Core training is overrated, over-emphasized and grossly misunderstood. Also, most core exercises suck. After my post 7 Superior Alternatives to 7 Popular Core Exercises, I got an excellent question: “How do you program core exercises?” I started to answer the question, but soon realized it was a big answer. So instead, I knew it was time to lay out exactly how to program core-training exercises. Here is your core training blueprint.
Gaining Perspective: A Quick Historical Look at Core Training
To fully understand what you need to do now, you need a little background info. Back in the old days, the word “core” referred to the middle of an apple. People did simple, basic exercises and go really strong - everywhere.
Then, in the 70’s machines started to appear. Gym owners and gym goers bought into the lie spread by equipment manufactures that machines are safe and free weights are dangerous. By the 80’s and 90’s almost everyone was on machines. There was not much need for a strong core as people pushed, pulled, curled and extended their limbs with their spines braced by padded seats and backrests.
Then starting in the mid 90’s the pendulum swung in the other direction. All of a sudden, there was an explosion in the popularity of “core” training. “Core” became the new buzzword in fitness and athletic performance. Core “strength” came with the promise of fixing all back pain, improving athletic performance, building functional strength, curing cancer (just kidding) and (although not always talked about in the world of “functional” training) finally getting you that chiseled midsection.
The core craze era was great for selling products, courses and “special” training services. It was also readily embraced by the masses as human nature naturally prefers new and easy to hard and effective. During this era, proven exercises (e.g. squats) and training strategies (e.g. increase real strength and power) where dismissed as being “old school”. Countless ineffective core exercises where created. “Strength” training exercises moved to sitting, kneeling or even standing on unstable surfaces. Entire workouts where devoted to small, easy core accessory work – what a glorious waste of time!
During all this hype and confusion, low back expert Dr. Stuart McGill began to rise in popularity with the publication of his book Low Back Disorders. As a biomechanist, researcher and go-to low back exercise, Dr. McGill explained the insane compression forces exerted on the spine when you do sit-ups and the dangers of repetitive flexion exercises. His work influenced many in the industry (myself included) to move from core exercises that initiate movement at the lumbar spine (i.e. low back) to ones that resist movement at the low back (often while the limbs move).
And now, back to Your Core Training Blueprint...
Step 1: Activate Core In Your Warm-Up
One of the things we have started to realize is that the body often makes itself immobile in some spots to make up for lack of stability in others. For example, many people have tight hamstrings because their body locks up their hamstrings to try to protect an unstable core. Over the last few years, I have emphasized more core activation work in my clients and athletes warm-ups. The result is better performance on the big lifts and less time needed for rolling and mobility work.
Here are some great examples of core activation exercises that work well in a warm-up:
The secret to effectively using core exercises in your warm-up is not get tired. Remember, you want your core activated, but fresh – not smoked. You also don’t want to take a long time – no one got strong or jacked from warming-up – that’s what training is for.
Here are some pre-training core activation guidelines:
- Pick 2-3 exercises
- Do 1 set per exercise (maybe 2 sets if you really need the extra practice)
- If it is a static hold exercise, go for 10-20 seconds
- If it is a dynamic exercise, do 4-8 reps
Related: The Best Way to Warm-Up
Step 2: Pick Great Main Exercises
Remember the core craze started right after the machine era. The best exercises to get stronger, burn fat, build muscle and improve performance also provide a lot of stimulation for the core. Here are some examples:
Note: many, many options here
If you want some programming guidelines for these exercises, check out my following posts:
- Selecting Rep Ranges
- 7 Set and Rep Methods to Build a Great Body
- The Best Rep Range
- Non-Bulk Strength Training
- Building Natural vs. Drug-Assisted Muscle
- The Best Rep Range for Fat Loss
Another great way to get some great core work is by adding loaded carries. For more information and ideas, check out my post on The Magic of Loaded Carries and my Loaded Carries Playlist on my YouTube Channel.
