Building a strong and stable core should be a high priority in anyone's exercise routine, from Olympic athletes to senior citizens. Training to achieve this can seem very complicated, but can be simplified if we focus on the correct principles. In this article, we will discuss what the core is, what it does, and how to properly train it for performance and injury prevention. We will be going over my top 6 exercises for the core and how to program these for simple, effective workouts that will help take your training to the next lev
Understanding all the anatomy and physiology of the muscles that make up the core can be quite the task, and is beyond the level needed for this article. Keeping things simple, the core muscles can be divided into a few major groups and layers. I like to think of the core like Dr. Stu McGill, the leading expert in low back and spine health and the author of many books on the subject. Dr. McGill thinks of the core functionally as the stabilizing system for the spine, like a guy-wire system supporting a stack of oranges (I don't know why oranges, but that is what Stu said)(Figure A). It is composed of many layers running in different directions, like a heavy fabric (Figure B). This is one of the main reasons Dr. McGill claims the six-pack muscles (rectus abdominis) are divided by dense connective tissue instead of running continuously like basically all our other muscles; it allows for your outermost layer of abdominal muscles to resist being separated by the large hoop strains created by intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) while stabilizing under heavy load or high force output. The major groups of core musculature consists of the abdominals and obliques, low back, glutes, diaphragm and pelvic floor. These muscles can also be looked at as deep (Iliopsoas, transverse abdominis, etc.) and superficial (rectus abdominis, external obliques, etc.), as well as anatomically the front (abs), sides (obliques) and back.
Stability vs Movement
With all the different layers and regions of the core, proper training can be quite complex. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that there is no "correct" answer or program that is going to apply to every person for every need. The principles we will proceed with can and should be applied to everyone, but keep in mind that individual differences do exist and that as your goals and fitness levels change, so too should your approach to your training. That being said, we come to one of the biggest debates for core training: to move, or not to move?
Going along with the ideas on core anatomy and function from Dr. McGill, the main thing to focus on for your training should be stability and the resistance of movement. This does not mean that your core training should never involve movement, but it does mean you better have a good reason for choosing to involve that in your training. Focusing on core stability, especially when preparing for high force or heavy load, will allow the muscles in the core to better protect the stability and integrity of the spine, which will decrease the risk and likelihood of injury. Focusing on movement (sit-ups, side bends, etc.) will not lead to an increase in the ability to stabilize the spine, but will allow for hypertrophy (growth) of the targeted musculature when utilized properly. Placing this type of training at the end of a workout, when the demands for stability are decreased, can allow you to develop the musculature of the core (if needed) and will not interfere with the stability of the spine during the workout.
Being able to effectively stabilize your core will involve learning how to create and maintain Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP) and full body irradiation. IAP is created by pushing out (eccentrically loading) the musculature of the abdominal wall to create stability in the guy wire system discussed above (Figure C). Irradiation may sound like something out of a Superhero comic, but this is the concept of squeezing (co-contracting) all the muscles in your body to increase the contraction and stability of the system. These two concepts are what will make your training effective or basically a waste of time. Maximizing your ability to produce high IAP and irradiation should be the driving focus of your core warm up and will prepare you to get the most out of your workout in the short term and in the long run.
Top 6 Stability Exercises
The major stability movements (or rather, anti-movements) can be grouped into three categories: sagittal anti-flexion/extension, lateral anti-flexion/extension, and anti-rotation. Dr. McGill likes to train the core in three zones, divided into the front, side, and back. In training my clients, I focus on 6 major families of exercises or positions to compliment these anti-movements. These exercise families are planks, side planks, birddogs, dead bugs, Pallof press, and bridge. The wonderful thing about focusing on these 6 exercises is they can be divided into both the 3 zones of front, side, and back, and they also combine and mix to resist all the flexion, extension, and rotational forces that we need to train. This is a very deep network of movements to explore, so for this article we will keep it brief and only show the "base" position, as well as one modification to make it easier and one to make it more difficult.
Planks are a wonderful base movement that can be modified up, down, and sideways (pun intended) to provide a new challenge. For our base position, we will perform a regular "plank" or "elbow plank" (Figure D). Keys to focus on in this position are remaining in a long, neutral spine position; maintain IAP, keep the shoulders pressed forward and the glutes tight; and work to maintain a constant, stable position especially along the spine. You should NEVER feel any pain or pressure in your lower back. If you do experience this, try squeezing the glutes hard to bring the pelvis into alignment, or drop to your knees on the ground to reduce the lever arm (Figure E). To challenge this movement, you can raise an arm or leg off the floor, perform with your forearms on a ball (Figure F), or go for more advanced progressions like stir the pot or body saw.
