You Can’t Fire A Cannon From A Canoe

Have you ever heard the phrase “you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe”? It’s a phrase that has a lot of implications in the rehabilitation and strength & conditioning world. But what does it mean? 

Imagine yourself enjoying a nice afternoon out on a lake in your little wooden canoe. And you happened to load up a cannon with you on your canoe for God knows what reasons. But you did, and you’re about to fire it off at fill-in-the-blank enemy. Maybe at your ex’s house (I’m getting TSwift vibes); maybe the used car salesman who screwed you over; or maybe the old teacher who gave you a B+ in their class and ruined your 4.0. Seems like aggressive payback, but hey, no judgment here. Anyway, you prepare your cannon…aim…FIRE….

…and the next thing you know, your canoe is rapidly filling up with water and sinking. Not only that, but the cannonball only made it 3 feet before dropping in the water. It appears the plan has backfired. Why? Because it is not possible to generate such a powerful force off of such an unstable surface. The force from the cannon backfires, and instead of launching the cannonball, the canoe absorbs the force, generating a hole in the bottom and causing it to sink. Oopsies—maybe should’ve thought this one through a little more. You would’ve been much better off shooting your cannon from a solid piece of land.

So what does this mean in the strength & conditioning world? Ultimately, stability must precede force production. Think about squatting 300 pounds, swinging a golf club, sprinting, or throwing a baseball. All of these actions require a significant amount of force production. And in all of these instances, the “canoe” is the same—your core. (When I talk about the core, I am NOT just talking about your ab muscles. Your core is your diaphragm, pelvic floor, and essentially all the muscles and fascia in between). If your core is unstable and has not produced sufficient intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) for the activity at hand, it will be impossible to generate maximum force during the movement without an energy leak somewhere along the kinetic chain and/or without compromising another structure in the chain.

A common example of this I see in my office is in sprinters. I see many sprinters with low back pain, or chronic tightness in their low backs, no matter how much stretching they do. After an assessment, what I commonly will find is the sprinter “borrowing” extension from their lower back, when they should be generating it primarily from their hips. They have poor control over their core and lack of stability, giving the legs an unstable surface to operate off of. In other words, they are attempting to fire their cannon (legs) off of a canoe (unstable core), causing their lower back to absorb some of this stress and become compromised. Through proper training of core stability, breathing techniques, and improving hip mobility, the sprinter is usually shocked to find out that not only can they run without pain, but they can almost always run faster and more efficiently than before. They’re now firing their cannon from the ground.

(PS—I feel like this goes without saying, but the internet is a wild place these days so I’m going to say it anyway: this is NOT a blanket diagnosis for sprinters with low back pain, but a broad and overly simplified example for educational purposes only. If you have low back pain, do not go to the internet for a solution. Please be evaluated by your local chiropractor or PT.) Anyway, where was I…

Your limbs need a stable surface to operate off of if you hope to move and perform optimally and minimize injury risk. Simple as that.

So how do we accomplish that? 200 sit-ups every day? 300 sit-ups every day? Nope and nope. Training core stability comes from purposeful and intentional movements, increasing mind-muscle awareness around your pelvis and rib cage positioning, understanding diaphragmatic breathing, and knowing how much intra-abdominal pressure needs to be generated and when, depending on the activity. When done properly, you’ll notice this type of core work feels completely different than doing a bunch of sit-ups or crunches. And it’s absolutely game-changing when it comes to strength or performance.

Some of my favorite exercises to functionally train the core include dead bugs, bird-dogs, bear crawls, bear holds, pallof presses, and wood-choppers. If I was a savvier blogger I’d include video examples of all of these, but I’m not, and luckily there’s good ol’ Google if you need visuals. Try swapping out your traditional “ab exercises” for these next time you’re at the gym and focus on quality over quantity. And if you’re someone who’s struggling to understand the concept of true core stability or battling an injury, I would love to work with you. You can visit my Instagram @thebodylab_lincoln for more content on the core and intraabdominal pressure, shoot me an email via the contact tab, or book an appointment for an individualized assessment and treatment plan. 

Thanks for reading, friends, and happy training. 🙂

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