There are a few things in life that should just be forgotten.
Bowl cuts on small children. Your kid doesn’t look good. Like at all.
Skinny jeans on guys. Seriously, how do you breathe in those things?
The go to comeback of “ we have 5 rings” for all Dallas Cowboys fans when you bring up the fact that their team has literally been the definition of mediocrity for the last 21 years (cough, 3 playoff victories in that time frame). I mean I get it, your team used to be extremely dominant, by far the best team in the league… riiiiiight around the same time I was learning how to add double digit numbers. Let’s live in the present, shall we?
But nothing takes the cake quite like some of the more common exercises many gym goers are doing to train their core.
These exercises that emphasize flexion and twisting were once glorified in all the bodybuilding and muscle magazines in the late 90’s and early 00’s but can still be seen in gyms today. Your weighted decline situps, lateral side bends, kneeling cable crunches, etc. are still around in 2017.
Well guess what? It’s time to overhaul your core training to bring it up to date with the current times. Research about human movement and the quality of training knowledge has certainly improved over the past 20 years, so stop training like it’s 1999.
So what exactly is your ‘core’? I’ve heard about 349 definitions over the years, some of them being pretty good descriptions, others being ridiculously short sighted. Here’s how to define your core next time someone asks.
If you were to draw a line around your body in a 360 degree fashion at the bottom of your sternum and another one around about the the midline of your thigh, everything in between those two lines makes up your core. Your hips, glutes, abs, obliques, spinal erectors, lats, and everything else in between are all included. As if that weren’t enough, there are ‘deep’ muscles underneath all of these more superficial muscles that also make up your core, some of which you may didn’t even know existed. To prove this, let’s play “Deep Core Muscle or Harry Potter Spell?”
Quadratus Lumborum, Dissendium, Multifidus, Expelliarmus, Transverse Abdominis, Sectumsempra.
Weeeeeellllll, how did you do?
Anyway, moving on. Anyone who went through an anatomy class can tell you that muscles are responsible for certain actions, most of which are are dependent on their origin and insertion points, or where they attach to your bones. Take your rectus abdominis, or your six pack muscle for example.
Keeping things simple, this muscle attaches to the front of your pelvis and ribs. Now if that muscle contracts or shortens, what happens to those two attachment points? They’ll get closer together creating spinal flexion. This is why you feel your abs burn when you do a crunch. So logically, the function of the rectus abdominis was deemed as creating flexion of your torso.
So since trainers knew this, they prescribed crunches, sit-ups, cable crunches, and whatever other exercise they could think of that involved flexing forward to get those abs to pop because Chad has an awesome pool party in 2 months and you’ve got to look hella good.
Fast forward 20 years, and now we know just a little but more about the body and the true function of all of these muscles. What we’ve learned is that even though the ‘function’ of a muscle might cause flexion, extension, or movement of a joint, it does not necessarily mean it should be trained that way.
Your core muscles actually function to keep your spine nice and stable, or to resist movement, not cause it. Let’s play another game. This one is called “Which one of these vertebrae looks like its built for stability and which one is built for mobility?” (Note: the left and right pictures are the same bone, just viewed from a different angle)
Now before you guess, think of this example. Say you want to build the foundation of a house. Do you want big, thick, boulder sized concrete blocks that can withstand hurricanes or smaller concrete blocks that you can move around pretty easily?
You’re gonna take the big concrete blocks every time. (Side note: I have no idea what you actually build the foundation of a house with. I apologize to any contractors and construction experts reading this that are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads in disbelief at my lack of knowledge in the subject.)
Your spine is no different. The bigger, thicker vertebrae (lumbar vertebrae, aka your low back) are built for stability. In terms of rotation, flexion, and extension, they do not offer much movement at all when compared to your thoracic (mid back) and cervical (your neck) spine. So think back to what we defined as your core earlier. Your core musculature just so happen to surround your hips and lower back. So given the anatomical structure of your lumbar vertebrae, the lack of movement these bones allow, and the muscles that surround them, tell me why would you train these muscles to try and create movement in the lumbar spine?
This is where low back pain can start to become an issue during life and training. Too many people are trying to introduce movement and mobility in their lumbar spine instead of learning to create movement at the hips and thoracic spine, where movement is supposed to happen.
Quick example. Watch my hips as I go through this rotational scoop toss.
Notice how you can see the right side of my butt as I finish my throw? That’s rotation at the hips, not the low back. Learning how to effectively stabilize the lumbar spine while moving at the hips, as well move at the thoracic spine, is huge in terms of staying healthy and performing at a high level. But I’m starting to get off topic.
The main point I’m trying to drive home is that core training is all about anti-everything. Anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-flexion, and anti-lateral flexion. You need to train your body to resist these movements, NOT create them. You’ll thank me in the long run, I promise this.
And to the muscle head bros out there who claim squatting and deadlifting is all the core work you need, stoooooop it. Claiming squatting and deadlifting is good enough is like buying tickets to a sporting event, getting to the stadium, and then deciding to listen to the game on the radio in the parking lot. I mean, you’re there, right? That’s good enough…right?
Here’s really how to go about training your core.