Heavy loaded carries are a great way to connect your core with the rest of your body. I would not be able to do this 600lb farmer’s walk with a weak core:
Programming Guidelines for Loaded Carries:
- Pure strength: 2-3 sets of 10-20 meters, 2-3 minutes rest between sets
- Hypertrophy: 3-4 sets of 20-30 meters, 90 seconds to 2 minutes rest between sets
- Fat Loss or Conditioning: 3-5 sets of 30-40 meters, 30-90 seconds rest between sets
By simply selecting great exercises, doing them properly and progressively adding weight, you will get great results for your whole body – including your core. You will also make your training more economical and time-efficient. Because of my crazy schedule over the last several years, I do very little direct core training and still have a strong core – simply by picking great exercises and getting stronger at them.
Step 3: Wisely Accessorize with Proven Core Exercises
Once you have done the previous steps, you are well on your way to building a strong core AND a strong body. There is a solid connection between core strength and total body strength. Most strong people I know have a strong core and most of those with a weak core are weak everywhere.
After emphasizing great exercises, you can definitely accessorize your training with a few wisely chosen direct core exercises. The key is building anti-movement in all planes of motion.
Done right, these exercises keep you from over-arching your lower back.
- Front Plank
- Ab Wheel Rollouts
- Suspension Strap Fallouts
- Leg Raises from Rings
- Front Lever Cycle
- Eccentric Front Lever
- L Sit
These are exercises that extend the hips and keep your low back from rounding
Outside of activation drills or rehabilitation, most people don’t need to direct work here as all of the hinge movement or back/posterior core exercises (see examples above) will take care of this for you.
Anti-Lateral Flexion Exercises:
These keep you from bending to the side
These keep you from twisting at the low back
Suspension Strap Slow Mountain Climbers (this also works anti-extension)
While rotation is a big part of many sports (e.g. golf, hockey, baseball), rotation comes from the hips, t-spine (upper back) and shoulders while your “core” muscles lock the low back into place. Here are some great examples:
At this point, you might be saying, “But what about my six pack?” Don’t worry, I get it – aesthetics are important to many people. The most important think for abdominal aesthetics is the amount of body fat you have. That is why a wise person (sorry, I don’t know who) once said, “Abs are built in the kitchen.”
Abdominal Aesthetics Priorities
- Follow an eating and total body training plan for fat loss
- Find out The Real Secret to Flat Lower Abs
- Improve upper body posture – click HERE to find out why
If you really want to great hypertrophy in the rectus abdominis (the 6-pack muscle) for pure aesthetic reason, try a Modified Curl-Up for a Bosu.
Step 4: Select Training Variables for Your Core Exercises
When: at the end of your resistance training.
How many direct core exercises: 1, maybe 2.
Exercise Selection: select from the different planes of motion categories listed above. If you are training 3-4 times a week, you could simply add 1 core exercise at the end and vary the plane of movement each workout. Example:
Monday: Anti-Lateral Flexion, Wednesday: Anti-Rotation and Friday: Anti-Extension.
If you are weak in a particular plane, then by all means hit that one 2-3 times a week until things balance out.
Sets: 2-3 sets work fine for most. If you were trying to build size in your rectus abdominis with a curl-up, you could do 3-5 sets.
Hold-Times for Static Exercises: 10-20 seconds for strength. You can do longer to test. For endurance work, long static holds limit blood flow to the muscle. Another alternative for endurance work on static hold exercises (I learned this from Dr. McGill) is multiple reps or 10 sec holds with mini breaks (a few seconds) between reps.
Reps: Normal speed movements (e.g. Pallof Press) use about 8-10 reps. For slow, high-tension exercises (e.g. Ring Mountain Climbers or Hanging Leg Raises on the Rings) you can drop the reps even lower (e.g. 3-5). If you really need specific core endurance, you can do more reps, but remember this is a waste of time for toning.
Important Note: remember that as accessory exercises, the ceiling of improvement is rather limited. Some exercises allow you to add weight or adjust body positions. Others you will outgrow and have to move on.
Step 5: Hit the Gym and Get to Work!
I wish you all the best on your journey to building a strong core AND a strong body.
As always, I welcome your comments or questions below.