When discussing core training, we aren’t talking about your six-pack. We are looking at muscles from what some would say are your lats to your glutes, all comprising your “core”. The main function is to stabilize the spine and resist excess movement- acting as a governor on your degrees of flexion, extension, rotation, etc.
If the job of the core is in fact to stabilize (We all probably don't know anyone who can rotate their head or torso 180 degrees for a reason), why is everyone chasing the burn in their abs via movement-based crunches, twists, and sit-ups? There’s no problem with these exercises sprinkled in for a base of strength or aesthetics, but in the broader scope of training and staying healthy lets look at how to tackle this more effectively.
More compound lifts. The squat and deadlift will forever be the best core exercises out there. We are moving heavy loads while maintaining a neutral spine throughout. Start with weight you can handle and focus on creating tension throughout the lift (bracing). In my last article I discussed getting out of machines… how much core work is involved in a seated leg press? Your legs get stronger but put a bar on your back you get folded in half like a cheap lawn chair. Free-weight training is the great equalizer- and also constant core work. Side note- when operating at sub-maximal weight, lose the belt.
Planks, and the good ol’ ab wheel. These two are staples in every gym but are easily done incorrectly. Look around and you might catch someone holding a plank for what seems like minutes while their butt is sagging near the floor with an arch in the low back. Limit your time spent and focus on form and tension. I would rather add weight to the back to increase intensity versus hanging out in that position longer. Not much need to go over 30-45 seconds. With the ab wheel or roll-outs, same idea is applied. We want to stay neutral throughout the exercise, focusing on bracing at full extension as we return back to the top. This movement is easily regressed to a stability ball if too difficult.
Pallof Pressing. If you train with me at River North Strength, you know how much I like this exercise. Do it standing, kneeling, half kneeling, etc. The focus here is to prevent rotation by taking a band or cable attached to something stable, creating tension, and pressing it from the middle of your chest to directly in front in a straight line. You'll feel like it’s pulling you laterally, fight it and build strength and stability in that plane.
Loaded carries. Simple, yet so effective. There are so many ways to get work done there by walking with load in certain places (among many other benefits). We can hold two dumbbells at our sides (farmer walk), one overhead (waiter carry), one to our side (suitcase carry), one of each (front rack/suitcase), a sandbag out front (zercher carry), etc. The locations create a different resistance and make us lock down in different ways. Get creative and focus on walking with upright posture and not favoring the weighted side.
This list really can go on forever, but I’ll let you go try different combinations on your own. Remember, resist movement- don't create it. Next time you mix core work into your training take this different approach to it and watch how it translates to your posture, lifts, and life.