- Cable Crunch
Look at all that spinal flexion. Soooooo 2001.
- Barbell Rollout
This is an anti-extension exercise, meaning you’re trying not to let your back arch during the movement. Grab an ab wheel, ab dolley, or barbell with light plates loaded on either side. Starting in a forward leaning position, make sure your body is in a straight line from knee to shoulder with your arms locked out. Before initiating the rollout, squeeze your glutes and squeeze your abs. Maintain this tension throughout the whole exercise. I can’t stress that enough. If you lose tension in your glutes and abs, your butt will shoot back placing all of the stress on your hip flexors and tendons. Not what you want. You’ll end up looking like this.
And that is not a good look. Unless you’re trying to pop that booty to catch the attention of the cutie across the gym. Suuuup shawty.
- Dumbbell Side Bend
Spinal lateral flexion. Perfect for introducing the possibility of suffering from low back pain at some point in the future.
- Shovel Hold
This is an anti-lateral flexion exercise, meaning you’re fighting the urge to flex laterally, or bend sideways. You’ll feel your obliques fire up big time on this one, assuming you do it correctly. Load up a barbell only on one side, preferably from pins or the rack as this will make it easier to start the exercise. With one side loaded up, approach the bar and create tension in your upper body and abs like you’re about to perform a rack pull or partial deadlift. Without letting the barbell dip to one side, pick up the barbell and stand tall. Squeeze your glutes and squeeze your abs tight as you maintain good posture. Keep the barbell as level as you can. Count to 15-25 seconds and then repeat on the opposite side. Important note, grab the bar from the center, exactly how you would on a deadlift (my hands aren’t quite there in this picture, sue me). You’re going to want to cheat and grab the bar closer to the weighted side as this will make it easier. Don’t do that.
- Russian Twist
Have a client complaining their low back is tight? Do this one to loosen them up. Just kidding, that was my sarcastic voice. Didn’t you read the first half of this article?
- High Plank Shoulder Taps
This is an anti-rotation and anti-extension exercise, so you’re resisting having your body rotate, twist, or turn as you complete it. Get into the top of a pushup position, squeeze your glutes and your abs, and without letting your hips twist, take one hand and tap your opposite side shoulder. The closer you place your feet together, the harder this one becomes. Want a real challenge? Place something on your low back as you perform this. If your hips turn, the object will fall. It’s a good way to give yourself some feedback on how you’re performing the exercise. The more valuable and fragile the object, the better the chance you’ll do it right. So maybe use your phone without its case, or borrow a newborn baby.
- Decline (twisting) Situp
Rocky did this…so…it must be good. AAADRIIIIAAAAAAAN.
- Farmers Walk variations
Quite possibly the easiest exercise to learn, not the easiest to do. In the simplest terms possible, pick up something heavy and walk with it. Thats it. Depending on how you perform this exercise, it can be anti-almost everything.
Here is a racked position kettlebell farmers walk. This is an awesome anti-flexion and anti-extension exercise wrapped into one delicious movement. Because the weights are front loaded, you will have to resist flexion big time. You’ll also have to fight falling into excessive extension of your low back because shooting your hips forward and leaning back is a subtle way to compensate to make this easier. So again, when you do this one, squeeze your abs hard (see the theme in all these exercises?) and think ‘tall and tight’ as you walk.
Or get fancy and only use one kettlebell. Now you’re incorporating an anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion component into the exercise as well. Same cues as the last variation, but you’ll feel one side of your body working juuuust a little harder than the other. Make sure to keep a tight fist in your non working hand as well. This will help create tension throughout the upper body, making the lift more efficient and effective.
In terms of difficulty to learn vs benefits of the exercise, you absolutely can not beat farmers walks. You are flat out robbing yourself if you don’t do these on a regular basis.
– Physioball Crunches
– Tall Kneeling Overhead Band/Cable Press
Another anti-extension exercise, this one can be done on a cable column or with a band hooked to something stable. If done with a band, you’ll have to play around with how far you position yourself away from the attachment point, as the farther away you are, the harder it becomes. Start in a tall kneeling position with your hands by the sides of your head, just like the bottom position of a shoulder press. Before you start anything, squeeze your glutes and your abs and keep them squeezed the whole time. Press your hands straight up above your head without letting your arms or torso be pulled backwards. A slight lean forward is alright, especially as you start to move to heavier weights. Keep your body in a straight line from knee to the top of your head throughout the whole exercise.
Side note: in my experience, this exercise may be more taxing on the triceps and shoulders than the core for some individuals. It doesn’t make it any less effective for training the core, but just something to be aware of.
So will your spine explode if you perform a set of cable crunches? Of course not. Just be aware that in the long run, they may not be the most optimal thing for you. And these are just a handful of exercises that you can include in your programming. We didn’t even cover deadbugs, pallof presses, etc. But just remember, training the core is all about resisting movement, not creating it. So if you haven’t been doing this up to this point, maybe it’s time to change your mindset.
Shout out to my unofficial publicist Jess, aka JLD, aka J Deezy, @jld111592, for taking time out of her day to take videos of me. Thanks 🙂