When most people think of core training, they typically conjure up images of exercisers grunting through crunches and sit-ups.
In actuality, those movements really involve you just bending forward to lift your back off the ground and bracing your abs with a flexed spine. That doesn’t sound like an effective core workout to me.
Plus, if your client’s goal is six-pack abs, we know that abs are made more visible from dieting, not from doing endless crunches. Contrary to popular belief, the core comprises far more than just the four, six, or eight muscles that are visible in the stomach region.
Some describe the entire core as “a box” with the abs up front and center, glutes and paraspinals in the back, hip girdle and pelvic floor at the bottom, and diaphragm at the top. Others refer to it as the anatomy between the knees and the sternum, with an emphasis on the abdominals, low back, and hips.
In any case, the “core” clearly goes far beyond the rectus abdominals.
Unfortunately for people doing 100 sit-ups and crunches a day, crunches and sit-ups simply don’t work all the muscles. Rather, the best way to work the core is to perform big, compound exercises. You know, those big lifts like the squat, deadlift, pull-up, and overhead press, during which the abdominal fibers are really fighting to stabilize against the heavy weights.
This research from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that the abdominal muscles were better activated with integrated core exercises (with glutes and shoulders recruited at the same time), as opposed to complete isolation.
In addition, Stuart McGill, the authority on spine biomechanics and professor at the University of Waterloo, argues that a strong core is essential for optimal performance and preventing injuries, stating in his paper:
“Muscular endurance of the core is more important than muscular strength for preventing low back pain and injury.”
Free weight compound movements, like squatting, are fantastic for the core because all of the muscles around the midsection (e.g. glutes, low back, hip flexors, obliques) are firing to stabilize the body. In doing so, they prevent the spine and pelvis from flexing and extending from front to back and side-to-side, while making sure the hips are not adducting or abducting; or internally and externally rotating, in any one direction.
That’s not to say we can’t help clients further develop their stability and resist being pulled in multiple directions during exercise. If they can improve their core stability by doing additional core work, they can get stronger and perform better (a.k.a. you have a happy client). Here are my ideas for some great supplementary core exercises.
“Resist” Core Exercises
Since the various core muscles are best trained as a single unit, isometric resistance-type movements at all angles (forward, backward, and lateral) are ideal. The plank is a great place to start. Not only do they incorporate a lot more than the abs, but if you’re doing a good amount of squats and deadlifts that resist flexion (arching) of the spine, planks provide a much needed dose of extension resistance (or rounding of the spine) to counter that.
Take note the four critical coaching points to getting a good-looking plank:
- Position shoulders directly over the hands.
- Squeeze the glutes and slightly round the spine to prevent extension (anti-arching).
- Pull the feet and hands into the ground as if the client is trying to bring them toward each other.
- The goal is quality, not quantity.
Aside from your standard front and side planks, there are a tremendous number of challenging dynamic plank exercises that I classify as “active planks”.
In addition, planks can be a great “finisher” after a traditional weight training session, or even during high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.
Standing or hanging isometric holds and weighted carries (Farmer’s walks) are also extremely effective for building up the core’s ability to “resist” in five different directions: anti-flexion, anti-extension, rotation, and both left and right directions of anti-lateral flexion. They can also help work posture and increase the daily step count, if that’s important to your client.
The Palloff press is an underrated movement. It helps build a solid anti-rotational base. It basically involves positioning the body perpendicular to a light-weight resistance machine (perhaps a pulley or resistance band), “pressing” the interlocked fists from sternum, and fully extending them in front of the body.
The Palloff press can also be executed while in a standing, kneeling, or half kneeling position, or with an incline or vertical press. This is highly effective if your client can maintain a stable position and a solid posture throughout. In other words, shoulder blades should be retracted, head aligned with spine, and body is symmetrical from right to left.
“Twist” Core Exercises
Once you’ve helped build a solid base of core strength via forward, backward, lateral, and rotational resistances, we’re ready to upgrade to more challenging twisting maneuvers.
Yes, there is a progression path even with core exercises. More specifically, you need to emphasize building a “resist” baseline before “twist”. The reason is that inexperienced trainees don’t always execute these properly (they may have excessive end ranges) or don’t have the resistance base required for proper control. This could lead to serious disc injuries that not only ruin their ability to exercise, but can negatively affect them for years to come.
Try working from slower, more controlled variations, like with the half-kneeling trunk twist (video below).
Then, you can move on to the fast and explosive stuff, like the seated med ball twist.
Similar to the planks, these twisting exercises are a great addition to HIIT workouts, or they can also be incorporated at the end of your traditional resistance workouts. I prefer the latter, as they’re less likely to tire you out and negatively affect your pushing or pulling performance.
In all cases, be sure to teach your clients to activate and fire the muscles needed to stabilize the core in a variety of positions before they attempt any of these dynamic twisting movements.
Other trainers found these articles helpful:
- The Personal Trainer’s Guide to Diastasis Recti By Jessie Mundell
- The Best Core Exercise to Strengthen Your Spine By Matthew Ibrahim
- Planks: The Magic Sauce to Fix Hip Tightness and Increase Mobility By Dean Somerset