04 Nov How To Build Core Strength
What is the core and how do we train it? When you think of the core, you often think of a “6-pack” or “washboard stomach”. However, our core is much more than just the superficial abdominal muscles that are visible to the eye. The core goes much beyond that, with layers of muscles not only on the front of our body, but also on our backs, hips, and even our pelvic floor! In this article, we are going to teach you all about the core and how to build core strength!
Understanding The Core: Energy Transfer System!
As the core is quite complex, there is an absence of a universally accepted definition of core stability. The “Core” is often referred to as the lumbopelvic-hip complex which consists of muscular boundaries that are shown through this image above. Think of the core as the kinetic link transferring forces between the upper and lower extremities, this transfer of force is a component of many daily movements and athletic activities. Moreover, the core is the energy transfer device of the body! Movements we perform and the energy we need to transmit those movements comes from our core.
Core Stability: This is the ability to achieve and sustain control of the trunk region both at rest and with precise movements.
What Is The Core?
Components of the Core
Our core consists of:
- Superficial Abdominal Muscles: These muscles help us actually move our spine, and include:
- Rectus Abdominus
- Obliques (Internal and External)
- Deep Abdominal Muscles: Transversus abdominus is our deep, anterior core stabilizer. The fibers run in a horizontal fashion from the front of our body around the back and attaches to the fascia around our spine. A common analogy to visualize this muscle is that it is like a corset.
- Multifidus: This is a tiny muscle on the backside of our spine that helps provide stability to our spine. We also have other muscles on our spine, including our erector spinae that help with core stability.
- Pelvic Floor: Muscles deep in our pelvis that help stabilize our pelvis and core. Read all about the pelvic floor HERE!
- Diaphragm: The diaphragm is our primary muscle utilized for breathing, and proper control of our diaphragm is vital for core stability
The Spinal Stabilizing System’s 3 Components
The spinal stabilizing system consists of 3 components:
- Neuromuscular control (Neural elements)
- Passive Subsystem (osseous/ligamentous elements)\
- Active subsystem (muscular elements)
Core Strength isn’t the only factor when it comes to spinal stability. It is imperative to have proper sensory input to alert the central nervous system about interaction between the body and environment and to allow for refinement of movement. These exercises will help with the first and third of these components of spinal stability.
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Passive Core Stiffness
Think of core stiffness as a spring. The stiffer the spring, the harder it will be to displace as we go through energy transferring movements! We need core stiffness so we build resilience when moving in different planes, especially with higher demanding movements such as cutting, twisting, or jumping!
Why We Need Stiffness Of The Core
Build Core Strength Through All 3 Planes of Motion
Core strengthening is NOT solely doing crunches. We need to do much more than this! Furthermore, we need to train the core in 3 planes of movement:
- Sagittal Plane: This consists of forward and backward movements, like a sit-up
- Frontal Plane: This consists of side to side movements, like oblique crunches
- Transverse Plane: This consists of twisting movements, like bicycle crunches
How You Should Train Your Core!
Exercises For The Core
Now that you have an understanding of what the core is and how you should train it, we will show you some of our favorite core exercise variations which consist of:
- Dead Bug Exercise Variations
- Paloff Press Exercise Variations
- Plank Exercise Variations
- Parter Core Exercise Variations
Want To Bulletproof Your Core? Watch This Video!
Dead Bug Exercise Variations
Finding just the right challenge and determining your target tissue should always be considered. When targeting the core, you could argue this should always be engaged in every exercise. However, when people are trying to bounce back from an injury or surgery, the body needs to re-learn how to move. We start with the dead bug. This is a great way to challenge the core, with an abundance of variations!
Dead Bug – Unilateral Isometric Hold
- HOW: Start by lying on the floor with your knees bent up and feet flat. Flatten your back by contracting your core and performing a pelvic tilt. From here, lift your legs up with your knees bent and arms straight up pointing both to the sky. Then, place one hand on top of the opposite knee. Push into the hand as the hand pushes into the leg. At the same time, straighten the other leg down and the opposite arm up overhead and return them to the starting position before they touch the ground.
