The Commonly Misunderstood Core Training Spectrum
Core training is a truly continues to be one of the most misunderstood topics in the sports performance and fitness industries. Lets be honest, we’ve all seen some crazy shit when it comes to training the abs, or in attempt to develop a “stronger” core as is the usual buzz word that has captivated the masses from strength athletes to chronic lower back pain patients. Core training incompetence can be viewed on a continuously evolving spectrum that toggles left or right depending on current trends in the industry. It goes something like this…
On the mashed up meathead end of the core training spectrum we have the predominant strength and power athletes who believe that loading the big compound lifts to maximal capacity and hitting repeat multiple times a week is the only true core training that a hardcore athlete really need to build their mid section. They’ve been notoriously quoted uttering some derivative of the phrase, “All you gotta do is squat and deadlift for a strong core, bro!” on many occasions.
On the other equally mislead end of the core training spectrum are the utterly confused fitness constituents who endlessly slave over direct core training on a daily basis in hopes of spot reducing their gut and love handles in the form of thousands of brutally ugly sit ups, crunches and side bends, usually performed with their extra-medium shirt hiked up looking directly into the mirror visualizing fat loss happening before their very eyes.
While it’s clear that neither one of these polarizing approaches on the core training spectrum is smart nor sustainable, these all too common actions really beg the question, what is optimal for developing a strong and resilient core that is as functional as it is aesthetically pleasing?
The Anti Core: Savior of Ab Training Debauchery
While there are endless ways to challenge the core to elicit a heavy training effect, intelligent core training comes down to training not only the abdominal tissues in isolation, but rather the entire pillar complex consisting of the shoulders, hips and core, to integrate together as a functioning unit.
Taking a step back and looking at the pillar unit, and more specifically the actively stabilizing musculature of the region itself, their prime functional roles are to act in unison together in order to maintain position and resist and transfer force in, out and through the upper and lower extremities. Simply put, the core’s most authentic role in the human body is to link, brace and produce stability. And this is an action and pattern that has been largely neglected and forgotten in our current day Western society who, by no surprise, is battling record incidence of lower back pain, injuries, re-injuries and chronic dysfunction. How do we combat this functional problem? By retraining the core to gain and maintain proper stability and recruitment while being challenged from multiple angles and forces being placed upon it.
By linking multiple segments of the pillar complex together to function as a unit, we can not only optimize the position of the core to ideally generate mechanical stability through internal tension output of it’s musculature via proper positioning of the ball and socket joints located above and below the spinal region, but also can train these segments to synergize neurologically in order to habituate true stability from a motor learning perspective.
This process starts with the integration of base ant-core training positions that challenge the stability of the core and pillar complex through different force planes and loaded positions located in the cardinal planes of motion. Here’s why the first step in re-educating and re-integrating core training back into a pain-free performance training program to battle against chronic lower back pain and optimize strength and power performances should be centered around the 4 anti-core training positions. Here’s how to get started, plus some of the most effective anti-core training exercises for each category.
Anti-Extension Core Training
Why do so many people fall in love with crunches to the point of flailing through thousands of reps a day in some not so uncommon cases? Because of the brutally hard to kill zombie lie of pinpointed spot fat reduction. Without insulting your intelligence, lets remember that just because you directly train an area of the body (even if you nice a nice burn, ha) does not mean that you will burn fat stores specific to said area of the body. Now that we have that pivotal point covered, lets look at why you should rethink your favorite form of core training for six-pack development, the traditional crunch.
It’s clear that people’s core training actions in the gym have made one thing blatantly clear; damn near all of us have aspirations to build an impressive core that is not only shredded, but looks as powerful as it is pretty. But the interesting thing about the rectus abdominis, aka the six pack muscle, is that is actually does respond favorably to active dynamic contractions that alter the position of the spine, and more notably the rib-cage, in order to benefit from a hypertrophy and strength standpoint. This type of core training also functionally targets anti-extension moments at the core, especially upon eccentrically lengthens and controlled moments at the rectus abdominis. But wait, I thought spinal flexion training was a big no-no?!
I’m not here to tell you not to train direct spinal flexion, I’m here to tell you not to train it like an asshole with exponentially high frequency, volume and loading that will be a sure fire way to eventually leave your lower back broken down and injured. Unfortunately, we weren’t all born with the spinal resiliency of a Hershel Walker.
But there’s a smarter way to train spinal flexion, and it also happens to elicit one of the strongest activation patterns and excruciating training effects out of a safe and controlled position. It’s called the reverse crunch pattern, but don’t get it mistaken with the traditionally butchered reverse crunch that we’ve all come to know, and hate. With the use of a bench, a foam roller and strong mind-muscle connection, this commonly butchered movement can become your go-to ab movement that will punish your core while sparing your lower back.
