Training the Core: 4 Exercises That Take It To The Next Level
Everyone wants a six-pack. It may in fact be the most sought after physical trait in history. What most people don’t realize, however, is that a six-pack has zero correlation to how strong your core actually is or how well it functions. (It’s also worth mentioning that having a six pack has more to do with how you train in the kitchen than anything else, but that’s a convo for another time.)
Luckily, you can have your cake and eat it too. What I’m about to suggest doesn’t throw the six-pack out the window, but rather, makes it a byproduct of training for functionality and performance. In short, if your diet is in line and you train the core for maximum performance, then the aesthetics will take care of themselves.
The Core and Its Function
I keep throwing around this core word, so let’s make sure we’re on the same page. When I reference the core, I’m talking primarily about the following muscles:
- Rectus abdominis
- External oblique
- Internal oblique
- Transversus abdominis
With that in mind, let me ask you a quick question: what is the purpose of your core? Better yet, what are the two main functions of your core?
Go ahead and think on it for a minute, and then I’ll give you the answers.
Ready? Okay, here we go. The two primary functions of your core are to stabilize and transmit force. That’s it. The core needs to stabilize hip and lumbar positioning to allow you to transmit force in an efficient manner.
To better understand this, think about your favorite slingshot from when you were a kid. (If you didn’t have a slingshot when you were a kid, then just use your imagination and play along.) If the slingshot had flimsy handles, you struggled to generate length, tension, and force. The same goes with your core. If your core fails to adequately stabilize hip and lumbar positioning (think of people who easily slip into extension dominant patterns), then you’ll struggle to generate force and leave yourself susceptible to injury, especially lumbar injuries.
This is why I shake my head when I see people doing nothing but crunches. They’re merely training to pull their ribcage down and never learning to properly stabilize or transmit force. Instead of relying on crunches and other popular core routines, I’d like to introduce a few exercises that’ll not only get you ripped, but also increase performance and functionality.
1. The Reverse Crunch - No Counterweight
Purpose: The reverse crunch is one of the best exercises around because it teaches people to posteriorly tilt their pelvis.
Common Flaws: One of the biggest flaws people make when performing this exercise is that they bring their knees to their chest without moving their hips. Another common flaw is for people to plop back down to the ground when unrolling from the top position.
Good Cues: When performing this exercise think about trying to curl your belly button to the top of your rib cage. Also, when unrolling from the top position, think about doing so one vertebra at a time. This should help you control the eccentric portion of the exercise better and avoid slipping into extension.
In this video I do this move without a counterweight, but feel free to grab a kettlebell or some other object to hold onto in the beginning.
2. Dragon Flag
Purpose: Once the reverse crunch becomes too easy, this is a great place to go. It teaches you to not only posteriorly tilt your pelvis, but also hold that position statically throughout a range of motion. In other words, it’s a great anti-extension challenge.
Common Flaws: As this is primarily an anti-extension exercise, the main flaw is losing neutral positioning and arching through your lumbar.
Good Cues: For starters, you’ll need to get as tight as possible. This means squeeze your butt hard, squeeze your core hard, and then think about trying to maintain a straight line from your ankles through your hips to your shoulders. It also helps to think about moving through your belly button.
If you’re a Rocky fan you’ll love these. Sylvester Stallone crushes them in a barn before going to fight that crazy Russian.
3. Split Stance Cable Chop
Purpose: This exercise hits a lot of rocks. Two of the biggest are that it trains your body to avoid rotation (lateral core stability), and reinforces good breathing patterns.
- Letting your front knee slip into valgus positioning
- Compensating for the counterbalance by shifting your hips to the side
- Not exhaling fully at the bottom (notice the exhale in the video)
- Slipping into forward head posture
- Going into lumbar extension
- Standing too far away from the machine (set up so the cable is directly next to and in front of your front foot)
Good Cues: I think this exercise does a great job of illustrating the slingshot concept from earlier. You need to provide a rock solid base (your body) for your arms and shoulders to work around.
4. Wide Stance Anti-Rotation Chop
Purpose: The name pretty much gives this one away, but the whole point is to avoid rotation.
- Forward head posture
- Letting both knees slip into valgus
- Locking out your knees
- Shifting your hips
- Holding your breath (please breathe)
- Going too wide (a little wider than shoulder width works just fine)
Good Cues: Not too many cues to worry about for this one. Just get tight and don’t let anything slide out of place.
Programming Considerations and Closing Thoughts
Giving you these exercises is great and all, but it would probably help if I gave you some tips on how to program them, right? In the beginning, I’d recommend starting off with 3 sets of 10-12 reps (for the dragon flag you may want to drop the reps to 6-8). Then as you get better at the movements, work your way up to as many as 5 sets of 10-15 reps.
Furthermore, pick one exercise per training session (unless you’re lifting two days a week). With everything else you should be doing (squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc.) one of these movements will be plenty. Just focus on increasing the volume as opposed to adding in more exercises. Also, be sure to get a solid mix of both anterior core (reverse crunch and dragon flag) and lateral core (both chop variations). Don’t just hammer one and neglect the other.
For the split stance cable chop and wide stance anti-rotation chop, don’t worry about loading them up like crazy. These aren’t movements where you need to be testing a one-rep max. (If you do, I hope someone laughs at you.) You’re better off staying on the lighter side of things and focusing on good movement. I really like pairing these movements with a single-leg exercise. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much better your lunge pattern gets after activating your lateral core.
That’s all I’ve got for you today. I hope you found it interesting and go away with some new exercises you can start playing with tomorrow. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below. I’d love to help you in anyway I can.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.