Most of the things people do in an attempt strengthen their core do more harm than good. Don’t get me wrong, your back isn’t going to explode like the Death Star from doing a few sets of crunches. It’s not doing your back any favors though. Plus, it might even make things worse.
Today I’m going to give you an alternative to popular, yet unproductive, core training methods. After reading this post you’ll know how to:
- Make your training more effective in general.
- Keep your back and hips happy and pain-free.
- Improve your posture.
- Make your back strong and durable.
- Win arguments on the internet.
Besides, you won’t have to endure the unnecessary agony of a bazillion sit-ups at the end of your workout.
What is the core?
I subscribe to the definition of the core as any muscle that helps to stabilize the spine, especially your lower spine.
So any muscle that contributes to keeping your spine stable is part of the core. By this definition the core is basically everything that’s not your arms and legs i.e., pretty much everything on your torso save your pecs.
This means it’s not just about your abs.
A guide to positions (no, not THOSE positions)
The back can move in lots of different ways. It can round (flexion), arch (extension), bend to the side (lateral flexion), and twist (rotation).
When the back is in none of these positions, it’s said to be in a neutral position.
Neutral is the sweet spot in between rounded and arched without any twisting or lateral flexion. Neutral is going to look a little different for everybody. Neutral is just a fancy way of saying good posture — like there’s a string attached the the top of your head. With a slight arch in the lumber (lower) spine and a slight round in the thoracic (upper) spine.
Neutral is considered good posture because it's where the back can handle the most weight/force with the least joint stress.
Now, posture is a spectrum — not all rounding is created equal. A wee bit of rounding on a heavy lift, while not ideal, isn’t the end of the world. On the other hand, rounding like an unspide-down U, is definitely not something you want to make a habit of. Because taking a joint to, or near, end range motion (as far as it can possibly go) under heavy load makes a lift more dangerous and can piss off your joints.
If you notice this happening, take some weight off the bar and work on your technique.
Point is, you want to do your best to hold a neutral spine when lifting heavy things, but if you get a little out of position it doesn’t mean you’re going to die.
Movement Vs. Not-Movement
There are 2 main categories of ab training.
Movement based: The exercise is done by moving the torso e.g, crunches, side bends, twisty thingies. The goal is to use your abs to move your spine.
Not-movement based: The exercise is done by preventing the torso from moving e.g., planks, side planks, pallof presses. The goal is to use your abs to remain completely still.
In a good plank both the before and after should look like this:
The vast majority of ab training I see at gyms, as well as when I type “core” into google or Pinterest, comes up with the former — exercises that work the ab muscles by moving the spine.
This isn’t how you get a strong core. It’ll get you strong at sit ups, but it ignores the primary function of the core, to keep the spine stiff under pressure. Essentially, getting good at crunches won’t help you keep your spine in a safe position when you’re reaching behind the fridge or bending down to pick up your groceries.
Now, movement based ab exercises can be beneficial in certain contexts. If you want your abs to get bigger, this is a great way to do it. However, if your goal is to strengthen your low back to avoid and/or eliminate back pain, and have taller, more confident posture, not-movement is the way to go.
This is because not-movement exercises train all of your core muscles to work together to keep your back in a safe, strong position, and create tightness in that position.
While the spine is obviously meant to move, the main role is to keep the spine rigid so that the force you generate from your legs and hips can be transferred to your arms.
Training this quality is necessary for longevity and building core strength that’s actually useful. Who cares how many sit-ups you can do if it doesn’t make daily life easier?
An example of functional core strength
Let’s look the the deadlift, because everybody has to move a couch or a washing machine at some point in their life. And knowing how to pick up a bar from the floor with safe form will prepare you for picking up a couch from the floor with safe form.
I’m using the example of the deadlift to show why training not-movement is going to build a more useful kind of core strength for a healthier, ache free back. As well as to get you to start thinking about the core in practical terms:
What do I need my core to be able to do?
The answer is you need your core to be strong enough to maintain a good position.
Quick note on deadlift form: If you don’t start in a good, neutral position, there’s no way it’s going to get better as the lift proceeds. More likely, as the lift progresses it’ll just turn into a larger and larger dumpster fire. Not unlike the Trump presidency.
