How do you train your core?
Are you only focused on your abs that you can see?
If you train your core and only focus on the abs, you are missing an opportunity to build stability with your torso.
The lack of stability in your core will be your limiting factor for strength training, athletic performance, and overall moving and feeling better.
So what is your core?
The core is composed of 32+ muscles of the pelvis, lumbar spine, and rib cage.
That is a lot of muscles, but here is a short list that is involved with the core:
- Rectus abdominis
- Erector spinae
- External & Internal Obliques
- Transverse Abdominis
- Pelvic Floor
- Quadratus Lumborum
- Glutes, Hamstrings, hip rotators
- Latissmiss dorsi
- Hip Flexors
The goal of most core exercises is to resist unwanted movement, so for this to happen, the listed muscles above have to work together to create this stability. A single muscle is not capable of creating stability, so why focus on a single action of a muscle for core work?
You often see people in the gym work their core, but it’s all about a single muscle action. Not often do you see them work their core to create stability.
So what is core stability?
Core stability is having the ability to move your legs and arms without having to compensate movement with your spine or pelvis.
You only get one body, so why do exercises that put your lumbar spine under continuous stress?
Looking at a risk to reward ratio, this can help you keep your joints, low back feeling good and moving well. Think longevity, will this be good for my body and help it as I age?
For most people having a strong core is a priority, whether it’s for the big lifts, athletic performance, or just moving and feeling better.
The core section, your torso of the body connects the upper body and lower body. Good core stability will allow you to generate force from the lower body and transfer that energy to the upper body, while minimizing energy leaks.
This is very important for many instances, especially in sports, but also in real life. When you are doing yard work like shoveling dirt, you should be able to use your legs to generate force, using your core to minimize movement in the low back, and transfer that force to the arms to move the shovel in the desired direction.
Since the core is an important part to keep your body moving well, you should make it a priority in your training.
I don’t mean train the core the whole time, what I mean is to train it first once your warmup is finished.
The first exercise that you do tends to get the most benefits, so if core stability is important to you, do it first before your lifts.
What if your core gets fatigued and limits your performance with your lifting?
That is a great question, and the answer is simple.
With core stability, you are not going to fatigue.
It is more of an extension of your warmup.
You are doing just enough to get the core primed to increase stability and be ready for strength training.
Priming your core for stability before your big lifts, will actually help you perform better. More stability in the lifts tends to help you lift more.
There are 4 categories for your core exercises:
- Anti-Extension– Resisting excessive extension of the lumbar spine
- Anti-Rotation– Resisting rotation of lumbar spine. It also involves some anti-extension characteristics by nature
- Anti-Lateral Flexion– Resisting lateral flexion of the lumbar spine
- Hip Flexion–Flexion of the hip joint w/ a stable lumbar spine
As you can see, you are preventing the lumbar spine from unwanted movement in all directions.
You can also classify an exercise based on stabilization:
- Static Stabilization: No motion occurring in any of the limbs of the body while the spine is stable. Static hip hip and shoulder joints, ex. Front Plank
- Dynamic Stabilization: Hip joint is stable while the shoulder joint moves or the shoulder joint is stable while the hip joint moves. Ex. Shoulder tap planks & Banded Deadbugs
- Integrated Stabilization: Dynamic motion that occurs about the shoulders and hips while the lumbar spine is stable. Ex. Rotational exercises and most complex movements in general.
Static stabilization is a great way to start. The lack of movement will allow you to really focus on what the core is doing and maintain stiffness in the torso region.
When you add movement such as dynamic stabilization, the focus is diverted to not just what the core region is doing but now the moving limbs.
I suggest starting with static stabilization, and get really good and comfortable before progressing.
Remember the goal for your core exercises is stability. Keeping the low spine safe from unwanted movement and having the ability to transfer energy efficiently across the body.
Sit ups, crunches, side bends, and russian twists, just to name a few, have very little reward and overtime can be high risk for low back issues.
There are better options with less risk and better rewards. Will also carry over to real world events, a great example is bracing the core to move furniture, or yard work.
So what are some core exercises that you can do?
There are many options with many variations.
With this article I will start with some exercises in the anti-extension category with progressions from static stabilization to integrated stabilization.
ANTI-EXTENSION CORE EXERCISES
PRONE POSITION (Face down)
- Tall Front Plank
The first core exercise I teach my clients is a tall plank. This can be done on the ground, or if you need to on an incline to reduce the gravity acting on the body.
Here is how you perform your tall plank
You will start by getting in the top position of a push up. Then you will rotate your hips upward, pretend you have a tail and you want to put your tail between your legs like a scared dog.
