This article was written by one of regular contributors; personal trainer and fitness writer – Adam Willis.
For decades now, Core training has been one of the most popular training topics and areas of focus for those who work out. However, a lot of people’s core training still leaves a lot to be desired as they focus on predominantly core flexion work like sit-ups, crunches, reverse crunches and hanging knee/leg raises.
Now, let me pre-fix the above by saying it’s not that you should avoid all core flexion work, after all, your body can create that movement, it’s rather that your core training should not prioritise this movement as it has been shown to contribute to lower back pain and the majority of people will get far more out of doing other core exercises, like the 3 variations I’m going to share with you today.
When it comes to my programming of core training, core flexion work is actually at the very bottom of my core hierarchy.
I’m sure that’s somewhat surprising for you to read.
The most common and popular core exercises you see being done in a gym are actually the least important.
So, what is important when it comes to core training?
Well, my core training hierarchy is…
|1: Anti-Extension Exercises||Ex. Dead Bugs, Planks, Rollouts, Hollow Holds|
|2: Anti-Lateral Flexion Exercises||Ex. Side Planks, Suitcase Holds and Carries|
|3. Anti-Rotation Exercises||Ex. Bird-Dogs, Pallof Variations, 2 & 3-Point Planks|
|4. Rotation Exercises||Ex. Rotational Med-Ball Throw, Landmine Rotations|
|5. Flexion Exercises||Ex. Reverse Crunches, Hanging Knee/Leg Raises|
The majority of your core work should fall into the top 3 categories. This is because these 3 have benefits that go beyond just having a strong core or a “6-pack”.
The top 3 core categories above can and will:
- Improve overall health and longevity
- Decrease lower back pain
- Increase your performance in the gym and sports through more effective delivery of force/power.
…and that’s just to mention three of the benefits.
When I look at the above hierarchy there are several under-rated core exercises, mainly because so many people aren’t doing them when they really should be, but for me the 3 most under-rated are Dead Bugs [and Dead Bug variations], Side Planks [and Side Plank variations] and Bird-Dogs [and Bird-Dog variations].
For whatever reason, these 3 don’t get much love. Maybe it’s because people assume, they’re easy, but when done right, and at the right level, these can be absolute core-killers, and should make up a large percentage of a person’s yearly core training.
Dead Bugs are an anti-extension movement which focus on challenging your body to resist falling into lumbar extension. Put simply, they challenge your ability to prevent your body from falling into a position where your lower back arch is increased.
By training the Dead Bug, you will teach yourself 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.
Dead Bugs are perfect for building a solid core base. Using an anti-extension movement like this 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.
Let’s take a look at a few regressions and progression for the Dead Bug
People tend to focus on the wrong thing with performing Dead Bugs and will often claim they’re easy. If your sole focus is on just getting your hand and heel to the floor and back up, they are easy, however this shouldn’t be the focus for them.
The key with Dead Bugs is first off pushing your lower back into the ground to neutralise both the pelvis and the ribcage. Once this is done start to lower your limbs, but only lower them as far as your lower back pressure into the ground can be maintained. If you’re losing your lower back pressure into the floor you need to reduce how low you’re lowering your limbs or regress the exercise variation until you get stronger in that position.
Side Planks are an anti-lateral flexion movement which focuses on challenging your core to resist falling into lateral flexion, or simply put, they challenge you to resist falling to the left or right side.
Where anti-extension movements teach 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.
Exercises, in this category, like Side Planks, are going to challenge you to maintain a stacked position of ribcage on top of pelvis when the exercise wants to pull you out of it.
Let’s take a look at a few regressions and progression for the Side Plank
Much like Dead Bugs, people will claim Side Planks are easy also and this is because their intent when doing them is wrong. They focus on holding the position for minutes on end however, this does very little to enhance your core development and you can get so much out of them by focusing on creating as much full body tension as possible and locking in the floor beneath you.
Bird-Dogs are considered anti-rotation core training. This category of core training is seen by many as the Holy Grail of core work and is often referred to as the “most important” of the 3 “anti” movements [so you probably should be doing them].
Personally, I don’t see them as the “most important” as I believe taking a 3D approach to core training is the smartest way of training. By ensuring that all 3 “anti” categories are being addressed minimises the likelihood of having any weak links.
I do however believe anti-rotation movements, like Bird-Dogs, can be the most challenging to train and typically have the most transfer to human movement patterns, so are highly valuable.
I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but the Bird-Dog, like the Dead-Bug and Side Plank, is often seen as easy core work as well. People will often just lift one leg and opposing arm and hold them for a period of time and claim “that was easy”. But they missed the key focus point when executing these.
Before lifting your limbs, you must first ensure your rib cage and pelvis are in a neutral position [like your anti-extension work with Dead Bugs]. Once you have the position set, you then slowly reach your arm forward, your leg back and then raise them both up, the whole time ensuring you don’t lose your “neutral” position.
The raised limbs challenge your body’s ability to resist rotation due to one base of support being removed by the arm lifted, and another from the leg lifted.
So, give these 3 under-rated core exercises some love and ditch those crunches, reverse crunches and leg raises for the next few months
Add one of these exercise variations to your workout, 2-3x a week, for the next 2-3 months.
Your core strength, your gym performance and probably your lower back will thank you for making the switch to these wonderful and under-rated “anti” core movements.