Advanced Core Training: 4 Challenging Exercises

by Brandon Rynka

Beyond Basic Ab Exercises

Planks won’t cut it if you’re serious about core training. A strong core is your foundation. Try these advanced exercises if you’re ready.


Core Training That Actually Works

Most lifters backburner their core training. They may toss in a few basic ab exercises, but the effect is minimal, not counting some muscle burn and low-back discomfort.

But if you want to build a strong, stable core, you have to train it purposefully with exercises that actually stimulate the full musculature of the core: obliques, spinal erectors, transverse abdominis, glutes, and even the lower traps. And you’ll need to apply proper intensity and tension.

Why do you care? Because of all these benefits:

  • Greater stability and proprioception
  • Superior force production (intermuscular coordination)
  • Greater motor unit and muscle fiber recruitment
  • Potential to lift more weight
  • Alleviation of low back and hip pain
  • Improved jumping, sprinting, and movement economy
  • More resilience to injury
  • Tight, strong midsection

Here are four exercises that’ll get you those benefits:

1. Off-Loaded Trap Bar Hold

This is an advanced anti-lateral flexion exercise. It’ll increase your core’s ability to resist side bending at the spine. This is extremely important for everyday lifters but even more critical for athletes who must quickly change directions.

Having the stability and strength to maintain a neutral spine while shifting laterally is key to injury prevention and greater movement efficiency.

This is one of the most demanding core exercises you’ll ever do. If you need to work up to it and need a modification, try a suitcase carry.

Sets, reps, frequency: Once a week, do two sets per side with a max hold time of 8-15 seconds.

2. Supramaximal Zercher Hold

Zercher holds are one of the simplest, most effective ways to activate the core. To make the exercise even more effective, use supramaximal loads, around 110-120% of your 1RM Zercher squat.

Since you’re not moving the weight, you can take advantage of extremely heavy loads, making this core exercise stand above most others, especially where loading capacity is concerned.

One unique benefit of using loads above 100% is that we actually override the body’s central governor, which is the mind saying, “Whoa, fella, hold up! This is getting dangerous!” This allows you to increase force production and motor unit recruitment more than you typically would.

Focus on maintaining a braced, neutral position and keeping alignment through the spine. You’ll notice an increased demand on the upper spine as a way to absorb the load safely. A high degree of full-body tension and healthy posture is paramount. Think proud chest, shoulders slightly back and down, and a neutral head position.

Sets, reps, frequency: Introduce a 3-4 week phase into your training. Do it once a week for 3-5 sets with a 15 to 30-second hold. Use 110-120% of your 1RM. Rest for two minutes between holds.

3. GHD Sit-Up

GHD sit-ups are a wicked, overlooked core builder. What makes this exercise effective? You have to isometrically contract the abs to stabilize the torso from overextension of the spine while taking the torso and abdominals from full extension into full flexion – something people rarely do in the gym. Adding load would be the natural progression.

Do this exercise with control and technical proficiency to avoid injury.

Sets, reps, frequency: Do 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps. Rest for about a minute and a half to two minutes.

4. Bear Hug Carry

Grab a heavy-ass sandbag, deadball, or atlas stone if you happen to work out in a gym that has them. Then hug it to your chest and walk. The compression of the weight on the sternum will compress your airways, making this exercise more challenging.

It’ll require a deeper engagement of full-body tension, consistent breath work, and focus. This exercise isn’t sexy, but it sure is effective. Anterior loaded carries are some of the very best core exercises you can do, placing a high demand on trunk stability and upper back engagement. It’ll also give you the benefit of increased stability and transferrable real-world strength.

Sets, reps, frequency: Once per week, do 4-6 sets of 30 yards. Rest two minutes for full recovery. If you want to increase work capacity, rest 60 seconds.

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