- FEEL: You should feel your core and oblique muscles working. You will also feel your hip muscles working bring your legs up and down.
- COMPENSATION: Keep your back flat while performing the dead bug. Don’t move the arm and leg that are pushing against each other while performing the dead bug.
Dead Bug – Legs Horizontal
Keeping the feet elevated off the ground with the legs in a horizontal position is going to require more core stiffness and activation.
Dead Bug – Anti-Extension, Band
Adding a resistance band to counteract a movement with your core is a great progression. Start sagittal then work on anti-rotation as well!
Dead Bug – Head Lift
The head lift is a great progression to create more stiffness and activation through the core. In addition, it will require deep neck flexor endurance as well!
READ: PREHAB YOUR NECK PAIN
Build Core Strength With Plank Variations
Next up in our core exercise variations is the plank. This is a great exercise to build core strength when done correctly! Some key movement tips to keep in mind with this exercise:
- No lazy shoulder blades: If you keep your shoulder blades relaxed, it will place more stress through your shoulder joint. Therefore, you need to think about actively pushing away from the ground to engage your serratus anterior, which helps protract your shoulder blades, and will keep your shoulder joint in a more optimal position, under less unwarranted load.
- Engage Your Quads and Glutes: Think about actively utilizing your legs to keep you in this plank position. Your glutes should be engaged to keep your hips elevated in addition to your quads to maintain upright in this position.
- Sink Belly Button In: As with any deep core stability activation, you do not want to protrude or push out to with your abdomen, but you actually want to do the opposite! Common cues we give is:
- Someone is about to punch you in the stomach and you brace your stomach
- You are trying to fit into a tight pair of pants and you sink your stomach inwards
Plank – On Knees
- HOW: This is a good place to start with your plank if you are unable to maintain good form with your knees elevated. Assume the modified plank position on your elbows and knees. Simply hold this position for the desired amount of time. There should be a straight line from your knees to your head.
- FEEL: You should feel all the muscles in your stomach working to hold this position. You may also feel your butt, shoulder, chest muscles working.
- COMPENSATION: Do not arch your back or let your butt sag to the ground
Progress to the standard plank once you have mastered the modified plank on your knees!
Tall Plank Circles – Bosu
Take your planks a step further by stabilizing on an uneven surface, like a BOSU!
Plank – Swissball
This is an even more challenging variation than the bosu, by stabilizing with your forearms on a physioball! Ensure you keep your hips elevated and glutes engaged with this exercise to avoid excessive arching of the low back.
Side Plank Roll to Plank
The goal of the roll is the maintain a completely stable and neutral spine throughout this movement. The rolling motion should occur strictly from the hips and shoulders, and there should be absolutely no spinal twisting. Mind you, this is extremely hard to do!
In a study by McGill and Karpowics in 2009, they looked at this exercise performed under the guidance of a normal clinician, and then an expert clinician. They wanted to see if muscle activation patterns could be improved by fine-tuning exercise technique as a result of verbal and manual cueing. With this particular exercise, they found that clinician correction significantly increased activity in both obliques and the latissimus dorsi (18% to 35% MVIC in lats). Even more importantly, torso twisting was reduced from 11 degrees to 4 degrees with corrected instruction. The main verbal cue they used was to emphasize “locking the ribcage to the pelvis” to eliminate spinal twist. The decrease in spinal twist is HUGE, because often times its those little micro-movements that’s the difference between doing an exercise pain free vs having pain. This goes to show that a movement expert can facilitate not only greater muscle activity, but potentially eliminate pain during exercises. Like all of our posts, if you’re going to exercise, do it right!
