When it comes to core training there are not only a lot of misconceptions as to how to train it appropriately, but furthermore, of what the core really is. When people hear the word ‘core’ as it pertains to exercise, they initially think of the rectus abdominis, or the ‘6-pack’ muscles. While these are indeed a part of the core, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
The ‘core’ is just a made-up word to over generalize a group and system of muscles that line along the torso. One of the main purposes of these muscles is to stabilize the spine, 360 degrees, while the extremities carry out motion and interact with our environment. The best example of this is to picture an Olympic sprinter – their spines remain extremely stable while their arms and legs swing explosively during a sprint.
The second primary objective of our ‘core’ musculature is to act as a conduit and transfer energy throughout the body – more specifically through our legs and into the upper body. Think about throwing a ball or punch. Energy created from reaction with the ground transfers through our legs, through the core during rotation of the hips and separation from the shoulders, and out through the arms. If the core is weak, it is unable to absorb and efficiently transfer that energy. The result is a loss in power potential, and worse yet, it opens the window for injury.
If the core is strong then it can supply enough tension and stability to manage the forces traveling through it to allow for maximum power outputs and injury prevention.
Lastly, yes, the core can initiate movement. This is what most people probably think of when they think of ‘core training’ – something like a sit-up or side bend that isolates a specific muscle and works it in its line of pull. Exercises like this are typically used more for vanity reasons and trying to get more out of a certain muscle to attain a certain look. The body is never really meant to work in isolation, and this is especially true of the core musculature. However, there is a time and place for everything so exercises that fall under this category can be employed at times.
Now that we know what the core is and what it needs to do, we can take a deep dive into the most effective moves we can do to check as many boxes as possible – for function and for looks.
Toes To Bar
If there was only one core move I could do for the rest of my life, it would be Toes to Bar. When performed correctly, toes to bar check a tremendous number of boxes including ones on both sides of the coin – whether you’re looking for strength gains or more of an aesthetic benefit. This is why we find it first here on this list.
It not only makes your midsection strong as hell from top to bottom, but it also works the upper body a considerable amount as well. Firstly, the grip gets a fair amount of work while having to hold onto the bar while the exercise is performed. Secondly, tension through the shoulders and arms must be present to provide the leverage needed to execute the exercise with a full range of motion. Lastly, due to the hanging nature of the exercise and rotation that takes place during its range of motion, there is a tremendous amount of stretching that takes place within the shoulder. It is not uncommon for people to feel soreness in their chest (pec minor) after performing Toes to Bar the first few times.
So, what is proper execution??? STRICT. Toes to Bar were popularized and made mainstream when CrossFit broke onto the scene. Unfortunately, CrossFit also brought kipping with it and kipping will not yield the same benefits. Strict Toes to Bar are done from a dead hang and legs straight as the toes are brought up all the way until they touch the bar and then lowered back under control to the start position.
Turkish Get Up (TGU)
There might not be an exercise out there that makes the core work as much as the TGU. As mentioned before, the core isn’t just the abdominal wall – it runs 360 degrees around the entire body – and the TGU hits it all giving you a ton of benefits. If you are looking for a strong and capable core that has the horsepower behind it to show up when it counts, then the TGU needs to be included in your training regimen.
However, while the TGU does yield amazing results, you will have to earn every single one of them because it is a long, grinding, and arduous movement to perform. Along with a tremendous amount of core activation, you also work the stability of the shoulder in just about every way possible as well as work each side of the body independently. This is one of the biggest advantages of the TGU as it helps mitigate the asymmetries from left to right within our body and decrease injury risk. One of the biggest mistakes/errors I see when people are performing the TGU is they only perform half the rep. Even though it’s called a Turkish GET UP, you must also return down to the floor to complete a rep. In fact, going down is much harder than going up and you miss out on a lot of gains when you forego the decent.
Because the TGU uses an external load, you have options as to the weight you select when performing them. Just like any strength exercise, you can train them heavy for low-rep sets in increase strength OR you can go lighter for higher-rep sets and work more endurance. Both are important and both should be given attention within your program.
Ab Wheel Rollouts
Toes to Bar might be the king exercise of this list, but rollouts are the king of the floor exercises. Much like its hanging counterpart, rollouts incorporate the upper body and check multiple boxes.
In a full range rollout, the arms are found in an overhead position supporting your bodyweight. This type of leverage forces our core musculature to produce a tremendous amount of tension to keep the spine in a safe position. However, this position also forces the serratus muscles and lats to work overtime as they support the body and then initiate movement to complete the rep. Hip flexors also get some work as you must dig the knees into the ground to create the leverage to pull yourself back up to the start position.
Rollouts can also be done off the feet if you are an absolute freak of nature. Doing them off your feet instead of your knees increases the difficulty of the exercise tenfold by increasing the length of the lever. This is a highly advanced variation so be sure you are ready if you are to every attempt it.
The biggest mistakes people make with rollouts are rolling out further than they can currently handle. This forces the lower back to collapse into excessive extension and puts the person at risk for injury. Be sure to progress appropriately and only rollout out as far as you can maintain proper tension through your torso.
