Understanding Core Training: Maximizing Results With Minimal Risk

Mike Wines
Written By: Mike Wines
March 16th, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
53.4K Reads
Understanding Core Training: Maximizing Results With Minimal Risk
Save your spine some wear and tear and strengthen your abs and lower back by working with these four primary functions of your core musculature.

If you've spent any appreciable amount of time in a commercial gym, I'm sure you've seen plenty of guys hitting countless sit-ups and rope crunches.

However, what if I told you that everything you knew about core training was wrong? What if I told you that you could actually be creating injuries for yourself with those specific exercises rather than bulletproofing your spine?

It sounds contrary to popular belief but Dr. Stu McGill has put out quite a bit of research correlating repeated bouts of spinal flexion and extension with disc bulges and herniations (see HERE and HERE.)

If you got lost in the biomechanics terminology, just consider this analogy for a second - think of your vertebrae and intervertebral discs as jelly filled donuts.

The cake portions of the donut resemble the bony portions of your vertebrae and the jelly is akin to your intervertebral discs.

So what happens if you push directly into the center of the donut?

Well if you apply enough pressure, the jelly will eventually squirt out one of the sides. It's seems a little strange but that's essentially a very simplistic explanation of a disc herniation.

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Understanding the Core

When I say "core training", what's the first thing that pops into your head? Russian twists? Crunches? P90X ab ripper x? Most people probably envision something along these lines:

Everybody wants that coveted 6 pack but they forget that their core isn't just confined to the musculature in the front of the body. Instead, you actually have to take into account your transverse abdominis (TA), internal and external obliques, and rectus abdominis (the "6 pack muscle").

Related: Concrete Core - 4 Core Workouts for Stronger Abs

Your core musculature is primarily designed to resist motion, not create it. Whether you're squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, carrying, lunging, or sprinting, you must maintain spinal integrity. Isometric contractile strength is much more important than flexion or extension based movements.

As such, there are 4 main movements that should be included within your training repertoire:

  1. Anti-Flexion
  2. Anti-Extension
  3. Anti-Lateral Flexion
  4. Anti-Rotation

Dymatize athlete doing planks from pushup position

My Back Hurts...

I won't lie, I cringe every time I watch athletes crushing GHD sit ups in the CrossFit games. Yes, your spine was made to flex but not under load. Going back to my donut analogy, your spinal discs have a "jelly-like" core known as the nucleus pulposus filled with a viscous fluid. If you load the spine and then conduct repeated cycles of flexion and extension, you're just asking for a disc issue.

Most of the time when folks come to me with back issues, it's not due to weakness in their spinal erectors. Instead, it's mainly due to poor pelvic positioning and core stability. Many strength athletes are extremely extension dominant, meaning that their pelvic girdle is anteriorly tipped and their lumbar spine is arched excessively hard.

Good and bad posture

It may not seem like a big deal to some, but this is actually a huge problem as it results in dysfunctional breathing patterns, poor glute activation, tight hip flexors, chronically lengthened hamstrings which feel "tight", and increased potential of a spondylolysis. Remember how we discussed the TA and obliques as part of the core musculature?

Well, these muscles are especially important regarding back pain and abdominal function due to the their insertion and origins.

Core anatomy - obliques

As you can see, each attaches to the iliac crest of your hip and the rib cage. This musculature plays a crucial role in assisting in posterior pelvic tilt and spinal neutrality.

Often times, those with low back pain will lack strength and activation is all or some of these muscles and thus their spine will receive the brunt of the dysfunction. Remember, low back pain is often only a symptom of the problem, not the origin of the issue.

Minimal Risk for Maximum Results

Alright, so now you know what not to do, but what should you replace it with? Squatting and deadlifting will cover all of your anti-flexion needs but yet they fail to address the other 3 important pieces of the puzzle.

Well, here are 4 exercises I use with a wide variety of athletes and clientele to train the core in a holistic fashion.

1. Half Kneeling Pallof Press

This is a personal favorite of mine as it's rather simplistic but does an excellent job of training the internal and external obliques. Make sure that you incorporate the half kneeling piece, as that is crucial for preventing anterior pelvic tilt. When you disassociate the legs by placing one in flexion and one in extension, it becomes rather tough to arch into excessive lordosis.

