1. While a rock hard six-pack is aesthetically pleasing, the musculature of the core is important for providing the body with the pillar of strength and stability that is necessary to perform at a high level, stay healthy, and look amazing.
2. The four layers of the abdominal wall have distinct anatomical variance and functions that need to be programmed in specific movements and functions in order to translate your training to aesthetic and functional results.
3. Obviously a lean and chiseled core looks pretty damn sexy, but it also serves to improve posture and performance, making your body more resilient and bulletproofed in the process.
4. Traditional core training programs are anything but effective, with many neglecting core stability, not tapping into the all important mind-muscle connection and aimlessly only training spinal flexion.
5. Training the core in three distinct categories of movement, anti-extension, anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion can produce the results you are seeking, both in the aesthetics department and translating into your big lifts and athletic performance.
6. Use the 12 core training variations complete with coaching notes and video tutorials to improve your core training routine, and please, be better than just the crunch.
Introduction to Chiseled 6-Packs
Lets be real for a second, there are very few muscle groups in the human body that are more attention grabbing than a chiseled and well defined midsection. While a rock hard six-pack with striations and vascularization are very aesthetically pleasing, the musculature of the core is also quite instrumental in providing the body with the pillar of strength and stability that it needs to perform at a high level, stay healthy, and look amazing. I will often refer to these muscles as the human made lifting belt.
Before we get into basic and advanced core training techniques for a number of different classifications of training goals, lets jump back into class and review the four abdominal layers and their unique functions.
Musculature of the Anterior Core
It may come to a shock to many of you, but the abdominal cavity is indeed filled out with more musculature than just the popularized six-pack. Here’s a quick and dirty review from the most superficial layer to the deepest.
Rectus Abdominals – The rectus abdominis muscles, otherwise known as the abs, or six pack muscles, originate at the crest of the pubis and insert at the costal cartilage of ribs 5-7 and the xiphoid process of the sternum. These muscles flex the lumbar spine.
External Oblique – The external oblique muscle is the superficial of the two oblique muscles. It originates at the 5th-12th ribs, and inserts at the iliac crest, pubic tubercle, and linea alba. This muscle increases intra-abdominal pressure, flexes the torso, side bends the torso to the same side, and rotates the torso to the opposite side.
Internal Oblique– The internal oblique muscle is located beneath the external oblique. It originates at the inguinal ligament, anterior iliac crest, and lumbodorsal fascia, and inserts at the linea alba, pectin pubis via the conjoint tendon, and the 10-12 ribs. This muscle provides support to the abdominal wall, is an opposing muscle to the diaphragm and assists in forced expiration, increases abdominal pressure, flexes and rotates the torso to the same side.
Transverse Abdominis – The transverse abdominis muscles, often referred to as the deep abdominal muscles, originate at the iliac crest, inguinal ligament, thoracolumbar fascia, and costal cartilages 7-12, and insert at the xiphoid process, linea alba, pubic crest, and the pectin pubis via the conjoint tendon. This muscle protects the internal organs and increases abdominal pressure so that you’re able to lift more weight.
The Benefits of Having A Brutally Strong Core
Injury Prevention – A strong anterior core is absolutely crucial in preventing back pain. These muscles help safeguard the lumbar spine during sports, gym, and everyday activities. A strong core is also absolutely vital in preventing muscle strains. If the core is weak, then other muscles will have to overcompensate in order to stabilize the pelvis and spine. This will cause them to tighten up, and can make them more susceptible to strains.
For example, hockey players who have a weak anterior core are more susceptible to adductor strains. Much of their rehab is focused on strengthening their core as this will take the burden off of the adductors. A weak core also makes people more vulnerable to joint related injuries.
Posture – As I have mentioned before, a large percentage of the population suffers from an anterior pelvic tilt. One main cause of this common postural issue is a weak anterior core. Strengthening the anterior core, in addition to the glutes, and stretching out the anterior hip muscles will help bring the pelvis back into a neutral position.