The sideways variation of the plank family. These again can be heavily modified to incorporate a wide array of skill level and challenge. For the base position, we will focus on a regular side plank (Figure G). For this position, place your elbow on the ground, body and spine long, feet heel-to-toe on their side with the top foot forward. In this position, focus on driving the elbow hard into the ground and keep the shoulder away from your ear; keep your IAP high and glutes tight to keep the pressure off your spine; and keep your head steady and in line as if it were in a neck brace. To make this position easier to maintain, drop the knees (at least the bottom one) to the ground (Figure H). To challenge this position, you can raise a leg off the ground (Figure I).
Birddogs may look simple, but when performed correctly they can be incredibly powerful. These movements fall into the "back" section of the core, although they are challenging all around. To do these properly, you must first find your "neutral" spine position on all fours (quadruped). Once you have that locked in, increase your IAP and brace through your body while extending your opposite arm and leg (Figure J). Maintain this position for up to 10 seconds, then briefly touch the hand and knee to the ground before returning to the arm and leg extended position. If this proves too difficult, you can raise only one arm or leg (Figures K, L). To progress, you can attempt to draw squares with your arm and leg, following the sequence out-down-in-up (Figure M).
Dead Bugs are a return to the front side of the core, and are basically an inverted birddog. For the base position of dead bug, we lie on our backs (supine) with our arms and legs in the air at 90 degrees (Figure N). From here, the base movement involves lowering the opposite arm and leg to the ground (Figure O), then returning to the start position. Key things to focus in on are not allowing the ribs to flare or pelvis to tilt when you extend out, instead focus on maintaining high IAP and only moving through a range of motion you can control. To make this easier, you can move only the legs with the hands both on the ground (Figure P). A simple challenge to this movement is to place a stability ball between the hands and knees to increase the voluntary contraction of the core by squeezing hard on the ball (Figure Q).
The Pallof Press is another position that focuses on the side of the core, this one most clearly focusing on the resistance of rotational forces. In order to perform the base movement correctly, you'll assume a standing position with either an adjustable cable machine or secured resistance band to your side, grab the band/handle with both hands and hold it at your chest (Figure R). Increase your IAP and press your hands forward until your arms are straight and the cable is perpendicular to you (Figure S), then return to the starting position. To make this easier, you can use a lighter weight or band, or perform from a seated position. You can do this either for reps, short holds (5-10 sec) for reps, or long holds for time (30-60 sec). To increase the difficulty, rotate with the band/cable while keeping the ribs and hips connected (do not twist spine)(Figure T).
The Bridge rounds out the bottom of the top 6 movements and primarily focuses on the back of the core, most specifically the glutes. In order to assume the proper starting position for the bridge, lie on your back with your feet on the floor and knees bent, raising your hips in the air by squeezing your glutes and increasing IAP to maintain a neutral spine and pelvic position (Figure U). This will be the easiest position, with the emphasis on feeling the glutes performing the work maintaining and changing the position, not the hamstrings or lower back. To make this more difficult, perform on a single leg (Figure V). To achieve a different challenge, perform the movement with your legs straight and heels elevated on a bench, box, or ball (Figure W).
Programming your Workouts
In working with my clients, I like to program the above 6 movements into two alternating workouts. The first workout consists of planks, side planks, and birddogs while the second workout focuses on dead bugs, Pallof press, and bridge. This lets us to focus on something from each zone of the core in each workout (front, side, and back) and allows for an even distribution of attention on all the musculature of the core. I do not want my clients spending more than 10 minutes doing their core warm-up, because any longer than that and it becomes its own workout (which may be warranted for beginners and/or those with a weaker core). Typically these warm-ups will be done in a circuit-style of 2-3 rounds, typically with 3-20 reps or holds of 10-60 seconds. This may seem very confusing and overwhelming, but it allows for great freedom for progression within the framework. Keep in mind, this is a brief introduction to core stability and can be greatly built upon or modified, For inspiration, take a look at the sample program below to see how these can be laid out!