Bear Crawl (Crawl Variations)
The Bear Crawl is the gift that keeps on giving as it will yield benefit to you long past what the eyes can see. Crawling is a primitive human pattern, meaning it is inherently wired within our brain – after all, you learned to crawl before you could walk. However, due to the sedentary nature of our society today a lot of us unfortunately lose the ability to move naturally. Using basic patterns like crawling can give us an in depth look at how efficient our movement is as we progress in them in difficulty – meaning; if you can’t crawl well then you probably can’t walk well. Which means you definitely can’t run and sprint well.
The human body is all about balance and operates on a beautiful system of ‘give and take.’ It works in cross patterns to create rotation that allows us to move. Think about when you do walk or sprint – your opposite side arm and leg swing forward together. Have you ever tried running by swinging your same side arm and leg forward together? It’s hilarious. But outside of that, its extremely funky and inefficient.
Crawl patterns can help restore this synchronization between opposite sides of the body. During a crawl, your right arm moves forward at the same time your left leg is moving forward. That means the left arm remains on the ground with the right leg giving you two points of contact to support the body. Let’s visualize this – your left hand (leading up to your left shoulder) and your right foot (leading up to your right hip) are the only things in contact with the ground. What is in between your left shoulder and right hip? You guessed it!
All your core musculature must work to not only maintain a neutral spine and resist extreme rotation, but it also must help initiate movement as you continue to move forward with your crawl. The core musculature acts as a conduit to allow opposite shoulder and hip to synch up and produce movement – as is seen in more advanced forms of locomotion such as walking and sprinting.
Moreover, bear crawls also give a ton of stimulus to the shoulders, serratus, chest, and leg muscles making it a phenomenal exercise as it pertains to training economy. If you’re short on time, exercises like this can give you the most bang for your buck! Especially when you consider the many variations you can play with when it comes to crawls. Changing the direction, speed, angle, and even adding resistance can significantly change the landscape of the exercise and keep them fresh.
When most people think of core, they most think of the abs. But as we previously mentioned, the core is 360 degrees and runs from armpits to knees!
This means that we must give love to the backside – and there is no better way to do that then the bridge. The bridge could very well be the most important and valuable exercise on this list for most people. If you find yourself seated most of your day, hunched over at a desk, computer, or phone, then you need to put a big fat star next to this exercise.
In the seated society we find ourselves in now, the spine is in a constant state of flexion (hunched over). Over time, people lose the ability to EXTEND. The bridge helps rectify that by not only restoring the ability to extend, but by also strengthening and mobilizing at the same time. This is why it is not only on this list, but it is also one of the 7 Primary Movements of the Metasthenics System.
A proper bridge not only mobilizes the spine and strengthens its supporting musculature, but it also mobilizes the shoulders and strengthens the glutes and hamstrings. PROPER being the key word here. If you are a person that sits most of your day and have never attempted a bridge, it is important that you don’t dive in headfirst and attempt a full bridge for many reasons:
Your spine isn’t mobile enough.
Your shoulders aren’t mobile enough.
And your glutes and hamstrings aren’t going to do their job.
All of this will just lead you down a path of serious injury potential. As I mentioned, the Bridge is one of the 7 Primary Movements of the Metasthenics System – meaning we have 15 total levels of progression when it comes to the Bridge. Within these 15 levels, a full bridge is Level 10! That means there are 9 regressions that we have our members master first before attempting a standard Bridge for the first time. You only get one back in this life, it is important to strengthen it, but first you must protect it.
Rocky Sit Up
Queue the montage music! I couldn’t make a core exercise list without putting Rocky Sit Ups on it. However, they made the list not just because of their reputation and my love for Rocky Balboa, but because they are LEGIT. Get yourself a pair of Gravity Boots and prepare to shred your abs.
Hanging from your feet and performing a sit up with gravity pulling all your weight straight down is very difficult. It requires a lot of strength from your abdomen and hip flexor complex to get all the way up and complete a full rep. Furthermore, because there is so much weight bearing down due to the nature of the exercise, this is a great ‘muscle builder’ for the abs. Meaning, you will thicken the fibers of the abdominal wall. For those that are lean enough to see abdominal definition, this means that the ‘cubes’ that make up your six pack, will become more defined as they will thicken and create deeper cuts in between them.
All the exercises on this list yield more than just one benefit and Rocky Sit Ups are no exception to this rule. Hanging inverted by your feet is a great way to decompress the spine – even better than hanging from a bar with your hands. It also increases blood flow to your brain which can be very beneficial – but be careful, the first few times the head rush can sneak up on you. It takes getting used to. It is recommended that you shouldn’t hang upside down for longer than 1-2 minutes at a time your first few times.
Whenever I incorporate Rocky Sit Ups into my workouts, I am always sure to hang for a total of around 5 minutes in 1-3 total sets at the end. Just be careful not to smoke your abs to the point that you cannot sit up at least one more time to get yourself off the bar! It is strongly recommended not to do these by yourself, especially if you are not experienced with them.
The core is tremendously important to the well-being of our bodies and the quality of our lives. Unfortunately, the modern fitness age has turned the ‘core’ into more of a vanity muscle with the importance placed on having a six pack. That’s not to say having a six pack is bad or can’t be a goal you want to attain, but it is vitally important to ensure your core is not ‘all show – no go’. It must be strong and functional before time can be spent on trying to sculpt it.
Fortunately for you, I just gave you all the moves for a rock solid core that will help accomplish both! But remember, before you can use any exercise to sculpt your midsection, you must be lean enough to see what you’re working with and that is accomplished through your diet.
Time to grind,