So this example is assuming you start in a neutral position. Not rounded, not overly arched.
Gravity is a thing. We can at least all agree on that right?
Oh... well.. I guess not… uggggggh… moving on...
Not side bending and twisting is important when it comes to lifting, however it’s less of a common problem in this example. For now, to keep things simple, we’re just going to talk about rounding and arching. We’ll talk about side bending and twisting later, when talking about core specific training methods.
Regardless of where you are in the lift, your back should remain in that same neutral posture you started out with. Your posture stays constant while your hips and legs move the weight. The ability to do this both demonstrates and builds functional core strength.
So the idea is to start out in a good posture, and ensure that posture doesn't deteriorate through the course of the lift.
When you deadlift, the force of gravity is doing its damndest to get you to round your back. The heavier the weight, the harder earth’s gravity tries to pull you into flexion -- gravity wants to round your shoulders over. The arrow in the picture below represents gravity. The bigger arrow represents more force trying to pull you into flexion (as in the second picture) because the weight is heavier.
As discussed earlier, excessive rounding, especially of the low back, isn’t an optimal position because you stress the joints of the low back more than muscles of the glutes, low back, and legs.
The only way to maintain a good position here is to counteract the force of gravity. Even if you start in a good position, if you’re core isn’t strong enough, that bar will force your back to lose its position and round as in the picture above.
This is when core strength is actually useful, when you can use it to keep your back in a safe position when exerting yourself. This is the kind of core strength you want to train. This is the whole goal of core training.
What I just described is a key component of optimal lifting mechanics called disassociating your hips from your spine. This means you can move your hip joint without compensating through your spine.
Now, developing this level of coordination takes a lot of practice. Plus, it’s not something you figure out once and never have to think about again. As you get stronger, you lift heavier and heavier weights. This means the fight against gravity renews itself.
The ability to disassociate your hips from your spine, is crucial for back health in and outside the gym. Not only does this ability demonstrate sufficient core strength to lift something, but also builds core strength.
Here’s how it’s done
Dissociating your hips from your spine requires 3 things:
1. Find neutral
2. Get tight/brace yourself
3. Maintain neutral spine and tightness throughout the movement
Each movement pattern is different, so you might be brilliant at maintaining neutral in deadlifts, but have problems with squats. However, once you have a good idea of what neutral feels like, it gets easier. And the dowel trick always works if you have doubts. You’ll be able to notice when you get out of position and be able to self correct for the next rep.
Takeaway here is that proper lifting technique is a big part of keeping your back healthy and strong. Because it doesn’t matter how strong your abs are if the rest of your body isn’t strong enough to do anything with them. It’s like having a Ferrari with the engine of a Ford Festiva.
Targeted core training is necessary to optimize your training.
Some people will say, “You can get all the core strength you need if you just squat, bench, and deadlift”. They’re not wrong -- but they’re not entirely right either.
Most people would be much better off ditching the hour long ab workouts, and putting in some solid strength work. As I said, learning how to keep good posture during movement turns any exercise into a core exercise (especially Zercher Squats, Front Squats, and Farmer Walks). However, doing just the big lifts isn’t enough to maximize your training and back health. You gotta do both.
That said, core training ought to be minimal. Less is more here.
Because if you go too hard on core exercises, you're wasting effort you could be using on your big lifts You tire yourself out, eventually causing you to lose your good, neutral posture, which defeats the entire point of doing core work.
Getting strong in a poor position doesn’t do you any favours. It just makes your body default to that poor position. It doesn’t matter how long you can hold a plank if your abs are flaccid because your back is sagging to the floor.
There’s no reason to have an entire workout dedicated to core work. Just sprinkle in 2 or 3 sets of one core exercise per workout at the beginning or end of your workout. Go light. This way that neutral posture you worked so hard for doesn’t go down the tubes by the second set.
Most of this post has been talking about anti-flexion because we’ve been talking about non-core specific lifts. In deadlifts and squats rounding/flexion is the most common error because of gravity.
