Core training is one of the most popular training topics in the world of fitness. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most confusing. It’s confusing because there are an endless myriad of exercises, guidelines, and promises being made. It is even more confusing because of advances in recent research, and what those discoveries meant for how we train the core. The purpose of this article is to explain what the core is, and provide some easy to follow guidelines for core training.
What is the core? Simply put, the core consists of your trunk muscles. Any muscle that assists in stabilizing your spine and pelvis could be considered part of the core musculature. Contrary to popular opinion, the core is a lot more than just the ‘six pack’ (Rectus Abdominis) and the obliques (External Obliques). The core also contains many deep (nonvisible) muscles that play an important role in stabilization. This includes your glutes, hip flexors, spinal erectors, lats, and many other muscles.
A major function of the core is to stabilize the body during activity. However, conventional ab training has focused on creating motion from the core, in the vein of sit ups, leg raises, suitcase situps, Russian / Oblique twists, and other such movements. The safety of many such movements can be debated, but the goal remains the same: to create motion. Safety is a topic for another day.
For now, I’d like to take a closer look at training the core to resist motion and stabilize the body. The core acts to stabilize the body during athletic movements. A punch starts from the feet and the hips, and the power must travel through the core to reach the boxer’s fist. If the boxer has a weak core, some of that power will be lost. I once heard it explained using the analogy of a garden hose with a hole in it. Water (power) is lost through any leaks in the hose (core).
I recommend that stability training is the basis of most core programs. Until my clients have achieved adequate core strength through stability, I prefer to limit conventional ab training. As a baseline, I recommend that clients be able to hold a strict plank for 2:00, a side plank for 1:00 per side, and a back extension for 2:00. Some of these guidelines are similar to those set forth by Dr. Stuart McGill or Mike Robertson, in his excellent ‘Bulletproof Back & Knees Seminar’.
For stability, I focus on three major categories of exercises: Anti-Extension, Anti-Rotation, and Anti-Lateral Flexion. These exercises train the body to resist hyperextension, rotation, and side bending movements. Many of these are also trained through conventional weight training. Squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses will build a very resistant and stable core. However, core training should be supplemented to include all three anti-movements.
Anti-Extension exercises consist of any exercise that trains the body to resist hyperextension. For example, an abwheel rollout is an anti-extension exercise. Rollouts are notoriously difficult, and the body will oftentimes limit range of motion to protect itself from hyperextension. Planks are the most common anti-extension exercises. These exercises are fantastic for improving posture, especially in people whose posture favors a hyperextended spine. Exercises include plank variations, pushups, rollout variations (TRX Fallouts, Stability Ball Rollouts, Ab Wheel or Barbell Rollouts), and standing overhead pressing. I would also consider dumbbell pullovers to be an anti-extension exercise, done a certain way.
Anti-Rotation exercises have the goal of resisting a pull from the side. Bird dogs are an easy example of this. Cable or band Pallof presses are a fantastic anti-rotation exercises. I also consider one arm rows to be an anti-rotation exercise, as the body must resist the pull of the dumbbell or cable.
Anti-Lateral Flexion exercises are simply when the body resists side bending. One sided or lopsided Farmer Walks are an excellent example of this. Offset exercises as a whole are fantastic for training this quality, such as leverage lifts and pressing variations. Similarly, side planks train anti-lateral flexion and anti-rotation. Many exercises train multiple qualities; don’t obsess over which exercise does what.
Personally, I like to train each movement once a week with a dedicated exercise. For example, I might focus on Anti-Extension on Monday, Anti-Rotation on Wednesday, and Anti-Lateral Flexion on Friday if I trained on a 3-day split. Once I am proficient with resisting each motion, I will add in movement based core training. These will include Chops, Lifts, cable rotations, some conventional ab training, and plenty of gymnastic movements such as L-sits, hanging leg raises, and levers. I still prefer to spend most of my core training on resisting movement. I prefer to keep core motion exercises to 20-30% of my total core training, as a loose guideline.
I will expand on this topic next week, but for now – your homework is to look at your core training and determine how much of your training resists movements, and how much creates movement. If you find a large imbalance, maybe it’s time to consider revamping how you approach core training. Test yourself on planks, side planks, and the static back extension. If you’re weaker than expected, spend some time shoring up your stability. Your spine may thank you.