You can’t lift heavy with a wet-noodle torso. Here’s how to build the core strength you need. Side effect: great abs.
The key function of the core is to stabilize the spine and keep your torso rigid while your arms and legs are in motion. And for lifters, it’s all about spinal integrity. While the compound lifts hit the core to a certain degree, most lifters should be doing more isolated core work.
Why? First, your core is your base and your center of gravity. It’s the foundation of your strength potential. That means you can think of every lift as a full-body lift. A stronger core increases tension in the body.
So whether you’re driving your feet through the floor during a bench press, or pushing up against the barbell during a back squat, a stronger core allows you to transfer force more efficiently between the upper and lower body.
You already know a strong core improves your posture, but think about your spine too. Whether it’s a herniated disc or minor “tweaks,” your back could be feeling a lot better. And of course, training your core reduces the risk of injuries.
Finally, your core is responsible for resisting movement. When it comes to exercise selection, anti-movement patterns are one of the most effective ways to develop a strong (and chiseled) core.
Your core is responsible for resisting hyperextension in the lumbar spine. It minimizes the excessive “arch” in the lower back and helps you maintain a strong “neutral” position. That’s what anti-extension exercises are all about.
Almost every lifter should be doing some version of these three moves: dead bugs, planks, and rollouts. They’re scalable for beginners and offer a ton of progressions for advanced lifters.
- Keep your ribs down and your lower back flat against the floor throughout the entire ROM.
- Do slow, controlled reps for increased time under tension and better mind-muscle connection.
- Breathe out as you extend your limbs. Think of trying to blow out a candle 10 feet away from you. Breathe in as you return to your starting position.
Use any of these variations as part of your warm-up, or do as post-lifting isolated core work. Do 2-4 sets of 4-6 reps per side. Lower slowly. Do a 2-4 second eccentric and concentric tempo.
Use either the standard or weighted plank as part of your warm-up or at the end of your workout.
There are a ton of ways you can organize your sets for planks. And if you’re wanting a little burn in the midsection, try a Tabata-style circuit.
For beginners, usually bodyweight will be enough, but you could do this circuit-style for the weighted plank as well:
- 20-second plank hold
- 10-second rest
- Repeat for 8 rounds (4 minutes)
- 40-second plank hold
- 20-second rest
- Repeat for 4 rounds (4 minutes)
You can increase the challenge by either adding more rounds or increasing the weight.
We used to do this circuit for 10 rounds after weightlifting practice. If our coach thought it looked too easy he’d add a plate to our backs.
- Keep your back flat like you’re balancing a glass of water on it.
- Tall shoulders (think of pushing yourself away from the floor).
- Squeeze your glutes to support the lower back.
- Slightly tuck your pelvis posteriorly to keep a flat lower back. Think of a sad dog tucking its tail between its legs.
The “hard-style” plank trains you to contract your core rapidly and maximally – something that’s missing in many core exercises.
- Create full-body tension throughout your set and squeeze EVERY muscle you can think of.
- Try to drag your elbows back towards your feet without actually moving them.
- Try to pull your feet up towards your elbows without actually moving them.
The RKC plank is best performed towards the beginning of your workout when you’re fresh. You can use it as a way to engage your CNS (central nervous system) before heavy lifting. Hold for 8-12 seconds, rest for 20-30 seconds, and repeat for 4-6 rounds.
This is the most challenging among the three main anti-extension exercises given the limited stability throughout the ROM. When you’re in contact with the floor, you have added stability because the ground isn’t moving. When you’re stabilizing your center of mass over a wheel that’s rolling, your core has to put in the extra work.
- Slightly tuck your pelvis posteriorly and squeeze your glutes throughout the set.
- Push your hips towards the floor slightly when setting up. Don’t have your butt sticking back.
- Keep your thigh and torso in a straight diagonal line throughout the set. This will keep tension in your core instead of using your hips. Most people make this mistake and push their hips back and forth during their set.
Do 3-4 sets or 8-10 reps. Rest 45-60 seconds between sets. Try these on your squat or deadlift days since these lifts tend to put stress on the spine.
One of my favorite anti-rotation exercises is the Pallof press given the amount of variety and direct training benefits it offers. Here are some variations, progressing from beginner to advanced. Minimizing your base of support (progressing from floor to standing/split stance variations) makes this exercise more challenging.
- Grab with your outside hand first and inside hand on top. This helps reduce pushing too much with the inside arm.
- Move your arms in a linear fashion. The whole point of the exercise is to stop the cable or band from pulling you in and rotating your torso.
- Exhale as you extend your arms. Inhale as you return.
Do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. Take 45-60 seconds of rest in between sets.
These exercises train your core to resist the urge to bend to the side. Here are a few to try.
These are great for your grip strength as well.
- Hold the weight directly in the center of the handle. Squeeze the handle tight.
- Proud chest (stay tall).
These are great for post-deadlift grip and core work. Just don’t do them the day before deadlifts because your grip will be fried. Do 2-3 sets of holds for 30-60 seconds per side. Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.
- Squeeze a small plate between your hands.
- Press out and return your arms in a linear fashion.
- Increase the challenge by raising your arms overhead each rep.
Do 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps each side. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.