When we refer to the core, most people instantly think of 6 pack abs as seen on the front of muscle magazines. The problem is, the majority of people confuse “core strength” with low body fat levels and don't actually understand how the core functions.
For years, we have been fed poor information from the media about how to really build core strength. Unfortunately, this caused a misconception that we require the latest ab machine off the morning TV show to build a strong core. However, this could not be further from the truth!
What Is The Core?
The core is made up of the musculature that surrounds, supports and engages movement at the torso. The muscles that we commonly know as our “6 pack” are actually only one part of the system. A simple way to cover the anatomy of the core is to break it up into two parts .
When the inner core functions correctly, it provides stability to the whole system. The diaphragm and the pelvic floor work against each other to provide stability to the top and bottom while the transverse abdominis and multidifi provide anterior and posterior stability. The inner core is responsible for generating intra-abdominal pressure which is essential for bracing correctly.
Figure One: Anatomy of Midsection
How Do We Build Core Strength?
To build core strength we must first focus on the different patterns in which you can train the core. Some exercises do fall into multiple categories, however the following will give you a good starting point.
For the purpose of this article we will discuss the different ways to train the core but not specifically on bracing as this is a topic we have discussed in another article "How To Use A Weightlifting Belt"
When performing an anti-extension exercise the goal is to resist overextension of the lumbar spine. These exercises are great for teaching posture and position for compound lifts like the squat and deadlift. Examples of anti-extension exercises are the Plank, Stir The Pot, Deadbug, and Ab Wheel Rollout (See Below).
2. Anti-Lateral Flexion
When performing an anti-lateral flexion core exercise the goal is to resist flexing from the side. These variations are great for teaching lateral stability. Examples of anti-lateral flexion exercises are the Side Plank, Single Arm Farmers Carry and Single Arm Waiters Walk (See Below).
When performing an anti-rotation exercise the goal is to resist rotation through the midsection. Examples of this are the Pallof Press, Cable Chops, and rotation Med Ball exercise.
Note: Anti-Flexion could also be included, however for the purpose of this article we will just focus on anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation.
Understanding The System
Before moving on to the exercises we must note, for the core to function correctly, we must also have optimal mobility through the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine. When these areas are restricted, a compensation pattern occurs and excess movement occurs from the midsection.
Below are a number of exercises that progress in difficulty. The initial exercises are more isometric variations in nature and should be mastered first.
Set up in the plank position and focus on squeezing the quads, glutes and abs as tight as you can. Focus on shorter, higher-quality efforts rather than longer durations.
2. Side Plank
The side plank is an isometric exercise that focuses on building anti-lateral flexion strength. Focus on alignment through the ankle, knee, hips and shoulders. When the hips start to drop, terminate the set as the position has been compromised.
3. Banded Deadbug
The banded deadbug is a more dynamic exercise to build anti-extension strength. Focus on pulling with the lats and drawing the rib cage towards the pelvis to get into the start position. Once this is achieved, slowly extend one leg at a time ensuring you do not loose lower back contact with the floor.
4. Swiss Ball Stir The Pot
Swiss Ball Stir the Pot is a progression from a plank with added instability from the ball. The exercise focuses on building anti-extension strength. The same cues apply, focus on squeezing the quads, glutes, and abs as tight as you can as you perform small circles on the ball.
5. Ab Wheel Rollout
The Ab Wheel Rollout is an advanced exercise to build anti-extension strength. When performing this exercise its important to keep the glutes engaged and only roll out to a distance you core can hold the correct position.
6. Pallof Press
The Pallof Press is a dynamic exercise to build anti-rotational core strength. Set up in a half-kneeling position, holding the handle with two hands close to your chest. Extend your arms and hold this position for 1-3 seconds ensuring there is no movement occurring from your torso.
7. Single Arm Front Rack KB Carry
The Single Arm Front Rack Carry is a great exercise to build anti-lateral flexion strength. This exercise is a great progression to performing the overhead variation listed below. Focus on keeping the elbow tucked close to the rib cage and ensuring there is no lateral lean through the hips or midsection throughout the walk.
8. Single Arm Overhead KB Carry
The Single Arm Overhead KB Carry or Waiters Walk is a dynamic exercise that builds anti-lateral flexion strength. Focus on keeping the weight directly over the shoulder and having no lateral lean through the hips or midsection throughout the walk. A slower and more controlled walk is preferred with this exercise.
9. Single Arm KB Farmers Carry
The Single Arm Farmers Carry is a dynamic exercise that builds anti-lateral flexion strength. Focus on retracting the shoulder and having no lateral lean through the midsection throughout the walk. Keep in mind that heavier is not better if you can't hold the correct position for this exercise.