Pretty much every day, someone tells me they need to improve their core strength.
What does that even mean?
Where is your “core”?
To what end do you want to improve this core of yours?
There are a couple of things that people usually mean when they say they want better “core strength”. One is that they want to feel stronger overall – they want better posture, they want to be able to lift heavier things, and withstand harder hits. The other is that they want sick abz. For the latter, most of your training will need to happen in the kitchen, rather than the gym, so let’s focus on the first set of goals.
So you want a stronger core, how do you get it? Tons of sit-ups and crunches? One of those “ab challenges”? Hawaii Chair?
Well, maybe, but probably not.
First, let’s figure out what your abdominal muscles do –
Your core’s number one job is to protect your body, and it does that by providing stability while your body moves. Your abs protect the lumbar region of your spine in four different directions – your internal and external obliques run perpendicular to each other diagonally, your TVA (transverse abdominis) wraps around the abdominal wall horizontally, and your rectus abdominis runs vertically in the front. Your spine can move in a bunch of different directions – your core muscles are there to provide compression, resist movement, and buffer the spine from injury.
The core also absorbs, braces, and distributes force from other parts of your body. A strong and properly functioning core helps the rest of you to operate efficiently – to lift heavier loads, to change direction quickly, to generate power. Think of it like a spring – if you’re about to throw a hit, your legs and hips drop you down for leverage, your core stiffens, and you distribute the force back out through the part of your body connecting with your opponent. If you don’t engage your core, your hit has no juice. Wanna test that theory – give someone a handshake. Meh, right? Now, brace your abs, squeeze your butt cheeks together, and shake their hand again. Now, go get them an ice pack for their sore fingers.
There are also, arguably, many, many other muscles that contribute to your core strength. Does the core end with the abs? How about all of the muscles in your back? The ones in your hip and shoulder girdles? I like to think of my entire torso as “the core”.
Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, says that you should maybe lay off the crunches – according to Dr. McGill, our backs only have so many bending cycles before you risk disc bulges, herniation, and nerve impingement. McGill says, “If you did hundreds of sit-ups, your back would break before the spine could be trained to a high level”. Crunches might have you “feeling the burn”, but you might also be compromising the health of your spine in the process.
What do you do instead? Well, I’m a big fan of training the core with anti-movement – anti-flexion, anti-extension, and anti-rotation.
“Science is cool, let’s get to the exercises”
Okay, okay, but before you do anything, remember that your core muscles also help you breathe, which you do a fair number of times a day. Work on your breath, make sure you’re not jacking up your body each time you need air, and breathe while you train your core.
Here are my four favourite “anti-exercises” for your core. You can add one or two to your regular strength program, you can add in a day for “core”, you can do them for reps, or you can hold isometrically. There are a ton of variations in how to train your core, just make sure that you’re not neglecting it altogether.
1) Anti-Extension: Prone Plank
After crunches, this is probably the most familiar core exercise. Which is great, since it’s a keeper. Line up your elbows under your shoulders, and set your spine. Keep in mind where gravity is acting on the body when you plank – this means that instead of being in neutral spine, you need a very slightly flexed spine. I like to cue a very slight pelvic tuck, with a strong glute squeeze. Pull your quads up into your pelvis and pull your elbows down into your ribcage. Don’t let your butt shoot up in the air, or let your low back sag. I like to get everything nice and tense in a plank from my knees, then lift my knees off the ground so that I don’t have any spinal adjustment to do in the air. Not ready for a plank from the toes? Do it from your knees, or on an incline, or in push-up position. Ready for a challenge? Bring your elbows a little further forward, lift an arm or a leg, do some slow mountain climbers keeping the core perfectly still.
Note: Side planks are also awesome, and are great for your QL (quadratus lumborum) – an important muscle for athletic movement. Set your side plank up by making a straight line from head to shoulder to hip to foot or knee (whichever is on the ground). Make sure your hips are fully extended and you’re lifting through your armpit.
Other ways to train anti-extension: mountain climbers, various crawls, rollouts, stir-the-pot.
2) Anti-Rotation: Pallof Press
I love this one, because it also challenges anti-flexion and anti-extension at the same time as preventing rotation – just make sure that you’re staying upright throughout, and not leaning forward or back. Place a band or a cable with a handle at sternum height; face so that the cable is coming from the left or right of you – pulling you to that direction. Stand tall – squeeze your armpits, keep your ribs tucked. Keeping both hands on the handle, slowly press the band out from your sternum, hold for a beat, then pull back in. Keep your eyes and shoulders level. The wider your stance, the easier it is. For an extra challenge, complete a set of reps, then include a hold for time in the extended position (I like to write the alphabet), or move into a split stance.
More anti-rotation? Half or tall kneeling cable lifts and chops, landmine presses, medicine ball throws.
On all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips, extend one arm while also extending the leg on the opposite side. Keep yourself honest – put a water bottle or dowel on your back to maintain alignment. If it falls off or rolls around a lot, your core is doing something funky. Keep the non-arm-and-leg movement to a minimum. To take it down a step, use an arm OR a leg. To make it more challenging, use a band for resistance, or draw a square with the extended limbs.
Other things to try: Dead bug, leg lowers, slow mountain climber (hip flexion).
But I want an anti-flexion exercise! Try some squats without letting your chest pitch forward. BAM! Tight core!
4) All the planes!: Heavy Carries
Pick up a kettlebell, dumbbell or other (appropriately) heavy thing or things. Stand tall, squeeze your armpits, tuck your ribs. Walk slowly, maintaining an upright torso and a braced core. There are so many variations here – equal loads in both arms, unequal loads in both arms, loading one side only (for anti-lateral flexion), overhead carries (make these lighter weights), miniband walks with a carry, kettlebell rack carries, and on and on and on. Each variation will challenge the core in a different plane of movement, so experiment and find what works for you.