Anytime that you train dynamic movements at the core, we want to minimize unwanted compensation patterns or force leaks that happen throughout the spine, but more specifically in the lower lumbar spine where unwanted fulcruming points are most likely to occur. Loss of position at the lower back is also closely correlated with loss of pelvic position. That’s why I have started to position a foam roller being actively stabilized between the calves and upper legs with active hamstring contractions in order to activate key stabilizing musculature around the pelvis, mainly the powerful hamstring complex. Here’s how to setup and execute perfectly.
Place your knees and ankles hip width apart with your toes facing forward in order to position the foam roller between your calf and hamstring and actively stabilize it with the hamstrings. This neutral position allows for both the medial and lateral aspects of the hamstrings to work and stabilize equally, placing more emphasis on the abs instead of the stabilizing hamstrings or adductors themselves.
While maintaining foam roller position at the legs, lay down on a traditional flat bench, place your hands on the bench behind your head and actively grip to gain stability and control over the upper back and shoulders on both sides of the body. From this position you should have your hips and legs stabilized against the roller and upper body stabilized against the bench. Now it’s time to actively engage movement at the core.
Start by squeezing your abs hard producing a force that will shorten the distance between your rib cage and public bone on the front side of your pelvis. Think of this as a controlled range of motion crunch, which should be familiar to almost everyone. Peak the contraction at the top for a full second then slowly lower the knees and core down under full eccentric tension and control into a neutral spinal position at the bottom.
The key portion of the movement here is the controlled eccentric lowering, so really focus in on quality lengthening from the abs only without losing spinal neutral on the backside of the body faulting into extension. As you move lower into the bottom aspects of the range of motion nearing neutral starting position, the force and mass directed from the legs are going to want to pull the lumbar spine into extension, hence the anti-extension based training. Keep this the goal of resisting extension and I guarantee you that you’ll have the nastiest core training effect of all time and be able to walk upright the next day from the controlled spine sparing properties of this movement as well, which is also pretty important.
Anti-Flexion Core Training
Many athletes and coaches tend to forget that the back is indeed an aspect of the core unit, and is many times neglected when it comes to direct training utilizing predominantly posterior chain musculature. Well rounded core training programs incorporate as many synergistic regions as possible working together in order to maintain proximal spinal and pelvic stability, so it’s almost negligent not to be training the spinal erectors and other posteriorly driven regions and lines of the body in order to maintain position and stability.
The lower back is an intriguing area of the body in terms of both muscular and fascial anatomy. The erector spinae is a muscular group that runs the length of the spine attaching into local segments of the spine at nearly every level in order to help extend the spine, or side bend and rotate the spine when working unilaterally (which usually doesn’t happen very often).
From a fascial standpoint, the lower back is home to the thoraco-lumbar fascia, which is truly the natural human anatomical version of a weightlifting belt that attaches to the glutes, lats, erectors, abdominals and a host of other muscular and bony regions. Without making this an anatomy and biomechanics lesson, we must understand that to optimally train and brace at the backside of the core, we must tap into both musculature and fascial potentials, not just one or the other.
This can be achieved by anti-flexion based core training that directs a load in front of the body in order to challenge and resist the spine and core region being pulled into further degrees of flexion. One of my favorite positions to train anti-flexion from which involves using gravity and your bodyweight as resistance is the back extension or glute ham raise (GHR) setup.
While there are of course times and places to directly program and train back extensions, a starting point for many people to be able to increase activation and pillar recruitment is by training in an isometric position first. Always build stability in a position first before adding in a dynamic component to an active range of motion. This usually starts with isometrics.
Isometrics are a powerful training tool as they maximize muscular and CNS recruitment while minimizing unwanted joint stress through minimizing range of motion or relative movement. By placing the body into the GHR with the chest facing down and the eyes towards the ground, the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors and lats all work together in unison to maintain position of the torso, again fighting the flexion moment.
From a motor learning standpoint, this movement can provide a light bulb moment for many athletes and lifters for the importance of pelvis position and shoulder torque in the way that it positions the core and spine for positional success. It can also teach athletes to build huge amounts of internal tension due to resistance that gravity itself is placing on the body.
Adding more anti-flexion forces can be done through banded accommodating resistance around the shoulders, or by squeezing a weight plate to the chest that also helps the lats kick on and stay active in this full body high tensioned isometric. The sweet spot for isometrics in this position are between 20-60 seconds, ensuring perfectly stabilized spinal positions and active tension/torque output throughout. Isometrics have been shown to have a dynamic carryover within 10-15 degrees above or below the position being held, so if you really want to cover your basis incorporate multiple position isometrics within a range if you’re not yet ready for the dynamic back extension.
