Toned stomachs and 6-packs are often what people’s visions are of when they think about core training. However, the true purpose of the core is so much more important than just these visual aesthetics and if I’m honest, the toned stomach and 6-pack vision actually has more to do with nutrition and body fat levels than actual core training.
What should truly be the focus of your Core Training is the ability to reap such important benefits as:
- Improved overall health and longevity.
- Decreased lower back pain.
- Increased performance for gym training and sports through more effective delivery of force/power.
- …and that’s just to mention three.
When most people think of the core, they do predominantly think of the 6-pack muscles as these are the ones seen the easiest. However, the core is made up of so much more though, with no one area truly being superior to another as the core works most effectively as a unit.
So, what makes up the core?
Plus, the Lower Back Muscles
- Quadratus Lumborum
- Spinal Erectors
Along with these 6 muscle groups there are also several other areas of key importance that get forgotten about when core training is discussed. These forgotten areas are the pelvic floor, the diaphragm and the glutes. All 3 of these play a major role in core training and overall core function.
Now, let’s get really weird.
What also gets forgotten and is rarely talked about is also how important your ribcage position, pelvis position and your breathing can be to your core training and core function.
I mean, who knew right?
As you can see, core training is so much more than just sit ups and 6-packs.
The biggest issue with the majority of people’s core training is that it is almost exclusively focused around core flexion work, and lots of it. Core flexion exercises are variations of sit-ups, crunches, reverse crunches and leg raises. You know, most people’s Go-To for achieving a 6-pack. Core flexion work is actually on the very bottom of my importance hierarchy when it comes to core training and you’re not going to find a sit-up or crunch anywhere insight.
So, what’s so bad about creating movement at the core through flexion work like crunches and rotation work like Russian twists.
Let me pre-fix this by saying it’s not that you should avoid all flexion and rotation work, after all, the body can create these movements, it’s rather that your core training should not prioritise these movements as they have been shown to contribute to lower back pain and the majority of people will get far more out of doing other exercises.
The lower back issue is caused because flexion and rotation movements often force the lumbar spine past its capable degrees of movement. The lumbar spine, put simply, is similar to a shock absorber. It helps you absorb force when walking, running, jumping etc but it has minimal degrees of movement, especially when looking at rotation. When put through countless repetitions of crunches, Russian twists etc it puts your lumbar spine through more movement than it has the capacity for, contributing to, and even causing lower back issues.
So where should your core training be focused?
Your primary focus should be on core stability work (no, this doesn’t involve any balancing acts on a stability ball or BOSU). This stability work should focus on 3 key “Anti” movement categories which challenge your core musculature to resist movement and stabilise the spine.
The 3 “Anti” movement categories are:
- Anti-Lateral Flexion
These 3 are my 1, 2 & 3 in my core training hierarchy with rotation being number 4 and flexion coming in last at number 5.
Now, although Anti-Extension exercises are at number 1 this doesn’t mean I purely program these as they’re superior to numbers 2 & 3, because they aren’t. However, Anti-Extension movements are where most people need to start building their smarter approach to core training as key focus points from anti-extension exercises allow you to reap more benefits from the other categories moving forward, even with flexion work.
When programming Core training I like to take a layered approach, prioritising and focusing on Anti-Extension movements initially and then systematically building in the other categories as programming progresses.
Anti-Extension Core Work
Anti-Extension work is where a solid core foundation is built.
When building a house getting the foundations right is absolutely key as this forms the base to build the house on. Core training is no different. To build a strong core it needs to be built on solid foundations.
The Anti-Extension movements focus on challenging the body to resist falling into lumbar extension. Put simply, they challenge you to prevent your body from falling into a position where the lower back arch is increased. These movements primarily involve the muscles on the front of the body, even that highly revered 6-pack muscle.
When training these movements, they will teach you to use your core to stabilise both your pelvis and ribcage which is what prevents you from falling into Lumbar-Extension as the undesirable lumbar extension position is caused through an anteriorly tilted pelvis (that lovely duck butt position when standing) and the ribcage flaring upward to the ceiling.
Building this solid base using Anti-Extension movements to learn how to stabilise the pelvis and ribcage is crucial to get right first before progressing on to challenging the core further with Anti-Lateral Flexion and Anti Rotation movements. By skipping the base building phase, the effectiveness of these two core categories is greatly reduced as your pelvis and ribcage position when performing them won’t be as good and your ability to stabilise won’t be as high.
So where should you start building your solid Anti-Extension Core base?
