The term “core training” is an overused buzzword in the fitness industry. It is applied to many exercises by many people who don’t really have a clear understanding of what the core is, how it actually works, and how it should be trained.
At the very least, you are probably wasting your time with a lot of your core training. And even worse, you are probably increasing your injury susceptibility.
Read on for more on how to train the core properly, safely, and effectively.
What is the core?
We’ve all heard it from strength coaches, training partners, even the old jacked dude in the corner who squats five plates on an easy day.
“Keep your core tight. Tighten up your abs.” Okay, what does that even mean?
The core is a lot more than just your “six pack abs.” It is better to think of your entire torso as your “core.” Why? Well, because it forms the core of your body. All power and movement starts there and works out through the head, arms, and legs. Your core’s number one responsibility is to protect your internal organs and spine (and a close second is to impress people at the beach).
How the Core Moves
There are several ways your core “moves” in relation to the rest of your body.
Trunk flexion is any movement where the upper part of the trunk moves toward the waistline. The prime mover in flexion exercises is the rectus abdominus (RA). The external and internal obliques are also active, contracting bilaterally to synergistically aid and guide the movement.
Think of sit ups and crunches here. They aren’t the worst possible exercises ever, but they are completely unnecessary and much less effective than any number of other core exercises. The problem is that people stick with crunches and sit ups because they feel the “burn,” and subsequently feel like they are really working their core.
This one is huge for sports. Your core creates the power for a soccer kick, a hockey shot, or a baseball swing. And it generates that power through rotation.
A quick core test:
One way to see this in action was explained to me by Dr. Craig Libenson. Stand in place and have a friend push you sporadically in the low back and notice how much horizontal displacement there is. Now “brace” by getting your entire core tight and have your friend push you again. The displacement should be significantly reduced because you’ve stabilized the area to a much greater extent and required all the core muscles to function and fire in harmony. This is the primary role of the core during exercises like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
Planks, dead bugs, walkouts, paloff variations – these are all phenomenal exercises that improve stabilization. I’ll have more on exercises to try out in just a bit.
Extension and Lateral Flexion
Implementing and understanding core training has undergone a radical philosophical change over the past five to 10 years. Core “strength” is important, but that “strength” is better classified as “stability.” Your core’s number one job is to protect your body, and it does that by stabilizing while your body moves. Making a quick directional change? Your core bears the brunt of the load. Squatting a really heavy weight? Your legs will be working hard, but you aren’t able to do anything with a weak core.
Training the core properly is something that most people skip out on. At one end of the spectrum is the guy who comes in to the gym and bangs out 1000 crunches on the stability ball before and after his workout. And at the other is the guy who doesn’t do any direct core training, believing that he gets all of his core work through squats, deadlifts, and other compound lifts.
As usual, the correct training strategy lies in between (but much closer to the compound lifter…).
More on Core Stability
Understanding the role of stability from the core is important, but how can you actually “train” it?
Now remember, all these exercises were trained to enhance “core stability.” But let’s back up for a second. Were we really training stability? Or, were we training for strength? Wouldn’t stability inherently be describing something that isn’t moving or is unable to move? In fact, just check out the definition of stability:
“The state or quality of being stable, especially resistance to change, deterioration, or displacement.”
So… yeah. It is good to have an understanding of what your muscles actually do before training them. Once you learn the job of your core muscles, it is easier to train them (and you can start to get really creative, too). Can you get into great shape without ever training your core directly? You bet. But if you want to make strength gains consistently, or you want to enhance performance in almost every single sport, you need to have some direct core work in your routine.
Dean Somerset is one of the best fitness experts/writers on the ‘net, and he has a great article here on the importance of progressing your core training. The first place to start is breathing, as your diaphragm is a huge part of your core, and it is often neglected, too. Who needs to practice breathing, right?
And some advice on where to start:
No matter what school of thought you follow, most of the research with respect to core training says to start with as little movement and outside resistance as possible and have the person work on getting stable. You could say their available window of movement is very small. The small window forces the person to gain control over their ability to generate muscle force in a controlled and sequential manner and to prevent shear forces or alteration of the spinal posture during the exercise. An example of this would be lying on the back and doing a simple leg raise or bird dog.
With regards to sets and reps, core training is a bit unique. You don’t need to stick to a certain number (be it 10, 15 or 20) for reps. The key is to find an exercise that is difficult, and to progress it as you get stronger. That could mean more reps, more resistance, longer time, or any other tangible measure.
Paloff Press Variations (click the link for more info)
- Don’t forget to breathe
- Get into a solid stance
- You can either do this movement for reps (the further away the cable gets, the harder it is), or you can hold it as an isolation exercise.
- This is a very safe exercise – your spine remains in neutral (unlike crunches), and you can apply external force to your muscles. There are countless paloff press variations – essentially a paloff press is any movement where your core stabilizes your body with a moving resistance (in front, behind, below, or overhead).
- Get into proper plank position (braced core, glutes firing/engaged)
- Rotate your arms – the wider/further you reach, the harder the exercise is
- Reps work well with this one – do 6-10 in one direction, and then switch and go the other way
- Find an open space on the floor. Brace your core (not by sucking in), and hinge forward at the hips.
- Allow your hands to touch the floor, and take small “steps” with your hands forward until your hands are in front of your head and your shoulders. The key to this part of the movement is do resist rotation or movement through your torso as much as possible.
- You want to keep a neutral spine (think about sticking your bum in the air). Not like this:
- A good front plank should make your glutes incredibly tired from forcibly making them contract so that your hip flexors stretch and the abs bite down harder.
- If you can hold a plank for a minute or longer, progress it by making the movement harder (don’t add more time).
- And planks are great because they can be regressed (made easier) or progressed (made harder) quite easily:
The key with core training is to learn what your muscles do. Once you have that figured out, you can train them however you want, and with as much or as little equipment as you want.
I’d recommend training your core two or three times a week. Pick a few different exercises from above (or from your own reading), and progress them properly. The key with getting bigger/stronger/healthier/faster is to progress your workouts. Don’t do the same stuff – you need to keep challenging your body. More time, more resistance, you name it – there are so many ways to increase the difficulty of the most basic core exercises.
Training your core won’t get you a six pack or a carved up midsection (it won’t hurt, though). It isn’t the hour of work you do in the gym that builds impressive stomachs, but how you treat your body (and most importantly – what you put in it) during the other 23 hours of the day.
Other Core Reading: