus mentally on the movement at hand and trying to focus our muscles to do what they want them to…will help build muscle and body control. Gonna try some of these principles in my next freestanding handstand practice! Thanks again your content is always great!

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks so much Brad! As I tell my clients, training the body is easy, it does what the mind tells it to do. It’s training the mind that’s the hard part. This is why distractions can be so detrimental in a workout.

  • Dan Söderberg

    i see some drops of naked warrior really well develpoed into a comprehensive guide to muscle control and strengh good job

  • Frank Delventhal

    Thank you I really liked it. Thank you for the effort to write it. I like the pictures they do a great job in underlining the text.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks so much for reading Frank, be sure to let me know if you have any questions in the application.

  • Jack Arnow

    The very first time I attempted a righty one arm chin I got stuck about half way up. Jasper Benincasa was right in front of me, and said “turn in,” while illustrating what he meant. I twisted my right elbow and wrist towards my chest( leftward), while twisting my left arm, hip and head leftward across and closer to my chest, still pulling like mad, but now my chin rose over the bar. In spanning over 55 years of training for the one arm chin, I’ve tried to improve this “twist in” technique. For me, it made the one arm chin easier. When I did a flat footed righty one-arm chin in September 2015, this technique helped me. I really couldn’t explain exactly why it worked, but it did work. I’m not certain what I did is what you describe, but I think it might be. This morning I used the centerline principle, though not having any name for it, when I did weighted pullups. It definitely works. As I’ve gotten older, the only way to try to maintain, is to keep working on technique. Thanks for this great article Matt. This article has made me more conscious of what my muscles and mind are trying to do. This makes me stronger, and gives me great joy.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Dude, you rock Jack! Seriously hard core man. Keep trainin’n hard and getting strong!

  • Love the diagrams, Matt! Great ideas here and you’ve done a great job of illustrating/communicating them… 🙂

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thank you much Adrienne, I try to make this idea as simple as possible as it’s been a challenge to actually apply it to training over the past few years.

      On a side note, I find the rack position with KBs to be helpful with this as well as it requires all 3 aspects of application in an isometric fashion. I find too many people just use that rack position as a transition from one move to the next, but I’ve found a lot of value in holding it there for carries, walks and leg work.

  • Incredible article as ever Matt. Taking the “martial art” (and science) of bodyweight muscle farther than anybody else in the world!!

    • Rafael

      hello, coach!

      Are you planning a CC4?

      • Yo Raf!

        Not right now my man, but never say never huh?

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks much Coach! Always more to learn and cross apply (Yes I just made up that term) from various disciplines.

    • mohamed ninja

      Hello coach.

      I am a CONVICT CONDITIONING practitioner, a big fan of your work and philosophy.
      Would you recommend bridges to someone who have a curvature in the spine (( the absurd thing is that I can do(( 1 year ago)) 1 good rep of stand to stand bridge And could hold L sit for 20 sec.!)) ?! Do you think twists could cure it?!

      Peace ✌

  • Dan Söderberg

    this makes me iong for “the encyclopedia of bw training ” a comprehensiva guide to reach your goal (fill inany blanks yourself strengh endurance hypertrophy ) or is it just me always thinking one step a head all the time….

  • Eoin Kenny

    Hey Matt a question for you! Does this mean (in your opinion) that a close grip underhand chin up is potentially the best way to get a twisting tension in your muscles when you’re doing your pull ups? I was thinking it seems like the best way to get a twisting center line out of all the grips?

  • Karen Lee

    Very cool article! You’ve explained this well. I have been unfamiliar with the term centerline principle, but I see how you show how and why we do what we do to create more strength and stability. That’s great to visualize, bring it all center. Thanks!

  • Miah Weather

    i’m going to read this, but, the grip on that katana… its not a baseball bat.

  • Wade Race

    This is such a well written article. I read it and my head was nodding the entire time. I am not a martial artist (though I do have a penchant for boxing) , just a meathead and a nerd, but I can see how closely related the two are. Thanks for writing this.

    • Wade Race

      Oh, and this was published on my birthday. How did you know? Perfect present! 🙂

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