Core training for CrossFit: Hol-low is it me you're looking for?

January 22, 2018

Never Open with an apology they say...


Apology:  I am sorry for the title of this post (a little cheesy I know).  Sorry, not sorry. 🙂



Now, what am I talking about?  It all started when I was scrolling through Instagram and I noticed a pattern emerging.  Video after video of pro and amateur CrossFit athletes sharing their training footage with a comment below noting that they were working on their ‘hollow position’ or a ‘hollow hold’.  WTF?


If you possess an iPhone go to Settings then Battery and click the small clock icon next to Last 7 Days.  You can now see exactly how long you have spent on each app in minutes.  For me, Instagram was at 5.3 hours....This is ridiculous and meant it was time to do some writing.



In the past 40 years core training has been infiltrated and over-simplified by quacks and fitness gurus looking to sell a Christmas DVD.  They are mostly latching on to the latest trend and trying to cash in on something they know little about.  Selling the dream of glistening oblique's is an easy pain point to push, hence the abundance of trashy material out there.


Our abdominal muscles, colloquially known as ‘the core’ are made up predominantly of 4 anterior muscles; transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique and external oblique. 



The Trunk


If we quickly explore the function of ‘the core’ we can get a better idea of its role before assigning contributing muscles.


"To stiffen the torso and function primarily to prevent motion"

(McGill, 2010) 


For the trunk to become stiffened it requires far more than the clenching of your beach body abs.  Symmetry is required around the body, from left to right and from the front to the back. With this we should be able to see that ‘the core’ is far more than the four muscles on show and includes all muscles around the trunk that are used in synergy to transfer energy through the body via the hips or shoulders.  Therefore, I shall refer to that area as ‘the trunk’.




What is a hollow hold?



So, what specifically is a ‘hollow hold/position’?  CrossFit New England define it splendidly as:


“A strong contraction with active tissue from the big toe all the way to finger tips.”



When lying supine (on your back) this looks like an exercise that I grew up loathing… ‘the dish’.  This basically involves a maximal muscular contraction so that the body is fully stabilised with shoulders, head and ankles just rising off the ground. The whole body replicates a concave or ‘hollow’ looking position.  Varying and disproportionate body types will find this quite difficult, particularly individuals with long limbs and short spines. 


What it is not!


This is NOT to be confused with hollowing of the stomach, which is a technique that involves drawing the belly button into your spine to activate transverse abdominis (TrA).  This was popularised by a research study in 1999, which indicated that people with back pain have a delayed firing of their TrA compared with healthy individuals. 


This study was massively blown out of proportion and resulted in many trainers and athletes partaking in trunk exercises that focused on that single muscle.  Working a single (relatively) core muscle excessively actually can reduce spinal and pelvic stability due to surrounding muscles atrophy and goes against one of the core functions of the trunk:  To work as a synergist and aid the transition of force through the hips.  Think of it like doing triceps extensions, alone, with the aim of improving your split jerk.


The debate here isn't whether a hollow hold is good for you, but is it the best thing you could be doing?  Selecting exercises specific to your sport sits at the heart of fundamental training principles, so I believe a comparison between the requirements of the sport and the exercise carried out is always required.


CrossFit is a mixture of Weightlifting, Gymnastics and more aerobically demanding locomotion activities like swimming and running.  The hollow hold is derived from the world of gymnastics, but often training methods are simply passed down from generation to generation rather than objectively critiqued for their positives and negatives.  Is the hollow hold optimal for the 3 key areas of CrossFit?



Gymnastics needs analysis:


Gymnastic movements in CrossFit primarily comprise of kipping, muscle ups and hand stands.  Looking to the elite world of gymnastics we can see that these positions involve length and the body being tense.  This is particularly true when you look at the hand stand, where the body is ‘stacked’.*


*Stacked, refers to the bones of the body becoming acutely aligned to alleviate stress on joints and is made possible with tension throughout the trunk, whole body and a posteriorly tilted pelvis (see below).   Squeezing the glutes and abdominals (primarily rectus abdominis) will lock the pelvis in place so that any balancing is completed with the finger tips and shoulders. 



Handstands in CrossFit are made even tougher with either walking hand stands or hand stand press-ups.  Both are very dynamic movements and optimal technique can be lost under conditions of fatigue.  Remaining 'stacked' should be the aim for efficiency and injury prevention.


Bodily tension and length is also required with muscle ups and kipping movements.  there are more complex movements, because of how dynamic they are and how rapidly they have to be performed.  Despite this, it is still optimal to maintain a hollow body position so that momentum is transferred through the body in the most effective way.  Well known for his gymnastics ability, Alec Smith is a shining example of how to complete any gymnastics movements for aesthetics and economy. 





Using all the core muscles to brace will allow better stability and transfer of momentum in gymnastics movements.  In terms of using the hollow body hold to achieve this, it totally fits the bill!  It gets a thumbs up from me.