Now imagine a soda can is in your stomach, and you want to crush that soda can with the top of your pelvis and the bottom of your ribs.
Now you want to create tension with the rest of your body. Squeeze your butt cheeks like you want to crush a walnut with them.
Your hands should be squeezing the ground underneath while corkscrewing outwardly, without actually moving your hands. This will help create tension and stability in the shoulder blades.
Lastly you want to push your body away from the ground, this will get rid of any slack you have in your shoulder blades. You will feel as if your upper back is slightly rounded, that’s a good thing. Make sure you try and create a double chin with your head, don’t want your head to be forward.
Once you are in position, you should have full body tension, now slowly let all the air out of your lungs while maintaining full body tension. This should be about 7-10 seconds long.
That is 1 rep. Start with 5 reps and rest for 60 seconds.
Repeat for 3-4 rounds.
Slowly work your way up in reps of 10.
If you had to start with an incline, slowly work your way to the ground and then follow these steps before moving forward.
Don’t let your low back arch or your hips sink.
- Elbow Front Plank
The progression is moving from straight arms to bent arms, being on the elbow. The form is the same for this except we can add more tension by driving your elbows down to your hips.
I would stick with the same rep scheme as the last step. Your long exhales are a rep, aiming for 7-10 second long exhales with full body tension. I like to name these Maximum Effort Planks.
Start with 3-5 reps with 3-4 sets and work your way up to 10 reps per set.
- Suspension Trainer Elbow Planks
This progression you will need a suspension trainer, and you will insert your feet into the suspension trainer. This will remove two points of contact from the floor, increasing the difficulty to stay stable.
With the feet hanging off the floor, it will be easy to have your body sway, you want to prevent this from happening.
Keeping it simple for you here.
Besides the feet inside the suspension trainer, the form is the same.
You will also progress the same way.
Progressions do not have to be big changes each time, and are actually better with these small changes over time.
- Suspension Trainer Body Saw
Here is your first dynamic stabilization core exercise. This progression you will start with the feet elevated elbow plank using the suspension trainer.
While keeping your full body tension, your shoulder will be stacked over the elbow joint. You’re going to push your shoulders away from this point, rocking your body back.
Pull back into the starting position with your shoulders over the elbow joint.
You should not be losing tension in the body. Because you are adding movement, it will be easy to lose focus on the full body tension.
Start with 3-5 reps with 2-3 sets. Slowly work your way up to doing 10 reps for 3-4 sets.
- Swiss Ball Fallout
This exercise is similar to the body saw exercise, but instead the feet are stationary and the forearms move.
You will begin in a plank position on a swiss ball, aim to have your forearms and elbows in the center. You will place your feet about hip width apart.
While keeping full body tension, you will slide your elbows and forearms forward, rolling the swiss ball forward.
Pull your elbows back to bring the ball to the starting position.
Another dynamic stabilization exercise, but for shoulders.
Start with 3-5 reps with 2-3 sets. Slowly work your way up to doing 10 reps for 3-4 sets.
- Suspension Trainer Fallout
This exercise you will need a suspension trainer, and you will get on your knees about hip width apart.
Staying tall with core braced, butt clenched, grab the handles of the suspension trainer.
You are going to slowly let your body fall while maintaining a neutral spine, and full body tension.
At the same time, you are going to raise your arms till they are in an overhead position.
While keeping your plank position, you will push yourself back to the starting position.
This exercise can be made harder based on where you are at in comparison to the anchor point of your suspension trainer.
If the anchor point is behind you, less gravity will be on you.
The opposite happens when you get behind the anchor point, you will have to fight gravity more.
So pay attention where you are at, and you can progress by changing your location.
Just like the other exercise, start with 3-5 reps and 2-3 sets and work your way up to doing 10 reps.
- Wheel Roll out
This exercise is similar to the suspension trainer fall out. The difference is you will need an ab roller instead of the suspension trainer.
Keeping the knees on the floor about hip width apart, you still want to brace the core and butt cheeks clenched.
Grab you a roller and start right in front of the knees.
Slowly you will push the ab roller away from you, keeping a neutral spine all the way down.
With this variation, the goal is to get the arms in the overhead position without losing form.
You might have to stop before that if your form starts to break.
That is okay, you have room to improve. Go as far as you can while keeping good form and full body tension.
These are tough so really start with 3-5 reps and either work on the range of motion or if you can get full range of motion, work on getting 10 reps.
So there you go, I just provided some smarter core exercises with progressions.
The core exercises I provided were just for anti-extension in the prone position. There are many more you can do; these are just a few examples.
The next post will be a continuation of this post. I will go over some exercises in the supine position (face up) for anti-extension and anti-rotation core exercises.
Stay tuned for more.