Coaching cues:

  • Squeeze the glute on the trailing leg and keep your front shin vertical.
  • Ensure that the knee in flexion doesn't flare to the side or dive in.
  • Ribcage down.
  • Press straight out, resist the rotation, pause, and return to the start.

Sets & Reps: 4 sets with 5-8 per side. Switch legs when you rotate.

2. KB Crossover Walk

If you're pressed for time, this one should be your go to. We know that spinal positioning can alter the endurance characteristics of the core musculature as evidenced by Dr. McGill's work. As such, this exercise really forces the trainee to resist lateral flexion along with extension while the bottoms up KB enhances shoulder stability.

Coaching cues:

  • Think: "Tall spine, ribcage down."
  • Don't load the arm by your side too aggressively as we don't want to pull the shoulder into excessive scapular depression.
  • Don't hold your breath, take slow methodical steps, and refrain from leaning to one side.
  • Keep your elbow pointed straight ahead and in line with your shoulder.

Sets & Reps: Make 2-3 trips, switch arms when your change directions, and focus on increasing time each week.

3. RKC Plank

I'm sure you've heard many people talk about being able to hold a plank for 3, 5, or maybe even 7 minutes, right? Well, if that's the case, you're either hanging out on your lumbar spine or you're putting in the least amount of effort possible. A plank should be focused on one simple concept: full body tension.

As you can see in the video, once I get into position, I squeeze every muscle possible and the shaking ensues.

Coaching cues:

  • Squeeze your legs together while simultaneously firing your glutes and quads.
  • Make a fist and squeeze as hard as possible - this will increase a phenomenon known as irradiation.
  • Think: "Pull your elbows to your toes".

Sets & Reps: 3-4 sets of 15-25 seconds.

Ideally, a set won't last longer than 25, maybe 35 seconds tops. Remember, this is about tension, not time.

4. Side Plank w/Row

I'm all about efficiency and simplicity. If you've got an hour in the gym, then you need to maximize every minute you've got once you step through the door. Most folks need more upper back work along with core stabilization, so why not combine the two?

This one combines 3 movements in 1: resistance to extension from the lats, resistance to rotation from the band, and resistance to lateral flexion from gravity.

Coaching cues:

  • Shoulders back and hips forward.
  • Squeeze your glutes and keep your ribcage down.
  • Row until your elbow is just past your body.
  • Keep the neck pack and don't allow it to jut forward as you pull.

Related: 4 Week Beginner Core Strength Trainer

Sets & Reps: 3-4 sets of 8-10 per side. 

Can also implement timed isometrics instead of repetitions in which the trainee maintains the row and braces for an allotted period.

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Putting it All Together

Seems like way too much information to take in and process?

Well, just keep it simple: pick one movement for each day you train. If you're doing a metabolic circuit or intervals, pick two movements and sprinkle them in.

I think you'll be presently surprised at how tough some of them are, not to mention the functional benefits that you'll receive.

Posted on: Tue, 03/02/2021 - 15:40

Please help! I don’t fully understand what we are calling anti-flexion here. I understand rkc plank as anti spinal extension; kb walk and side plank as anti-lateral flexion; pallof press anti-rotation; but nothing for anti flexion. What are example of anti flexion exercises? Would the KB crossover walk be anti flexion as there is a weight infront which could potentially be moving the spine into flexion? In which case erectors are performing the anti flexion?

I think I answered my own question, standing tall? Any input would be appreciated. This is very fascinating stuff

Posted on: Sun, 02/07/2021 - 06:54

Having done Pilates before coming to weight training, I was used to breathing out and bracing on the effort part. My coach taught me that this was not good for weight training and taught me to brace whilst holding my breath. So for a squat, inhale before going down, holding the breath all the way until I am nearly back up.
After 8 reps, I tend to get quite light headed and usually need to stop to catch my breath.
What would be your recommended breathing pattern, exhale as I go down ?

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Posted on: Tue, 02/09/2021 - 10:39

Hey Nat - check out this article on breathing and bracing: https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/breathing-and-bracing-the-com...