My Go-To’s for Anti-Extension are:
- The RKC Plank
- Ab Rollouts (using either a wheel or stability ball)
Anti-Lateral Flexion Core Work
With a solid foundation built it’s now time to address challenging the internal and external obliques and Quadratus Lumborum through Anti-Lateral Flexion exercises. This doesn’t mean ditching all Anti-Extension work, after all, it is where a solid core foundation is built. You still want to keep 1-2 exercises a week in for Anti-Extension but you’re now going to build in 1-2 Anti-Lateral Flexion movements to challenge the core further and begin to take a more 3D approach to your core programming.
Anti-Lateral Flexion movements focus on challenging the core to resist falling into lateral flexion, or simply put, they challenge you to resist falling to the left or right side. The Anti-Extension work teaches you to stabilise your pelvis and ribcage whilst resisting against lumbar spine extension. Anti-Lateral Flexion teaches you to stabilise your pelvis and ribcage whilst resisting falling to your left or right side.
These exercises are going to challenge you to maintain a stacked position of a ribcage on top of a pelvis when the position wants to pull you out of it.
So how do you train the Anti-Lateral Flexion category?
My Go-To’s for Anti-Lateral Flexion are:
- Side Plank
- Suitcase Hold
- Suitcase Carry
Anti-Rotational Core Work
Anti-Rotation Core training is seen by many as the Holy Grail of core work and often referred to as the most important of the 3 “Anti” movements. I don’t see it as the most important as I believe in taking a 3D approach to core training is the smartest approach ensuring that all 3 “Anti” categories are being addressed minimising the likelihood of having any weak links. I do however believe it to be the most challenging to train and believe it has the most transfer to human movement patterns making it highly valuable.
So why is taking this layered approach to smarter core training so important?
Let’s say you ignored my coaching guidance (shame on you) and jumped ahead categories straight to Anti-Rotational work as you’ve heard it’s the Holy Grail. What typically happens here is that you start to see compensatory movements or just poor movement in general happening as fundamental stages have been missed.
When it comes to Anti-Rotation and even Rotation movements the most common issue tends to be rotation coming from the lumbar spine due to poor stability of the pelvis and ribcage.
Remember earlier when I said rotational work can be bad and lead to back pain due to causing rotation at the lumbar spine which it doesn’t have the capacity for? Well here’s exhibit A as to why it happens.
So how do you train Anti-Rotation?
I break this category down into 2 buckets:
- 2-3-point plank variations
- Pallof press variations.
Here are my Go-To’s:
– 3-Point Plank
– Plank w/ Arm Reach
– Pallof Variations:
– Half Kneeling Pallof Press
– Split Squat Hold Pallof Press
So yes, Anti-Rotation work is fantastic and it’s definitely beneficial to be addressing it when taking a smarter core training approach, but you do have to earn your right to progress to these variations. Focused time spent on Anti-Extension and Anti-Lateral Flexion movements is however key for success when working in this layer of core work into your program.
Core Flexion Work
Core Flexion work is the wasabi of Core Training. It should be used sparingly.
Personally, I only tend to program Flexion work in the form of one exercise a week for a 4 week phase every 12-16 weeks. However, the Core Flexion work will only be added once the important 3 “Anti” movements have been implemented and a client is performing them successful. These are after all the priority and the main focus of smarter core training. It’s not that flexion work is inherently bad, if it was, I wouldn’t program it at all. There are just so many more benefits to be had by addressing the big 3 “Anti” movements for 90-95% of your core training time.
The reason I will include it, when appropriate, and when a client is ready is for the reason I mentioned earlier. I believe in taking a 3D approach to core training ensuring no weak links are left and as flexion is possible at the core it is something, I see worth training from time to time but in no way is it a core training priority.
When it comes to programming in Core Flexion work, I really only have one Go-To: Reverse Crunches.
However, these reverse crunches are not the usual mess of swinging and thrusting legs you typically see at most gyms. These are beautifully controlled Reverse Crunches with no unnecessary Lumbar Extension caused due to the removal of momentum and now, thanks to the layered “Anti” Work, the ability to stabilise the pelvis and ribcage. These, when done right, are safe and a highly effective way to train core flexion.
So, there you have it. Core Training, and in particular the Anti-Movements, deliver so much more benefit than performing hundreds of crunches in the hope of a 6-Pack. By taking a smarter approach your core, lower back and your lifts will thank you for your efforts.
images and diagrams taken from Shutterstock