While this movement, or a lack there of, does not look like much on video, it will provide one huge stimulus to the system that will guarantee to leave you shaking, just the way we want it to heighten the central nervous system and start rewiring it’s multi-regional connections.
Anti-Rotation Core Training
While rotation is not considered one of the 6 foundational movement patterns, it is still of dire importance to develop, train and maintain the ability to rotate over the course of a lifter’s training career. But while many strength athletes have knowingly avoided rotational work in their training for longer than they’d like to admit to, simply adding rotation work for novices in this pattern is usually not enough to maximize the cost to benefit ratio.
Many attempt to train rotation, and end up with subpar results or even hurt in the process. What most lifters are missing is the all-important intermediary step of learning to resist rotation around the core and pillar complex that potentiates the system to be able to more optimally implement dynamic components of rotation later on.
A common mistake, aside from not training rotation at all, is training it through sloppy movement patterns that are detraining the neuromuscular system to be efficient and effective at transferring force through the pillar complex. Adding complexity to a faulty movement pattern in the form of increasing external load or increasing movement velocity will quickly exacerbate functional weak links, making it extremely difficult to elicit a desired pain-free training effect. And since rotation is truly considered a strength-power skill, every rep executed with poor quality will take away from the proper reps that are attempting to rebuild the movement system and hit save on the movement library hard drive.
Training anti-rotation is one of the biggest bang for your buck categories of core training that there is for syncing up the entire body to coordinate together while strengthening functional weak links. This is again why I consider rotation a strength-power skills as opposed to it’s own foundational pattern that can be challenged with linear load progression over time. Since much of our traditional strength, power and hypertrophy training occur predominantly in the front to back sagittal plane, adding in components of rotational forces on the body provides an extremely high return on training investment.
While there are many ways to add a rotary force on the body that attempts to rotate the hips, core, and shoulder to the side of the force vector, I like to introduce the use of banded accommodating resistance as some of the first ways to train out of an anti-rotation position. Since the bands display more resistance as they are stretched out further away from their anchor point, they challenge rotation in different strength curves, especially if we can intelligently alter positions in an exercise. My go-to anti-rotation core training movement is the half kneeling banded Pallof press as it truly kills multiple functional bids with one stone.
Start by attaching a light resistance band to a stable anchor point like the column of a squat rack at approximately waist height when standing. You’ll be positioning the body so that the band comes directly over the right shoulder from the side creating a 90-degree angle. While you can choose to kneel on either knee, standardize your Pallof press by placing the outside knee (one away from the band) in the down position. From there, take the band with both hands interlocking at the fingers and place it on tension in front of the chest as the starting point. Under control with full body tension, press the hands slowly out in front of the chest, pausing for a second, then bring it back in to the starting position slowly and pause for another second.
If stability becomes the limiting factor at either the upper or lower quadrants, resetting this base half kneeling position is necessary in order to reintegrate the dynamic pressing component against banded resistance. Simply get yourself in a 90-90 degree half kneeling positions with joints stacked and posture improved. From here, co-contract around key ball and socket based joints like the shoulders and hips similar to the cues and activation patterns above. Once the shoulders and hips are set with actively engaged stability, volitionally brace the core unit and work hard to maintain that position through the pressing in front of the body during this exercise.
The slow and deliberate tempo of this movement is pivotal to getting the most out of authentic core activation and recruitment of the entire core, shoulder and hip complex working together as a unit to resist rotation back towards the band. Ensure that you are indeed training both sides, and that you increase band resistance over time to continuously challenge this anti-core position. A sweet spot for this exercise is training a total time under tension between 20-60 seconds per side with enough resistance in band form to make you work hard to maintain braced pillar positioning throughout the duration of sets.
Anti-Sidebending Core Training
You’ll be hard pressed to walk into any gym across the world and not see at least a few poor gym peasantry attempting to side crunching away those stubborn love handles. But here’s what many get wrong when attempting to use dynamic loaded movements target the obliques more directly; these muscles do not optimally respond to active movements which change positions throughout a range of motion, but rather functionally act to resist motion and maintain position at the hip, core and beyond.
This common mistake is a mismatch between attempting to train muscles according to textbook definitions of their roles in movement, instead of training them for their real world function, which is most times the polar opposite of what we learned in anatomy and biomechanics 101.