Level Up Your Plank With These Progressions
Here are a couple ways to regress and progress the traditional planks:
Level 1: Modified Plank – on your knees
Level 2: Plank – keeping your ankle, knee, hips, and shoulders all in alignment
Level 3A: Plank + Arm Raise – try to keep your pelvis level here, AVOID any pelvic rotation
Level 3B: Plank + Leg Raise
Level 4: Bird-Dog Plank
Alternative: Plank + Military Press = An ultimate Core/Shoulder combination exercise.
Rotational Core Strength: Paloff Press Exercise Variations
We now will move into the paloff press. This is an excellent anti-rotation exercise that challenges the core.
- HOW: Get a band or cable anchored somewhere between waist and shoulder height. While standing perpendicular to the anchor and holding the handle with both hands, press your arms forward away from your chest until your elbows are fully straight. Hold that position for a moment while keeping your hips and shoulders square facing forward, then bring your arms in and repeat.
- FEEL: You should feel your core and back muscles working as well as your arm muscles to maintain optimal position and form.
- COMPENSATION: You should step away from the anchor until there is enough resistance that is challenging, but not too hard where you can’t maintain optimal form. Do not let the band rotate your upper body, keep your arms straight and hips facing forward. Try to avoid twisting your back.
Half Kneeling Pallof – Press, Band Below
With the half kneel pallof press, your body is in a different position, which challenges the core stability differently from standing. The closer your front leg is in relation to the leg you are kneeling on, the more narrow your base of support will be, ultimately making the exercise more challenging.
Tall Kneeling Pallof – Overhead, Anterior
This is a great exercise for anyone working on functional overhead movements, especially emphasizing core stability with overhead exercises. Gain access to our overhead stability program for athletes HERE!
Half Kneeling Pallof – Press, Band Above
Lateral Lunge Pallof Press
Add in lunge variations with the pallof press!
Try This Anti-Rotation Core Progression!
Anti-rotational exercise should be a staple of every core program, and it is well documented in the research to support its ability in increasing core stiffness. The exercises shown here are 4 great ways in which you can improve your rotational core strength:
1️⃣ Anti-Rotational Plate Push-Away
2️⃣ Standing Pallof Press
3️⃣ Dead Bug Pallof Press
4️⃣ TRX Anti-Rotation
“Proximal Stability Promotes Distal Mobility.”
Make sure to move in a slow and controlled fashion with all of these exercises. You have an option to hold at the end position for a certain amount of time. Parameters we recommend is beginning with a 30 second hold or 15 repetitions for 3 sets.
Maintain an absolutely stable and still pelvis/spine, as only your arms should be moving in this exercise. The further you bring your arms out in front of you will lead to a longer moment arm and greater demand.
Try These Other Core Variations!
Initiate the rotational force from your core, and let your arms just go along for the ride.
It is shown that the Multifidus volume (at the L5-S1 area) is actually decreased bilaterally about 18% when comparing individuals with chronic low back pain to those without back pain (Beneck & Kulig, APM&R, 2012) .
Note: The further you bring your arm away from you, the increase in EMG activity will be placed on the core (Calatayud et al, 2015)
The Reverse salamander is a great way to improve muscle function of the core in a rotational manner. As shown here when I drop my hips to the left; my torso is in left rotation in relationship to my lower extremity. To get my hips back up to my starting position, I must use my trunk right rotators which includes primarily the right internal Oblique, left External oblique, and left Multifidus. This exercise will work on the anterior, posterior, lateral, and spiral movement slings.
I initially show this exercise demonstrated with the support of the foot. This is a regressed version of the exercise and will decrease the demand placed on the core. I progress this exercise by elevating my entire leg to allow myself to ONLY make contact to the floor with my hips. (This is harder than it looks!) This requires adequate mobility in the transverse plane; if mobility/tightness is limiting you form lowering your leg all the way down, just work within your given range of motion.
Partner Core Workout Series
Want to make your core workouts fun?! Grab a partner and give these exercises a go!
