Complete Core Training
Do you only want abs that look great? Or do you want abs that improve the way you look, feel and perform? Well the fact of the matter is you can have it all!
Everybody wants a strong and lean midsection. However, most people go about achieving it the wrong way. A core training exercise program needs to take into account what it is the core actually does – which means you really shouldn’t be doing crunches or sit ups at all! Your core is not meant to flex your body forward, but instead keep you upright, tall and pain-free.
A Quick Definition of the Core
Here’s the simplest definition of the core. Think of it as a box, with the following sides making it up:
- The diaphragm on the top
- The pelvic floor on the bottom
- The abdominals (rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus) in the front
- The back muscles (spinal erectors, multifidi) in the back
- The lateral stabilizers (quadratus lumborum, internal and external obliques) on the sides
This should make it quite clear that your core is much more than just your six-pack muscles (a.k.a., the rectus abdominus). It is also more than just doing planks and draw-ins to improve spinal stability. The core does all kinds of fun things, so we have outlined below what you can do to get the most out of it.
Core Training for Smart Folks
Correct core training, for optimal strength and ideal muscle visibility requires that you divide all of your core training into four categories:
- Anti-Extension exercises
- Anti-Lateral Flexion exercises
- Anti-Rotation exercises
- Hip Flexion with Neutral Spine exercises
This exercise category consists of any exercise where you’re actively preventing your lower back from over-arching. Examples include:
- Physio-ball/Swiss-ball rollouts
- Ab-wheel rollouts
- Blast Strap/TRX fallouts
These exercises are amazing for developing stability and strength at the core, lumbar spine, and pelvis. When done correctly, they will really work your external obliques and rectus abdominus.
To ensure you are doing them right, and to maximize their effectiveness, focus on the following:
- Keep your chest up throughout. Don’t allow yourself to “crunch” over – this is where you’re using too much rectus abdominus to stabilize instead of your obliques. Stop it!
- Think about tensing your obliques throughout. While we don’t want you to draw-in, think about engaging your obliques on the sides by thinking “tall and skinny,” versus “draw your navel into your spine.”
- On exercises where you’re really fighting over-arching (such as the TRX fallouts) think about cuing the obliques and squeezing your glutes as well. This will really crank up the intensity and get your core working hard!
This exercise category consists of any exercises where you’re actively preventing yourself from side-bending at the lower back. Examples include:
- Dumbbell/Kettlebell windmills
- Off-set waiters walks (walking with a dumbbell by the side in one hand ONLY)
- Offset farmers carries (walking with a dumbbell pressed overhead in one hand ONLY)
- Suitcase deadlifts (lifting on one side only)
Kettlebell Windmill Exercise
Anti-lateral flexion exercises are a perfect option for developing your quadratus lumborum, and the internal and external obliques.
On these exercises, focus on the following:
- Lengthen the spine. Try not to allow any side-bending/sway throughout.
- Once you’ve mastered the basics, try to breathe normally while performing the above exercises. It will really take the difficulty up a notch.
This exercise category consists of any exercises where you’re actively preventing yourself from rotating at the lower back. Examples include:
- Anti-rotational cable front press variations (tall kneeling, half-kneeling, standing, etc.)
- Split stance cable lifts and chops
Standing anti-rotational cable front press
Anti-rotation exercises train virtually every component of your core: internal/external obliques, rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, etc.
The most challenging components of these exercises are actively keeping everything tight and not allowing any rotation at the lumbar spine.
On the cable front press exercises, focus on keeping the core and glutes tight, and maintaining a tall posture throughout – don’t crunch over to stabilize.
Hip Flexion with Neutral Spine
This exercise category consists of any exercises where you’re actively bracing your core/lower back while bringing your knees to your chest. Examples include:
- Prone (Front plank position) knee tucks with feet on a physio/Swiss-ball
- Band-resisted (band around back and handles in hands) prone knee tucks
Knee Tucks with Feet in TRX straps
These are the most challenging category of exercises, and should probably only be done once the others, especially the anti-extension, have been mastered. The focus on these exercises should be keeping your lower back straight and neutral, and not allowing it to flex or “tuck under.”
Proper technique is vital here; focus on:
- Chest up and out; again, no hunching over to brace
- Lock down your core/midsection – allow as little movement here as possible
- Use your hip flexors to “pull” your knees to your chest in a neutral spine position
- Keep your whole body as stable as possible
Putting These Exercises into Your Routine
Now that you have the exercise types, let’s plug this into your current exercise program:
- If you’re exercising four days per week, the setup is simple – perform one exercise type within each workout.
- If you exercise three days per week stick with Anti-Extension, Anti-Rotation and Anti-Lateral Flexion on different days.
- If you exercise twice per week, focus on Anti-Extension and Anti-Rotation exercises, and you’ll get the most results
Training your core with these moves will help to give you the abs you are looking for, while helping you to strengthen and protect your lower back, and to perform at your best. It is the best of every world!
Cassandra Forsythe holds her PhD in Exercise Science and Nutrition from the University of Connecticut and is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). She runs fitness bootcamps in Manchester, CT that focus on building a strong and solid core. You can learn more about her and her bootcamp classes at www.cassandraforsythe.com
Brian St. Pierre is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) who received his degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Maine, and is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the same institution. For more information, you can check out www.brianstpierretraining.com