Posted on: Wed, 02/10/2021 - 05:50

Thanks !
You guys have the best articles with some sound science.

Joey S.
Posted on: Fri, 10/10/2014 - 00:09

Great article Mike!

Are you saying you would avoid exercises such as sit ups that require flexion of the spine? You said that you cringe when you watch the Cross Fit Games doing GHD sit ups (which I think are crazy as well) ....but regular sit ups are in a healthy range of motion right?

Right now I am doing sit ups probably twice a week and also following your advice and doing planks etc., that don't put stress of the spine. Am I okay to keep to doing my sit ups?

Posted on: Mon, 10/13/2014 - 22:50

In my opinion, sit ups aren't really that beneficial for most folks. Like I said in the article, the primary function of your core isn't to generate flexion of the spine, it's to RESIST motion. Not to mention, most folks don't know how to activate their rectus abdominis during a sit up and compensate using their hip flexors. If they're already exhibit an anterior pelvic tilt with CHRONICALLY shortened hip flexors, then we definitely don't want to feed into that compensation.

Long story short, I don't program sit ups with any of my clients and athletes and I think you could find much more efficient ways to train your core musculature regardless of whether you have athletic or physique related goals.

Posted on: Tue, 10/07/2014 - 01:32

I use to be a rugby player all my life and quit playing for my club in 2004 as i had to continue my working career. I'm 32 years in age, 75kg's and 5.6'' in height. i still work out 5-6 days a week with weight training and little bit off running. i did your 5 day high definition routine for about 6 weeks shifted to the 4 days split nearly about for 3 months. now i started doing some drop sets on a 4 day split - just wnt to know is that alright to do so. will the drop set help to build muscle and retain it ? also i did study my all lifting training in 2007 & 2008, studied all the techniques of clean & jerk, snatches. Also use to a power training workout once a week. is it alright if i go for a 4 day split and do a power work out on the 5th day? please advise.

Posted on: Sun, 10/05/2014 - 15:33

First, thank you for the article. I am a woman, and I'm exactly like the second picture (the anatomic one - 'bad posture'). I would like to know if introducing these moves on a regular basis will help me correct my bad posture, or if they only work as prevention. Thank you.

Posted on: Mon, 10/13/2014 - 22:42

It would certainly help. Anterior pelvic tilt coupled with a forward head posture isn't going to be corrected by JUST doing these exercises. But, if incorporated into a complete, individualized training program, you would have a much better chance of eliminating the issue.

Posted on: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 12:01

Hi Mike
Would these exercise correct bad posture or help relieve certain body pain. the reason I ask I went to see someone who does structural integration (Rolf method) and basically they are saying its the only way to correct your posture. I don't want to spend money if i don't need to. I used to do heavy lifting now I go light more reps, I just started yoga 1 once a week enjoying that very much. I have very mild groin pain that I pulled months ago. Basicly i dont feel comfortable in my body, feel like a tight rubber band. I notice my posture resembles your bad posture diagram.

Thank you

Posted on: Sat, 09/27/2014 - 22:53

Hey Mike. Your article is very informative and useful. As someone with lower back pain I will try some of these out. The main reason I am messaging you is because of why I have lower back pain and how to strengthen it. My back pain is a result of scoliosis on my lower lumbar region. One side of my back seems to have developed much fuller and stronger as a result of it. I experience back pain whenever I sit for long periods of time, or stand in one area for long periods of time. The pain can be vary from being like an itch, I can deal with it, to completely unbearable and I just have to lay down. I lift weights almost every day. A few months ago I decided myself that to help resolve the pain would be to strengthen the muscles along my spine through back workouts and moderately weighted deadlifts (10 or more reps easily). I just need help resolving the pain and would really appreciate any advice you have. Thank you!

Posted on: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 15:56

Scoliosis is something that is slightly out of my scope of practice at the moment and should be looked at by a physical therapist. I would definitely recommend that you try out all of the core work that's listed in the article, as it's designed to help correct asymmetrical imbalances. But at the end of the day, it's going to be tough to rehab that on your own. I would recommend that you get a comprehensive plan in place with a sports PT who can help get you on the right track.