Enhanced Athletic Performance – The core muscles link the upper and lower body. If a link in the body chain is broken, performance will suffer. In order to generate the maximum amount of power with the upper and lower body, the pelvis and spine need to be stable. This stability is achieved when the core muscles and glutes are strong and highly functioning. This core strength will allow athletes to lift a heavier weight and more explosively, run at a faster speed, change direction more quickly, and excel in all elements of their given sport.
Core strength will also allow athletes to excel in activities where they are required to use fine motor skills and precision. A controlled body will be able to execute the smaller movements, and this is achieved by having a strong anterior core. Last but certainly not least, a strong core will permit athletes to perform rotational or twisting movements safely and more effectively. Rotation should not occur through the lumbar spine as this can lead to injury. The rotation should occur through the pelvis and thoracic spine, and the lumbar spine should remain in a fixed position.
The Sexiness Factor– Don’t pretend this isn’t important. This benefit is pretty straightforward. Having well developed abs (in addition to a low level of body fat) looks good, and is great for overall confidence. That being said, just because someone has a well sculpted midsection doesn’t mean that they have a strong and highly functioning core.
Common Pitfalls of Traditional Core Training
Under-Training – Many people do not train their core at all. Some of these people believe that compound exercises like squats and deadlifts provide the core muscles with the stimuli that it needs to get strong and developed. Contrary to popular belief, compound exercises like squats and deadlifts are not sufficient to provide the body with the core strength that it needs. In fact, you need to have a strong core to be able to perform these exercises.
Neglecting Core Stability – The main function of the core muscles is to stabilize the pelvis and spine. This spinal stiffness will safeguard the body against injury, and will allow you to generate significantly more power with your upper and lower body. Unfortunately, if you look around most gyms and even personal training studios, you will observe people performing endless amounts of crunches, sit ups, twisting exercises, and so forth.
Very few people focus on core stability, and as a result, they never achieve the spinal stiffness that is needed to perform exercises, sports, and even daily activities safely and effectively. As a general rule, about 80 to 90% of the core exercises I coach focus on stability, with the remaining 10 to 20% on mobility. This percentage can vary depending on sport specific requirements.
Loss of Mind-Muscle Connection – When it comes to training the core, it is absolutely vital that you do so with intent. Going through the motions, and not focusing on the task at hand will shortchange your results, both in terms of strength, and overall aesthetics.
Training Only Spinal Flexion – Many people have fallen into the trap of just training this muscle group as they are the most visible muscles, and are referred to as the ‘’six pack.’’ Forgetting about the other muscles that make up the abdominal region will lead to a decrease in performance and a greater risk of injury.
Categories of Core Training Specifics
Not all core exercises are created equally. There is a reason why we first reviewed the four layers of the abdominal wall; we are going to use that anatomical and functional knowledge to break down core specific training into three distinct categories:
Anti-Extension: Any exercise where the purpose is to resist extension at the spine.
Anti-Rotation: Any exercise where the purpose is to resist rotation at the lumbar spine.
Anti-Lateral Flexion: Any exercise where the purpose is to resist lateral flexion (sideways bending) at the spine.
It is important to note that some exercises fall into multiple categories, while others are clear cut in terms of specific movement requirements. Now here’s what you have all been waiting for, the complete core training guide for literally any training goal.
And of course I’ve added coaching notes and videos so you can start using these variations yourself or with your clients right away. For your self-coaching pleasure, I’ve also broken down these movements based on basic and advanced requisites so you can match your current movement skill level with the right exercise. Hold on, here we go!
Basic Anti-Extension Exercise Variations
Band Resisted Dead Bug
Coaching Notes: Lie on the floor. Pick your feet up and bend your knees to approximately 90°. Fasten a band behind you, grab on, and extend your arms so your hands are past your chest. There should be tension in the band, but your arms should remain relatively relaxed. Now tuck your ribs, brace your core, forcefully exhale, contract the muscles around your trunk (including lats), and slowly drop one leg towards the floor, return the leg to the starting position, and repeat with the opposite leg. Reset between each rep. The key is to maintain the rib tuck and tension the entire time. You should only feel your anterior core. If you are performing this exercise correctly, it is significantly tougher than it looks.
