If you’ve opened just about any social media app, magazine, or blog you’ve probably seen someone suggesting what “core training” exercise to do. They come presented as “Top 3 Exercises for a 6-pack” or “Flatten your tummy with these 5 moves” and I’m not here to tell you not do the exercises they are suggesting. I’m here to tell you how to identify and build a core training routine that is custom to you.

First thing we need to do is take a little detour. We need to understand what the “core” does so we can better understand how to train it (what the core actually is requires greater detail to explain but you’ll know enough about it by the time we finish this article). The core essentially is responsible for around 6 things as it pertains to movement (I’m not going to go full nerd and start talking about the diaphragm here), it flexes the trunk forward and extends it back, it flexes the spine lateral or side to side, it rotates the trunk, and the other 3 and more importantly it resists all 3 of those movements. 

Why is it important to know these? Well it helps us to begin to organize whether or not we are checking each of these boxes or if we are just perpetually checking the same box over and over. Also it’s helpful to identify what’s missing as it helps us to bring up weakness and reduce our risk of injury.

Okay, now lets jump into a couple principles. Number one, “You want to be able to resist force before focusing on producing force”. What this means is we want to maintain a neutral trunk position while something (gravity in most cases) works to move us out of position. Being able to resist force through your core is one of the most important functions of the core. It ensures that our spine is safe, that force is distributed appropriately up to the shoulders and down through the pelvis into legs, and we can actually target our core during core exercise. Examples of exercises that resist force are side planks (anti-lateral flexion), planks (Anti-extension), and Bird-Dog (Anti-Rotation). Each of these exercises can be made more or less difficult by increasing or reducing the duration, reducing or increasing the base of support (how many points of contact you have with any given surface), deviating center of mass (lengthening or reducing the length of the limbs involved), and adding or removing load. For example instead of Side Plank we could to a Kettlebell Suitcase Carry which would add load, reduced base of support, and deviate center of mass, all while resisting force laterally as well as through rotation. 

Next principle we want to focus on is “Keep tension on the target muscle”. This seems relatively intuitive but the amount of time I’ve heard of people doing planks and Russian twists and mentioned feeling in their low back is exactly why I am mentioning this here now. So each exercise has an intended set of muscles that should be involved and each of those muscles has specific things that they do and distances that they are responsible for. For example when we are doing a plank we are mostly resisting force through your rectus abdominus, obliques to a degree, and transverse abdominus. When we begin to fatigue and our pelvis dumps forward and our low back begins to collapse you’ll see a new set of muscles begin to be leveraged as they are stronger in this position (our psoas and quadratus lumborum). Quick rule of thumb, if your training your core rarely is the target directly your low back. It may be involved but it won’t usually be your primary source of fatigue. 

Another principle is knowing “What does this do and how much do I need?”. Being able to plank for a minute has its utility but being able to plank for 4 minutes won’t be leveraged for much in terms of its ability to resist more force. It’s just reducing the same amount of force for longer. Where as if we move on to an Ab Wheel Rollout we will be increasing the lever on the arm which will apply more force to the core. So knowing whether you need more endurance vs. increasing your strength will inform your decision on whether or not you need to simply make the current exercise more difficult or if you need to select a different exercise entirely. No exercise does it all, so find out how much you need and how to progress.

Last principle for you “Integrate core work into your compound movements”. You may have heard “Every exercise is a core exercise” but its not when your core isn’t strong enough to hold up during the movement. Take an exercise like Landmine Shoulder Press its “intended” target is the shoulder, but because the load comes down one side at a time it is now challenging through rotation and lateral flexion (side bending). In this sense you have now taken something that is supposed to be for your shoulder and actually made it effective at challenging your core as well. The easiest way to do this with most exercise is to use weight on one side of the body at a time, but its also realizing exercises that you are currently doing should be recruiting the core and you just haven’t been using it. 

Hopefully during this article you have be able to identify some holes in your current core training, how to fill them, what to look for to progress them, how to select the right ones for you, and ultimately how to graduate them into positions that you are already using. Of course if you have any questions about this I recommend listening to our podcast “Fit For Fitness” to answer all your fitness related questions, or send me an email at [email protected] with any question you have. See you again soon!

Stay Dope,

Steven Davis (Owner – Davis Fitness Method)