The core has become a fitness buzzword. People seem to think core training is synonymous with abdominal training, which explains why various websites, blogs, infomercials, and trainers use the phrase to attract misinformed readers desperate for a six-pack. In truth, the core is much more than a six-pack, and it needs to be treated as such.
It's time to destroy misconceptions about core training and restore its true meaning. Endless sets of sit-ups and leg raises will only take your core so far. Eventually, your core will need to support heavy weight under serious stress when you squat, deadlift, or press.
Kick the crunches aside and learn heavy lessons that build insane core strength!
The core is a collection of muscles which stabilize and move the spine. Close to the spine and deep inside the abdomen is the inner core, which is comprised of the diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidi, deep cervical flexors, and transverse abdominus. These strange-sounding muscles engage first during movement or breathing to protect the spine.
The outer core muscles are also responsible for stabilizing and protecting the spine, but they also have more defined movement functions. The anterior muscles (abdominals) are the most well-known members of the outer-core assembly. The lats, spinal erectors, glute complex, quadratus lumborum, and hip flexors are also outer-core muscles.
If you want to get academic, you could make an argument that the core extends far beyond these muscles localized to the spine and hip complex. But for our current scope, the muscles I just mentioned nicely define the core.
Simplified Core Strength
Purposeful core action requires understanding its function. The core stabilizes and protects the spine by creating stiffness that limits excessive movement in any direction—most notably extension, flexion, lateral flexion, and rotation. In lifting terms, the core's responsibility is to limit movement.
Think about the core through the scope of strength exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. These movements require the spine to hold a rigid position so the hip and shoulder joints can move with force. The core muscles create the rigid spine position.
To make the core stronger, you only need to let it do its job and protect the spine when you put heavy loads in your hands or on your shoulders.
From this perspective, every exercise is a core exercise. Complete an exercise with good form and you trained the core to do its job. Consistently increase the load of an exercise using good form and you make the core stronger.
Real Core Training
Standing exercises demand the most from your core musculature. If you're seated or lying down, your body uses whichever surface you recline on to create stability and the core gets lazy.
Those factors make the standing overhead press the unlikely king of core exercises.
- Grip the bar as it rests on your clavicle.
- Take a deep breath to create abdominal pressure and activate the muscles of your inner core.
- Tighten your glutes to lock your hips in place and tighten your abs to keep the rib cage down.
- Contract the core hard, press the weight up, and hold the weight overhead.
- Your inner core, abs, and glutes should feel tight and locked before letting the weight down.
Think about the core through the lens of this movement. The muscles are placed under high tension and trained heavily, but they don't cause any movement.
This makes the overhead press the best core-strengthening weapon in a lifter's arsenal. Make sure you hit this lift on your shoulder day.
Big lifts done with heavy weight with good form are the best core training exercises. That's not to say, however, that there isn't room in every program for ancillary core training. To construct an effective core training program, we have to incorporate the functions discussed previously: anti-flexion, anti-extension, and anti-rotation.
Anti-flexion exercises require you to resist a weight that attempts to pull your spine into flexion. The deadlift is a great example. As your body extends to lift the weight, the weight causes your back to round—but only if you let it.
Anti-extension is the opposite of anti-flexion. The goal is to resist a load that attempts to extend your spine (arch your back).
Anti-extension lifts resist a load that attempts to arch your back. Ancillary exercises strengthen your core and your compound lifts, like the back squat.
Anti-rotation exercises resist a force that attempts to rotate your body. Any exercise done with a weight held on one side of the body is an anti-rotation exercise. This can be any anti-lateral flexion exercise when the weight attempts to bend your body to one side as you resist it.
The best training programs are as simple as they need to be, but no simpler. I offer you three simple-but-effective exercises to add to your current program to build core strength.
Exercise 1: Romanian Deadlifts
(3-4 sets of 5-8 reps)
Romanian deadlifts are a great deadlift assistance and anti-flexion core exercise. Be sure to lock your spine in the neutral position without too much round and arch. Do 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps on lower-body or deadlift training days.
Exercise 2: Tall-Kneeling Overhead Press
(3-4 sets of 6-10 reps)
The overhead press is a full-body exercise that offers a dramatic core training effect. To perform a tall-kneeling version, grab dumbbells or kettlebells and a knee pad. Kneel on both knees and get as tall as possible by squeezing your glutes to extend your hips and contract your abs to lock your rib cage.
At this point, press the weight overhead with good form. You'll feel the lower back attempt to extend to make the movement easier, but you must resist that extension. Complete 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps on an upper-body training day.
Exercise 3: Suitcase Carries
(3-4 sets of 25-40 steps)
The suitcase carry is simple, but so effective. Perform it in the gym with a barbell, a dumbbell, or anything heavy with a handle. Just lift it and walk.
The suitcase carry is the simplest core exercise of all. Hold weight in one hand, get as tall as possible, and take it for a walk while resisting the weight's pull on your body. Dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells work well as training implements. Barbells are the most difficult but offer the greatest grip and core stabilization challenge. Do 3-4 sets of 25-40 steps on each side of your body.
I'd like to leave you with a final tip on breathing. You may not think how you breathe has an impact on your core, but it makes a big difference. Most people "shoulder breathe" by elevating their shoulders and lifting their rib cages to let air in. This is erroneous because the diaphragm can't do its job effectively. It also limits the function of the inner core—the muscles affected most powerfully by breath.
Be cognizant of your breathing and breathe air into the lowest point of your belly. Breathe this way when lifting, walking, sitting, reading, and talking. Seriously, it's important!
- Name: Todd Bumgardner
- Occupation: Co-founder of Beyond Strength Performance; MS; CSCS; strength and conditioning coach and manual therapist at Ranfone Training Systems.
- Website: beyondstrength performance.com/todd-bumgardner-m-s