If there is one thing I have become known for over the years it is having an extremely strong core.
One of my favorite things to teach people is how to rethink the way they approach core training and start actually developing strength in their midsection rather than just trying to "tone" the abdominals.
I have come up with numerous variations of standard core movements or static positions that focus on utilizing all of the muscles of the core to stabilize your body.
Some of my best “core tricks” may look impossible to the average lifter, but if you start training your abs for strength rather than just looks, then you will find many of these exercises are attainable.
Traditional core or ab training focuses on one primary form of movements - flexion of the trunk involving the rectus abdominis (your abs or 6 pack).
These are your standard crunch variations, and there are a million of them of varying degree of difficulty and effectiveness.
Now that’s not to say that there is anything wrong with crunches, but unless you are doing them weighted you are probably doing little to build strength.
I’m sure you can bust out set after set of 25+ crunches…but would you do sets of 25 reps on the bench press to gain strength? Of course not, you would do heavy weight in a rep range of 3-5.
Along those same lines, if you want to have a strong, functional core then you need to utilize compound power movements rather than just “toning” exercises.
Having toned abdominals is great but if flexion movements are your main style of core training then your core strength is probably lacking in the most important area - stability.
The Core's Most Important Function
The most important function of the core muscles - abs, spinal erectors, obliques, etc. - is to provide stability between the upper and lower body. This is especially true from a weightlifting perspective. Think back to a time you failed on a deadlift…where was the weak link?
Chances are it wasn’t your legs that gave up on you, you were probably unable to hold position and your lower back and abs could no longer brace your upper body as you pulled.
Flexion and rotation are also important, but if your core cannot provide stability in a fixed position then you will be more prone to injury and limited with the amount of weight you can lift on any big compound movement.
I have always reasoned that if a muscle responsible for rotation such as the obliques is strong in a static hold such as a weighted side plank, then it will be able to contract forcefully when you are performing a rotational pattern as well.
So now that you understand my reasoning behind and preference for stability strength movements for core, I want to show you a few of my more extreme exercises.
Similar to the movements I demonstrated in Extreme Core Strength 1 and Extreme Core Strength 2, these exercises are not for beginners and require not just a strong midsection but also a good understanding of how to utilize those muscles properly.
For each exercise I will describe the form, the muscles that you must activate to achieve the technique, and a few accessory lifts that can help build the required strength. In addition, I will also teach you a “starter” version of each one to help bridge the gap between your current crunch routine and these Extreme Core Strength Movements.
Elevated Chinese Push Ups
A traditional Chinese Push Up (or Core Push Up as they are sometimes referred to) is achieved by starting in a push up position and your hands together in a diamond out in front of your head rather than under your chest. You begin by performing a pelvic tilt to engage the abs (crunch forward slightly) and then push up off of your elbows.
Slowly lower back to the floor, keeping your abs tight the entire time. The further your hands are out in front of you, the more difficult this exercise becomes. As if this wasn’t a difficult exercise already, I have created an extreme variation by removing the one thing that gives you some help…the floor.
To do an elevated chinese push up, grab to plyo boxes of equal height and place your feet on one and your hands on the other in a diamond position. Perform the exercise as described above. Without the floor to make contact with or to bounce off of at the bottom of the push up this becomes much more difficult.
Supporting cast: Like many compound core exercises this movement requires tremendous lower back strength and also good shoulder stability. Practice doing static holds at the top position of a reverse hyper for low back and mix in a Serrano press to your weekly shoulder routine.
Because tricep strength is also a factor in this one, start adding bodyweight skull crushers to your routine twice a week. To up the ante on the bodyweight skulls and add an element of core stability, try them on a set of rings rather than a stationary object.
Baby Steps: Start by mastering the traditional version on the floor first. Once you have got that down and can easily perform a set of 10 repetitions, start performing the elevated version but with your hands in front of your face.
As your strength increases, gradually move your hands further and further out in front of you. Once you can properly do 3 reps elevated and fully extended you will be in a whole new league of strength.
Bent Leg Dragon Flags
This is actually an easier version of the traditional dragon flag, but don’t let that fact trick you into thinking that this will be a walk in the park. Start by laying on a bench and grabbing ahold overhead. Bring your legs and hips high into the air so only your upper shoulders, neck and head are making contact with the bench.
Curl your knees to your chest, and then keep an arch in your low back as you let your feet “fall over” until they make contact briefly with the bench. Keep your hips stationary as you curl your knees back to your chest. Shoot for sets of 5-10 perfect reps per set.
Supporting cast: Again, lower back strength is a factor, so make sure to utilize plenty of reverse hyperextensions and also GHR in your routine. Lats and serratus are also key players in this game, so use straight arm pull downs and dumbbell pullovers to prep them for this task.
The lower abs will definitely feel a good stretch and be called on to change your direction as soon as your feet hit the bench, so make sure you are including the classic ab wheel on a regular basis.
Baby Steps: Since this is technically the “baby steps” version of the dragon flag, it’s hard to downgrade it again into an easier movement.
Your best bet is to perform the first half of the exercise and as you lower to the bench continue lowering until your hips are in contact. Once you have developed enough strength on the eccentric portion of the exercise it will be time to attempt the full movement.
Windshield wiper/Leg raise combo
This movement is really a combo of two great exercises - the windshield wiper and the 90 degree leg raise. Start by raising your legs all the way to the bar and hold at the top position. Make sure your hips come up so your back is almost parallel to the floor.
Rotate side to side so your feet go from roughly 2 o’ clock to 10 o’ clock. Perform 2 reps to each side then stop in the middle and lower your feet down to parallel with the floor. Hold for 1 second to avoid swinging then raise and repeat. The goal is to be able to go through this pattern 3 times.
Supporting Cast: Lat strength is important for this one so make sure to work on pull-ups - both weighted for strength and also simply body weight for endurance. The psoas will be taxed to hold your legs up, so practice doing timed L-Sit holds hanging from a bar.
Baby Steps: Start by breaking the exercise down into its two foundation movements. The 90 degree leg raise can also be performed as a knee raise until you develop the proper strength.
Sit Ups Static Partner Holds
For the same reason I never use traditional toes to bar leg raises, I very rarely use regular sit ups as the psoas, not the abs, is the prime mover. Overworking the psoas, the main hip flexor that attaches to the top of the femur and runs through the pelvis and anchors to the spine, is probably the leading cause of back pain and strength imbalances in athletes.
However this sit up variation is a static contraction that builds stability in the rectus abdominis and can be done for a short period of time or much longer depending on ability. Start in a sit up position and lift your feet up slightly until your upper leg is perpendicular to the ground.
Place your finger tips on your forehead and crunch up until your elbows make contact with your thighs. Have a partner grab your ankles and slowly pull you up and back down either for a set number of reps or a period of time. As your partner moves you do not lose contact with your legs or your forehead.
Supporting Cast: This one is all abs, so some type of flexion is the main thing that will help with this position. I recommend using a think band, attaching it to an overhead rack and do kneeling band crunches.
Baby Steps: Lay on a bench with your feet facing the rack in a sit up position. Keeping your finger tips on your forehead, place your feet under a loaded bar and sit up slightly until your elbows make contact with your thighs. Squeeze your abs and do as many sets as possible of 10 second holds with 10 seconds rest in between.