As I’ve said, arching too much is a problem as well, but this only tends to happen with hyper flexible people (Yes, I’m looking at you in the yoga pants).
When it comes to core specific training, we have to talk about anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion.
Ok, let me explain.
Anything that resists movement is an “anti” exercise. So if a med ball twist is a rotational exercise (because your spine is rotating) a pallof press will be an anti-rotational exercise because it’s being exposed to a rotational force which it must resist to maintain neutral.
Same with lateral flexion. A side bend is lateral flexion, but a suitcase hold is anti-lateral flexion.
I bring this up because it’s important to include 1 exercise of each category into your training:
- Anti-Lateral Flexion
I don’t include anti-flexion here because keeping your posture straight on deadlifts, squats and what not will cover this aspect of core strength.
McGill’s big 3
You can’t talk about the back properly without talking about Dr. Stuart McGill, who’s regarded as the top researcher of back health. His book Back Mechanic is excellent, and if you have dealt with back pain for a while without seeing any tangible progress I highly HIGHLY recommend it. (FYI, no commission here -- his work when it comes to back pain is simply the best, so it'd be borderline dishonest for me not to recommend him.)
The following exercises are what he calls the big 3: the most important exercises for preventing and curing low back pain. Listen to the man. He knows what he’s talking about.
Jeff’s big 3
Beyond using McGill’s big 3 here are my go to core exercises for building a sturdy core.
Easily my favorite core exercise. I include these in nearly all of my online clients’ training programs. This exercise is versatile in that the stronger you get, the harder the exercise becomes because you learn to generate more tension in your abs. This just makes the exercise feel more sucky, but means you’re getting stronger.
While this is primarily an anti-extension exercises, you get a bit of anti-rotation going on as well. Beyond that, this exercise teaches the client to keep their spine tight and rigid while coordinating their upper and lower body. This has a huge carryover to keeping the back in a good position in any exercise.
There are a bazillion different variations, but the basic version or the basic version with a stability ball is probably all you need until you’re quite advanced in your training.
This will light up your obliques like crazy. Not only does it blast your obliques like a side plank, but unlike a side plank, you can progress the exercise by adding more weight. Either do a static suitcase hold, or go for a walk to make it more complicated.
Pallof Press/Anti-rotation hold
Pallof presses are one of my go to core exercises for my online clients because it’s one the simplest and best anti-rotation exercises.
Excessive twisting can put lots of wear and tear on the lower back. Anti-twist core strength is an essential quality for total body strength and performance, but also for keeping your back out the the danger zone when you have to move your unwieldy refrigerator, couch, or groceries.
The kneeling version of this exercise is even better because it makes it almost impossible to cheat or use too much weight because you’ll topple over if you do.
The anti-rotation hold is just like a pallof press however you don’t press the weight forward and back, you just leave your arms extended for time.
Go light! This exercise isn’t to “feel the burn”, it’s to get strong in a good position. For a detailed tutorial on the Pallof Press check out this post.
Think of these exercises as a complement to your main course of the workout. Proper core exercise selection and execution will help you lift more weight and push yourself harder more safely so long as you don’t overdo it.
You don’t need to hit every category of core exercise every session. As long as you get them all in during your training week, you’re good.
For example, you could do:
- Monday: Anti-extension 3 x 10
- Wednesday: Anti-lateral flexion 3 x 20s
- Friday: Anti- rotation 3 x 10
The key to a strong core
- Learn to maintain a good, tight, neutral spine during your big, full-body strength exercises like deadlifts, squats, rows, presses, and carries.
- Learn to maintain a good, tight neutral spine during not-movement based exercises.
- Do 1 anti-rotation, 1 anti-extension, and 1 anti-lateral flexion exercise each training week.
- Don’t treat your core training as battle to the death. End your set a few reps before posture even starts to deteriorate.
- Less is more. Just because your abs aren't on fire doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything. The goal is to get stronger, not to tire yourself out.
- Ditch the sit-ups, crunches etc.
That’s it. I think I’ve hit the core of the issue here, so I’ll just 6-pack my things and go now. If you didn’t just groan after that last sentence we can’t be friends. Either that or we can only be really good friends.