The internal and external obliques are impressive muscles that splay across a large surface area in contact with the rib cage, pelvis, and portions of the vertebrae of the spine along with an endless network of dense fascial layers. Due to their broad attachment points, their true role is to link up segments and act as a force transducer between the upper and lower body. That means we must train them in maximally braced isometric positions that resist side bending, rotation, flexion and extension moments at the spine.
Another common misconception about the obliques are that they work only in isolation. This could not be further from the truth. Since there are both internal and external oblique abdominal layers on the right and left side of the body, there is a necessary interplay which must happen in cross midline linkages in order for these unique muscular regions to functionally stabilize it’s bony attachment points on the the pelvis, spine and ribcage in order to maintain it’s poisons while being challenged by forces placed on the body.
Lastly, the two muscular layers of the obliques must function in synergy with the other muscular players of the pillar complex in order to optimize their length-tension relationship, activation patterns and display proper anti-side bending, flexion, extension and rotational forces. Again, the key take away is that these regions are extremely complex in terms of their bi0-anatomy, and are highly dependent on adjacent regions and structures to optimize performance while mitigating risk of pain or dysfunction. Yes these are highly complex regions, but training anti-sidebending doesn’t have to be complex. It’s actually quite simple.
One of the most effective ways to train the obliques as a functional unit is by resisting direct side bending forces being placed on the pillar complex made up of the shoulders, core and hips working together in synergy. Since increased grip has also been shown to have positive correlations to torso stiffness and stability, the single arm barbell suitcase hold is a superior option to link these segments together and really target the lateral chain stabilization patterns of the core with challenge both anti-flexion and ant-extension simultaneously from an isometric standpoint as well.
Simply step into a power rack, grab the midline of a barbell and hold it at your side out of symmetrical stance maximizing full body tension from your head to your feet. The goal here is to squeeze the barbell as hard as you can with the hands while trying to resist the loaded bar wanting to bring your core into lateral flexion or side bending.
If you want to get the very most out of this exercise, it’s all about co-contractions around the ball and socket based joints of the hips and shoulders. By using co-contraction techniques of the shoulder for the pecs and lats, we can position the shoulder into it’s most stable and centrated position which is slightly depressed, retracted and internally rotated. This active position will optimize the length tension relationship of not only the superficial primer moving musculature to gain torque and tension around the true shoulder joint, but also the acute intrinsic stabilizers that play deeper roles at the joint level.
The same thing can be said for the hips. Using the two most powerful muscular regions of the hip complex, the glutes and adductors groups to gain tension together, we can restabilize around an otherwise inherently mobile joint. Keep the active positioning of the shoulders and hips in mind if you are lagging at the core, or unable to create quality stability and contractions from these positions.
While this movement can be loaded and trained in many set and rep schemes, a gold standard we look for is the ability to hold your bodyweight on the bar for 30 seconds. And just in case you were wondering, no, straps aren’t allowed. Better chalk up!
The Core + Carry Synergy Superset
For improving functional transference into the big lifts while enhancing motor control skill levels of the core and pillar complex, nothing beats anti-core training. If core stability seems to be your weakest link on the big lifts and has you breaking at the lower or upper back under heavy loading, start incorporating anti-core training as activation drills in the 4th phase of my 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence.
But lets be clear, bodyweight or minimally loaded activation drills have their purpose in preparing to train, but the way in which we actually challenge and display forward moving progression on core stability in anti-positions is by adding load and intensity over time. This is why the ultimate anti-core variation in my mind is a maximally loaded carry, which provides a challenge to stabilize an external load as you body smoothly moves through space.
Many of my programs feature posturally dependent finishers that both challenge the stability of the core while elevating vital metrics like heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and a general “want to puke” feeling that is only earned by pushing your absolute limits. Hauling around heavy shit and using the shoulders, hips and core together functionally to end your workout will achieve everything previously mentioned, while also keeping you in a safe position to push your physical and mental limits from.
There are endless carry variations to choose from, but one absolute game changer in my athlete’s pain-free performances has been through the use of core + carry synergy supersets. By pairing a heavy carry with an anti-core training position, we can literally get the best of both worlds, high internal tension and activation and heavy external loading to solidify the patterns. Together, nothing beats these supersets or compound sets.
To get the most out of this type of training scheme, identify your weakest link and train it from both a carry and anti-core training perspective. The most common fault we will see is a loss of core position being forced into further degrees of unwanted spinal flexion, so a training fix for this would look like a front-racked carry variation paired with an anti-flexion position like the RKC plank. Again, the possibilities are endless here, so have some fun with diversity and challenge yourself from different angles with the goal always being a strong, stable brace that is not only gained, but maintained.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.