Partner Plank Variations
Planks are a traditional starting point when it comes to core workouts. However, with the amount of plank variations seen in the fitness industry, one may find it difficult to choose the best plank variation for them. It comes down to purpose, what do you want to target with the plank variation? Front planks are a sagittal dominant movement, while side planks are more frontal and transverse plane dominant movements with one of the highest gluteus medius muscle activations of any bodyweight exercise.
Static planks performed alone and in only one plane of movement can get boring! The prehab method will always strive to train all three planes of movement, thus we share with you our partner plank variation.
Benefits of performing this movement with a partner:
- Every Muscle Action & Every Plane Of Movement: With this plank variation, we are hitting isometric, concentric, and eccentric muscle actions of all the core musculature. Adding the resistance band component allows one partner to perform concentric muscle actions, while the other partner simultaneously performs eccentric and isometric muscle actions as demonstrated in the video.
This is an advanced partner core workout exercise! If this is too challenging, try this step-by-step progression with your partner to build up to this variation.
Without any band…
- Front planks with alternating shoulder taps
- Isometric unilateral front plank holds
- Front plank to side plank movement (demonstrated in video)
Modified Partner Pallof Press
The Pallof Press is an excellent anti-rotation exercise that should be a staple of every core program designed. The traditional pallof press has been well documented in research to support it’s ability along with other isometric trunk exercises to enhance core stiffness (1).
This modified partner pallof press is just the stimulus variation you need to spice up your partner core workout! With a partner, grab a resistance band and distance yourself from one another until there is tension in the band. Now for 30-60 seconds, you and your partner will write your names, the word pallof press, or any word you would like and repeat! Level 1 is a good place to start, but if you want to increase the challenge then progress towards level 3. If the quality of movement gets sloppy with too much trunk rotation or movement, then regress to a lower level or perform the movement slower.
Benefits of performing this movement with a partner:
- Variable Resistance At Variable Angles – because both individuals are moving the band , this exercise is very different than a band anchored to a wall. You would not be able to achieve the varying amounts of resistance, and varying angle changes to the same degree without a partner!
Yes, this modified version performed with a partner may have more trunk movement than the traditional pallof press, BUT that is ok. Excessive, uncontrolled trunk movement should be avoided, minor movement is to be expected with this partner variation. If you find you and your partner are having trouble, simply slow down the movement and regress. The faster you go and the less base of support you have (level 3), the harder it is. Don’t have a partner? Here is how to do this modified pallof press without one. This is probably my favorite partner core workout exercise!
Partner Med Ball Toss
The traditional Med Ball Toss against the ground and/or wall is a great exercise for power development. However, when performed alone without a catch, it tends to be a concentric focused movement. As important as it is to be able to generate power in the med ball toss, it is essential to practice absorbing energy via a med ball catch! Try this variation as part of our partner core workout series.
Benefits of performing this movement with a partner:
Eccentric Control & Balance: Catching a med ball requires the core muscles to work eccentrically by slowing down the body as it turns. These are the same muscles that are responsible for slowing down the body in sport specific movements such as after a baseball swing, golf swing, or a hockey shot.
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Our core is so much more than the 6 pack! It is an integrated system of multiple muscles and soft tissues that transfers energy throughout our body. Remember to work your core in all 3 planes of movement. Moreover, do not compensate when working on your core exercises! Less is more, and stability is always the goal. Do not be discouraged if you have to regress your movements. As your core becomes stronger, you will be able to progress!
- Lee, B. C., and S. M. McGill. Effect of long-term isometric training on core/torso stiffness. 2015.
- Core Stability Exercise Principles By: Venu Akuthota et al. 2008.
- Lee, B. C., and S. M. McGill. Effect of long-term isometric training on core/torso stiffness. J. Strength Cond. Res. 29(6):1515–1526, 2015.
- Boren K, Conrey C, Le Coguic J, Paprocki L, Voight M, Robinson TK. Electromyographic analysis of gluteus medius and gluteus maximus during rehabilitation exercises. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011; 6: 206– 223.