I got interested in core training when I was in grad school at Ball State University, for two reasons:

First, a biomechanics professor made me write a paper on the subject, which was new to me. Second, as a strength coach working with our women’s volleyball team, I learned that every single player had some degree of back pain.

All I remember about the paper is that I cited some Canadian guy named McGill, who made me realize how much I didn’t know about the lower back. But in the meantime, I had to help this long-suffering volleyball team, who loved working their abs. I would use ab exercises—including high-rep circuits of crunches, Russian twists, Supermen, bicycles, and prone arm-leg raises—as a reward for doing the heavy squats and other things I wanted them to do.

Two years later, I thought I knew enough to publish an article called “21st Century Core Training.” The title was ironic, since the exercises mostly dated back to the 20th century, if not the 19th. Other than planks and dead bugs, I wouldn’t use any of them in a program today.

So, yes, I’ve learned a lot since then. (Thanks, Dr. McGill!) I’m sure you have too. The problem, though, is that we’re all learning different things, at different times, and from different sources.

On one side we have coaches who do hardly any targeted core training at all, reasoning that squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are all their athletes need because they’re “real world” core exercises.

On the other we have trainers who only do the basics with their clients or athletes, and never progress to what I call contextual core training—exercises that mimic the body postures and positions they use in life or sports.

The five steps that follow are the middle ground. They should be applicable to the full spectrum of your clients, from entry-level trainees to competitive athletes.

If nothing else, they show how much I’ve learned in the 15 years since I thought I knew enough to write my first core-training article.

1. Almost Everyone Needs Ground-Based Core Training

The end goal of all training is to improve performance in the most important movement patterns—running, jumping, climbing, squatting, lifting from the floor or overhead. It’s true whether you’re training a pro athlete or a 65-year-old grandmother who’s never been inside a gym.

With more advanced clients, the road to better performance is paved with squats, deadlifts, rows, and presses—all of which, no question, engage the core.

But how many clients are physically prepared to do those exercises? How many can stabilize their core without overusing their spinal erectors, which locks the lumbar spine in extension and grinds down the vertebrae and discs?

In my experience, this is a nearly universal issue. I see it in everyone from novices to elite lifters moving multiples of their body weight on squats and deadlifts.

It’s hard to develop an optimal stabilizing strategy on your feet. Those two points of contact with the floor are the only external feedback you have to signal where your body is in space. There’s no feedback for your hips, spine, or shoulders.

Conversely, when you’re supine on the floor, you not only have external feedback from your head to your hips, you also get external support.

To get the most out of supine, floor-based exercises, use these three cues:

Exhale hard, with your ribs pulled down and in

“Exhale fully” is the most important cue you can give a client right before she begins a core exercise. It may be the most valuable tip in this article.

If you don’t believe me, try any of the ground-based exercises shown here with air in your lungs. Then try it again with your lungs empty. You’ll see a dramatic difference in core engagement.

Roll your pelvis underneath you

Here you want the opposite of anterior pelvic tilt, a common problem that leads to overuse of the spinal extensors when stabilizing the spine.

Reach long (when using your arms)

With a full exhale, you’ll see a much-improved range of motion, especially on exercises like the pullover shown in the third step.

Here’s an example of an intermediate-level dead bug variation in which you can use all three cues:

2. You Need Reaching Core Exercises as Well

This class of exercises includes everything from planks to mountain climbers, body saws, and jackknives.

As long as your arms are extended and your shoulder blades are pulled apart, I consider it a reaching exercise, which offers three key benefits:

It engages your serratus anterior

When you’re locked in extension, with your shoulders pulled back, your ribcage thrusts forward. Activating the serratus to pull your ribs back and in helps restore a balance between flexion and extension.

It engages your deep core muscles

It’s easy to use your rectus abdominis and external obliques; that’s why so many people in the gym are still doing so many crunches and side crunches. But it’s not until you learn to activate deep muscles like the transverse abdominis and internal obliques that you can develop control over the real estate between your pelvis and ribs.

It allows the back side of your torso to fill with air

The biggest disadvantage of supine exercises is that the floor limits where air can go when you inhale. When you’re in a prone position, you can pull air into the back half of your body.

Why is that important? Because your body can only move where air is allowed. You can’t squat or deadlift unless you can take in enough air to expand your back and separate your shoulder blades.

Here’s one of my favorite reaching exercises:

3. Strong Lats Require Strong Abs to Offset Them 

I’ve mentioned two problems with clients and athletes who are stuck in extension:

  • They typically overuse their spinal extensors
  • Their ribs are often pushed forward

There’s also a third problem: They’ll almost always have stiff lats.

You can see it with a quick and simple test. Have your client stand and lift his arms as high as he can without arching his back or flaring his lower ribs. If they go fully overhead, forming a straight line with the client’s neck, torso, and legs, that’s great. If not, his lats are stiff. (Make sure you try it on yourself first. You may be surprised at your own range of motion, or lack thereof.)

Some clients will stiffen their lats with a steady diet of lat-focused exercises like rows and pulldowns. Stiff muscles are the price you pay for building them. Or it might happen inadvertently, when years of heavy squats and deadlifts end up shortening and stiffening the posterior-chain muscles.

Whatever the cause, the pullover shown here is one part of the solution, especially when you exhale fully and extend your arms. You’ll feel your abs working in a whole new way.

4. Use Contextual Core Training 

What I’ve talked about so far is general core training. You’re activating and strengthening muscles in positions that offer lots of support but without any direct transfer to real-world activities.

Contextual training, then, means you find postures and positions that resemble those you might use in life or sports.

Consider an athlete: If he’s ever flat on his back in a game, you can be sure something went wrong.

Most of the time, he’s in a parallel- or split-stance position. No matter what he does from those positions—run, jump, or twist; bend, flex, or extend—he has to control his abdominals to do it safely and effectively.

Or consider a female client who has one or more young kids. How much simultaneous bending, lifting, and twisting will she do in the course of a day, often with an unbalanced load (and sometimes in heels)?

Your training arsenal probably includes several variations on the Pallof press, including half-kneeling, tall-kneeling, and standing variations. But you probably haven’t seen the stepping Pallof press with your arms extended in an isometric hold.

It’s one of my favorites because it activates everything from hips to shoulders while you move laterally, forcing your core muscles to recalibrate their stabilizing strategy on each step.

5. Take Your Abs for a Test Drive 

If the problem you’re trying to correct involves too much activation of the back extensors, the logical fix should be more activation of the flexors. That’s why I think the double-kettlebell front squat is one of the best exercises you can do for the anterior core muscles.

Don’t believe me? Try doing at least five sets of at least five reps with a challenging load, and tell me how your abs feel in the morning.

But please don’t do that with your clients. For them, the anterior core will get plenty of work with moderate weight and volume. Just make sure they meet the standards in the first four steps before asking them to manage the stabilizing challenge of a front-loaded, free-standing exercise like this one.

Final Thoughts

Not every client or athlete needs every step of this progression. But if you see a client who habitually overuses her posterior chain, or has pronounced anterior pelvic tilt, or complains of back pain, no matter how advanced she is, she should benefit from starting with the first step and working her way forward.

And if you’re still using ab circuits like the ones I inflicted on my volleyball players all those years ago, please stop. I got lucky that I didn’t make their back pain worse. You and your clients may not be so fortunate.