Learn how strengthening your core can improve you form on pushups and squats – and get you better results.
A weak or inefficient core is what is holding back most people’s squats and pushups.
The key is to use a progression that allows you to get stronger with perfect form
Certain ab exercises will speed up the process. Do them in your warm-up, twice a week for ab training, and consider using an easier variation daily as “corrective exercise”.
Intensity builds great abs. Barbell squats fit the bill, as long as you do them correctly.
If you’re really struggling, find a FMS-certified professional and get a screen.
Pushups and squats are two of the arguably biggest staples in fitness. Unfortunately, you are bound to see ugly push ups or squats in almost any gym or bootcamp. A weak or inefficient core is frequently the cause.
Case in point: the leg press.
The legs are much stronger than the back. This is why people will put up massive weight on the leg press, but struggle to squat with an empty barbell. Assuming adequate flexibility & mobility, the legs are not the issue – the core is. Developing core stability with dedicated core training and specific progressions will allow you to get stronger and to reach your goals faster.
Also, sloppy form can lead to painful overuse injuries. This can manifest as knee, hip, and/or back pain in squats. With pushups, improper positioning primarily affects the shoulders, elbows, and back. Frequent misuse of joints can lead to muscle tears and even joint damage.
#1 Rule – Never do a squat or pushup with bad form.
Great deadlifters treat their warm-up reps like the real deal. Every rep is the same. Use this approach with your progressions. Each exercise in the progression will build core strength when performed correctly. Over time, this is auto-correcting. The body develops as a unit – including the core.
For pushups: flat back, tensed abs & glutes, no sagging. “Pulling up on the kneecaps” can help set the core. When choosing a progression, use one that challenges the core but does not defeat it. For squats, the spine stays neutral throughout the lift.
Specific Ab Exercises
The “secret” is that the core will fix itself – given the right progression and strict form. Certain ab exercises do speed up the process, however. I’ll list these.
Pick the variation that you can do 8-10 of per side. Feel it in the core, not the lower back. Perform 1 set in your warmup, and then train 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps twice a week during your regular core training.
You can also pick one variation as a “corrective exercise” and practice it 3-4 times daily. Low load versions like wall press abs and dead bugs are great for this.
Band-Resisted Leg Lowers are more difficult than they look but are incredibly effective. They also improve mobility and stability in the hip flexors and the hamstrings.
Improving Core Stability – Simple Squat Progression
The key to this progression is keeping the weight in front of the body. This encourages use of the anterior core for anti-extension, and also helps to shift the hips back. Remember, intensity builds abs. Heavy barbell squats do a great job – make sure you’re ready for it. Pick a squat that will strengthen your core at a level that you can handle.
This progression has worked for all of my clients. It’s great for those that can squat with the mobility of a baby but need stability. It also works for people that are just tight and will need a few months to master squatting. Make no mistake – a lack of stability will create mobility problems. If you’re hitting tons of mobility and still can’t squat, chances are it’s a stability problem.
Progressions depend on the client’s goals and program focus. If it’s fat loss or performance, we want to get you to the barbell squats as quickly as possible. That said – Great athletes master the basics. Spending a measly 30 days on owning your goblet squat technique will pay dividends in the future.
If elevating the heels helps, do it. However, progress with the goal of using lower and lower lifts until the feet are flat. A ½”-2” ramp works well here.
Bodyweight Squat – either to a box set or using a rack or pole for support
Plate Squat, to a box or free-standing
Goblet Squat. When you can squat 35-45+ lbs for reps with great form, move on. Keep your hips BELOW your chest, fight the urge to lean back.
Optional – One Arm Kettlebell Squat / Offset Goblet Squat
Optional – Double Kettlebell Squat
Barbell Front Squat
Back Squat, if desired
The progression splits after goblet squats. You can really get after core stability if you want to chase the one arm squat or two arm kettlebell squats. A recent client of mine wanted to improve her core stability for horseback riding. A blend of front squats and double kettlebell front squats worked viciously well. It also helped her to not sag her back during pushups.
Barbell front squats are the culmination. We get to use appropriately heavy loads, while reinforcing abdominal strength. The torso is more upright than in back squats, which reduces force on the lower back. There is less of a tendency to lean forward. They’re self-limiting – if you go too heavy or fatigue, you will drop the bar before you hurt yourself.
Improving Core Stability – Pushups
Try this simple test: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II8OkeT-ojc
How’d you do? If you failed, try the ab exercises from before with this progression. Replace your regular pushups with these exercises until your form improves.
Elevated Pushups in a Squat Rack
Band-Assisted Pushups. These can also be done for isometric holds at the top, similar to a plank.
For elevated pushups, make sure that the core stays tight and the back is flat. Gradually lower the pins. When they’re at the bottom of the rack and can perform 8-10 good pushups, it’s time for band-assisted pushups. For these, use a superband (padding optional) placed across the pelvis and looped around a sturdy chinup bar. The vertical pull of the band helps lift the core – expect to feel these pushups in your abs.
When you can do 3 sets of 10, move on to Grease the Groove. This means frequent “microsets” of perfect pushups, all day everyday. Start with 1, multiple times a day. Always perfect. Never fatigued. Soon you’ll see your pushup number explode. This trick brought one of my clients from 2-3 regular pushups to doing 3 sets of 12 decline pushups a workout very rapidly.
Band Chest Presses or Cable Chest Press – great option for elderly clients or people with shoulder pain that prevents pushups from being done. The horizontal resistance trains core stability remarkably well.
All anti-extension exercises listed here.
When I set out to write this article, I wanted to explain my process of improving squats and pushups. I use the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) to do this with my clients, and it’s an ingenious tool. It works wonderfully. However, detailing that process is out of the scope of this article. It would also be a dry or flat-out confusing read to non-coaches.
But what if you’re somebody who is working hard on their squat or pushup, and it’s just not coming together? You’ve tried all the mobility drills – and it didn’t help. You tried squat therapy – and it didn’t help. Come and see for me a FMS screen.
The FMS will reveal what your limitation is – whether it’s mobility or stability, and provide the solution that you want to improve your performance. I’ve helped Crossfitters, athletes, and people that simply want to look better naked reach their goals in record time with the FMS.