Overhead Medicine Ball Slams
Coaching Notes: Grab onto a medicine ball. It can either be the type that bounces, or does not. If it does not, when the ball hits the ground, squat down to the ball to pick it up, don’t bend over by rounding the lumbar spine. Set yourself up so you have a stable and athletic stance. Take a deep breath in and surround your spine with 360° of air, brace your core, and squeeze your glutes. Now extend your arms, and smash the ball down to the ground as hard as possible. Do not arch your back and allow your ribs to flare. Reset between each rep.
While there are different ways to perform this exercise, I like to keep my trunk in a relatively fixed position (instead of flexing the spine and leaning forward), as this forces the core muscles to work even more to stabilize the body. If I wanted to make this more of a full body exercise, as I was smashing the ball, I would flex the spine and bend my knees to a larger degree.
Advanced Anti-Extension Exercise Variations
Ab Wheel Rollouts From Feet
Coaching Notes: When most people perform this exercise, they allow their back to hyperextend and allow their body to go into a severe anterior pelvic tilt. The body should remain in a slight hollow body position the entire time. Also, many people dominate this exercise with their upper body, largely because their core muscles are not strong enough to perform the movement effectively. For this exercise to be performed safely and and correctly, the anterior core and glutes must be working in unison. Before each rep, squeeze the glutes, take a deep breath in and surround the spine with 360 degrees of air, and brace the core. Reset before each rep.
The most basic form of the ab wheel rollout is from the knees, and you can make it more advanced by performing the exercise from the feet.
Single Arm RKC Plank
Coaching Notes: With your hand elevated on a bench and the arm extended, place your one hand on a bench. Get into RKC plank position and contract your entire body. Your body should remain in a straight line from your head to your heels.
Pole Climbing Plank
Coaching Notes: This is an extremely advanced version of a plank. Grab onto the top of a stick/pole. Get your body into RKC plank position, contract your entire body and climb down the pole. Once you get to the bottom, take in a big breath and brace your core, and return to the top of the stick/pole. Perform as many reps as you can. This is one of the toughest core exercises I’ve ever done.
Traveling RKC Plank
Coaching Notes: Place two sliders (or towels) under your feet. Get in plank position from your hands and feet. Contract your entire body and travel forward by walking with your hands. Make sure that you keep your body in proper alignment the entire time, and do not allow your pelvis or spine to rotate. You can make it more challenging by adding weight.
Anti-Rotation Based Core Exercises
Static Pallof Press Hold
Coaching Notes: This exercise is absolutely great for people who suffer from back pain, or who are extremely deconditioned and struggle getting up and down from the floor. Grab onto a light resistance band, stand in an athletic position, and fully extend your arms and hold for 15-30 seconds per side. Keep your grip as loose as possible, otherwise your upper body will dominate the movement, instead of your core muscles. If you are feeling your arms more than your core muscles, reduce the amount of tension and see if that helps.
Half Kneeling Banded Barbell Anti-Rotation
Coaching Notes: This exercise can be done in a half kneeling or standing position. When it’s done in the half kneeling stance, you should really feel the glute in the leg that’s ahead. Your pelvis and spine should remain in a fixed position for the duration of the set, as the point of this exercise is to resist rotation.
Fasten a band so it’s at about chest height, and place it around the top portion of the barbell. I like to anchor the barbell in a weight so it doesn’t roll. When you are doing the half kneeling variety, the leg that is on the inside should be positioned ahead. When you are standing, make sure that you have an athletic stance.
Before each rep, take a deep breath in and surround your spine with 360° of air. Make sure that your ribs are down and pelvis is facing straight ahead, and move the barbell away from the midline of your body. When the barbell is returning to the midline of your body, relax your arms a little bit so the core muscles will be forced to do the work, versus the arms dominating the exercise. Your pelvis and spine should remain in a fixed position for the duration of the set, as the point of this exercise is to resist rotation.