Locomotion needs analysis:


Although probably not the key selling point of CrossFit, running and fundamental aerobic activities have become commonplace in competitions.  Only last year, the games featured a run- swim – run AND a ‘sprint o-course’.  In fact, sprinting, swimming and cycling, in some form, has featured in all games so far.  To excel at these, it's not only the capacity for aerobic exercise that needs training, the skill does too.  This was well documented by CrossFit Games winner Matt Fraser spending time each week training at an athletics track.


Nearly all methods of human locomotion are contralateral in nature, i.e. when running you will drive through your right leg and use your left arm/shoulder to propel yourself forward.  The opposite combination happens instantly afterwards and so on and so forth.


In addition to the movements described above, the trunk also works across a number of 'slings' (where diagonally opposite muscles are linked by connective tissue) thus facilitating movement diagonally across the body.




Moving contralaterally produces a lot of rotation, which then must be stabilised to allow for movement in the next desired direction.   Let's do a quick comparison between the positioning of a football player and a sprinter as they run.  In the sprinter you will see a taller and more streamlined position with limbs held much closer to the centre line. The footballer is wasting a shit ton of energy laterally rather than focusing on maintaining a tighter position that will propel them forwards.


Now, if one of our aims is to reduce rotation in locomotion activities, will a hollow body hold give us the greatest returns for our investment?  Honestly....probably not. 


It will certainly provide a strong base to work from, but your prime movers (or non-movers as is the case) for stabilisation of rotation are the internal, external obliques and the posterior oblique sling (Lats, glutes & fascia).  There are not targeted using the hollow hold. 


On top of this, a hollow body hold is likely to encourage a pronounced chin, which should be retracted for any form of running due to the implications further down the kinetic chain.  I'm digressing slightly now, but I'll make sure to cover this in more detail in another post for those of you who are interested.




To tick the box of exercising your rotation stabilising muscles do these:


1) Pallof pressing


2) low to high cable rotations


3) Controlled landmines



Olympic weightlifting needs analysis:


Lastly, lets focus on Olympic weightlifting movements.  These are primarily made up of a weight resting on the shoulders or being held above the head and secondarily of the spinal structure bracing when the weight is being pulled from the floor. 


Mcgill stipulates that the rectus abdominis (6 pack muscles) are made up like a spring to absorb impact rather than for flexing (sit ups).  Olympic weightlifting should really involve as little flexion as possible in the trunk.  One common exercise that I see CrossFitter's do all the time and that are only good for flexing your abs are ‘ab mat sit ups’.  If you take anything away from today it should be to categorically remove this exercise form your training repertoire.  It is good for one thing only and that is training for…beach body abs. 


Not only are you just repetitively flexing from the anterior portion of your trunk, this also implements lazy technique as you throw your body over the back of the mat and repetitively hyper extend your back.  No. Stop it. 


Again I digress, but is holding a hollow body position optimal for weightlifting improvements?  I would score this a 7/10 as it provides you tension throughout the full length of the front of your body.  This is good because anterior trunk strength is an area that is often overlooked in weightlifting as your posterior erectors tend to kick in and dominate the situation when lifting regularly.


So why does it drop 3 marks? Olympic lifting also requires extension and rigidity throughout the thoracic (upper) spine. Something to watch out for as you promote a slightly flexed upper back when doing holds.  It is easy to note the experience of a lifter in the rigidity of their upper back through first pull, front squat and dip in the jerk.  An experienced lifter understands the importance of upright positions for the transfer of energy in the lift.  Weak links equal failed lifts.


Exercises to include could be weighted planks, bench holds and (maybe controversially) supine pull overs.  The first two exercises require the body to be extended throughout and will really challenge the lower portion of your trunk.  The latter, is on the cusp of being a core exercise but is primarily a shoulder/lat exercise.  What it does is promote a neutral trunk & shoulder position while the weight moves over head and away from the centre of mass.  The athlete will have will have to activate their trunk and serratus anterior to avoid hyper extending


To conclude, hol-low is it me you’re looking for? YES. Regularly completing hollow holds is going to give you a fantastic base to work from, whether it be in gymnastics, weightlifting or aerobic activities. However, it should not be the entirety of your core training. I once spent time with Boo Schexnayder. He will be a total unknown in CrossFit but is widely acknowledged as one of the leading authorities in training design for strength and conditioning and athletics. One of the greatest pieces of advice he gave me was. To paraphrase:


“For most, training prescription should be like a scatter gun rather than a sniper rifle."


Basically meaning that keeping things relatively general with a slight focus will put you in a better position than overly focusing on one thing to the detriment of others. However, for those that already possess sufficient levels of trunk stability it is time to get more specific! Do you want to understand the characteristics of specific tasks and develop exercises that are specifically linked? Well I might write my next blog on that, in the meantime check out the links for more info. Most importantly for now though….do not skip trunk training just because you can't be fucked!.




1) McGill, S., 2010. Core Training: Evidence translating to better performance and injury prevention.


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