Anti-Lateral Flexion Based Core Exercises
Farmer’s Walk/Loaded Carries
Coaching Notes: This exercise is very practical as it involves a movement that people are required to do every day. Carrying grocery bags is a perfect example of how this exercise mimics a very common daily activity. This exercise can be done bilaterally, or unilaterally.
There is a specific piece of equipment that can be used for this exercise. However, if you do not have it, a dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a weight plate will suffice. If you are picking up the weight(s) from the floor, make sure to lift with your legs and not with your back. Once you are holding on to the weights, brace your core, contract the muscle around your trunk and in your upper body, and walk. Make sure that your body remains in proper alignment the entire time (body remains level and does not rotate), that you keep your core engaged, and ribs down. You can increase the difficulty of this exercise by increasing the distance traveled, or by increasing the weight used.
Off-Loaded Split Squat, Lunge or Step-Up
Coaching Notes: Grab on to a single dumbbell or kettlebell, and hold it in one hand. Perform lunges, split squats, or step-ups. The weight should be in the opposite hand from whatever leg is planted (forward leg). As your body is unevenly loaded, the muscles on the opposite side of your trunk (and also glutes) will have to work even harder to keep your torso and pelvis symmetrical and from bending laterally to the side that’s holding the weight. Make sure to maintain proper alignment, and make sure that your form is spot on the entire time.
The Last of Them – Combo Exercises
Weighted Renegade Rows
Coaching Notes: This exercise is both anti-extension and anti-rotational, which makes it doubly awesome.
Get into a plank position on your hands and feet, and have a dumbbell in each hand. Your hands should be directly below your shoulders. Keep your body as still as possible (brace your core and squeeze your glutes), and perform a single arm row. Lower the weight and repeat with the opposite side. You can make this exercise more challenging by positioning your feet closer together, elevating your feet, or using heavier weights.
Modified Flexion with Lateral Band Resistance
Coaching Notes: This exercise involves flexion at the thoracic spine, and is anti-rotational. While you can perform this exercise without a band and just engage in flexion, I like to add a resistance band as it adds in the dimension of anti-rotation.
Fasten a resistance band so it is attached laterally, and is in line with your chest. Lie down so your body is in a perpendicular position to the band. Grab onto the band and extend your arms so they are above your chest. There should be some tension in the band, but not too much. Gently tuck your ribs towards your hips, squeeze your glutes, exhale, and lift your shoulders about an inch or so off of the ground. Lower back down to the ground, and repeat.
It is important to note, while I am engaging in flexion, the only part of my spine that is flexing is my thoracic spine. The lumbar spine remains on the floor the entire time. When I am lowering, I am really focusing on using my glutes and anterior core as this is preventing my ribcage from flaring, and is preventing my spine from hyperextending. Many people allow their back to hyperextend during the lowering phase, and move/control their body by overengaging their hip flexors, or muscles in their lower back.
Putting All The Core Training Together
Now that you know what it takes to create a bulletproof core, go out and make it happen. Your overall health, performance, and aesthetics will benefit in a major way. I recommend going through at least one of these movements from every single category of core training once per week. Mixing and matching to your programming will be key, but be sure to get the work in!
About The Author
Meghan Callaway is a prominent personal trainer in Western Canada with over 12 years of training experience coaching in the trenches. Growing up as a multi-sport athlete competing in soccer, ice hockey and baseball, Meghan took her athletic prowess to the University of British Columbia and completed her degree in Human Kinetics.
Meghan currently works with an impressively wide array of clients, ranging from the elite athlete to post-physical therapy rehabilitation and strength training and many average fitness client looking to feel and function better everywhere between. She teaches and coaches every one of her clients with the goal of helping them perform, feel and look their very best by laying down a properly aligned foundation for every client.
With a unquenchable thirst for learning about the human body and movement, Meghan spends her time broadening her knowledge base as a trainer and coach, and truly practices what she preaches in her own fitness and life.