Simplifying Core Strength

7 min read.

“Core work” and people’s interpretation of core exercises is a major weak spot in a lot of training programs.


There are some trends that just throw in 100’s of crunches at the end of sessions, some elitists that always make sure their deep-core-anti-rotational-stabilisers are hammered, others that say that deadlifts give you all the core strength that you need, functional training gurus doing weird cable machine punches while sounding like they are struggling with a battle of constipation and asthma… and good old Jeff in the back with his blindfold and bosu ball.


I mean, they are all correct, all those things will work your core muscles in different ways, but each is only really touching upon a single aspect of core function. Basically, you don’t want your spine to snap, and core work helps strengthen the muscles that support it as much as possible… the tricky part is that your spine has a very large capacity for movement and has to deal with a multitude of unplanned positions throughout the day.

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But when you get to the core of the matter (ha, see what I did there?!) it’s actually not that complicated.  The principles of spine protection a.k.a core training can be split into 4 categories:


  • Isometric tension
  • Rotational/Moving core strength
  • Anti-rotational core strength
  • Reactive core stability


And if you are hitting these 4 principles regularly and you will feel stronger AND recover better. I know, they sound kind of fancy but they’re all straight forwards and can be assigned simple movements which ensures you can fit them into your training easily.


The reason that so many people run in to back issues / hip issues and other major problems is that they miss out 2 or 3 of these principles. You can hold a plank for as long as you want, but they won’t make a button of difference to you if you are missing out on everything else.


So, let’s go through each one in more depth.


Isometric tension

Isometric tension is your spine’s ability to maintain a static position so that your hips/shoulders/arms/legs can have maximum power output for a task.

Isometric Strength is a big part of lifting technique. Turning your spine into a steel rod using intra-abdominal pressure, in other words, to brace. If you fail to brace fully brace your spine at the right moment you will fold like a deck of cards and be at risk of injury.


Example exercises for Isometric Core Strength are:

  • Planks + variations
  • Side Planks + variations
  • Squats, Deadlifts, Presses
  • Dead Bug Holds/Raises
  • Hollow Body Holds/Raises

The aim of each is maximum core tension and holding a static spine position. One of the best things you can do to make these even better is to practice disassociating & moving your limbs while maintaining tension - this is a more natural way to use isometric strength, for example your arms and legs need to move freely when you pick up and carry something heavy, so you want to get good at it!

Here’s some ways you can practice this:
youtubeid=foSFVFqpfSs



Rotational/moving core strength

This category can get unnecessarily fancy, but this is just any & all ways your spine can move. Sit ups, crunches and other such “traditional” core exercises fall into this category as they are flexing of the spine, but they are only a small part of what the spine can do.


Your spine is made up of 24 articulating vertebrae with discs in between each one, this gives it the ability to flex, extend and rotate in multiple directions with endless combinations of each.


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Side bends & rotational movements are commonly missed out on, and combinations of each are incredibly important to keep your spine confident so that it doesn’t feel incredibly stiff. If you lift heavy regularly this is crucial to add to your training.


Since the amount of directions your spine could move it borders on limitless, the easiest technique I have found is literally randomised banded rotations. Set a timer for 5 minutes and just rotate and twist in as many ways as you can think of! Remembering to do both sides and if something feels weird when you go one way compared to the other, see if you can work that out:

youtubeid=ZnhZ9iOVTeY

Other techniques that fall under Rotational Core Strength are:

  • Banded Pulling rotations
  • Banded Pushing rotation
  • Heavy Throwing (med balls, sandbags, etc.)
  • Punching
  • Leg/Knee raises
  • Sit ups & Crunches
  • Russian Twists
  • Weighted/Unweighted Side bends
  • Jefferson Curls
  • Hockey deadlifts
  • Back Extensions

…to be honest, the list could go on for a long time. Think of an exercise where your torso moves and you’re practising Rotational Core Strength.


Anti-Rotational

Anti-Rotational Core Strength is your ability to resist external forces, push or pull, from any direction. This could be a weight, a person, a band, etc. which differs from Isometric Strength where you’re only resisting gravity


This is probably one of the first things you should check if you are regularly getting back pain, especially if it is to one side. Many, many people (especially those of a sporting background) will have a much higher level of anti-rotational core strength on one side – right-footed footballers or right-handed tennis players need to resist the opposing force the ball produces, a rugby player may always favour a tackle of the same side, a fighter will have a dominant hand… but luckily it doesn’t take a lot of effort to balance out once you become aware of it!


One of the best ways to develop balanced anti-rotational strength I found was actually traditional Wing Chun drills, but unfortunately not a lot of people are willing to devote that time to the traditional, beneficial side of Martial Arts; everyone wants to fight cages nowadays!


So, the next best thing is the humble Pallof Press. This is the Pallof Press Circuit from End Range Training:

youtubeid=13ldOKS6i7U

Other exercises that fall under the Anti-Rotational bracket are:

  • Single Arm Horizontal Rows
  • Single Arm Push Ups
  • Single Leg Glute Bridge
  • Single Leg Single Arm Deadlifts
  • Pallof Marches


You can see how each of these exercises are “sided” or unilateral – weight is unevenly distributed around the body which requires you to resist being pulled or pushed in a certain direction.


Last but not least,

Reactive core stability and coordination

Reactive core stability is basically how intelligent your body is: how quickly and how well it can react to new and unexpected situations. Most of the time, you’re not in control of what your body does, especially in fast moving or surprising situations… it has to be ready to deal with things by itself.


Your balance is incredibly important to develop as a skill, it is literally what good stability is: being able to not fall, even when challenged.


There are so many people that want to do marathons or lift heavy weights like their favourite athletes, but none really take into consideration their own level of athleticism... which is generally not great. Athletes are coordinated and have great balance; their bodies know how to react to new stimulus and can do so quickly.


I am going to give you 2 examples of how you can work on your Reactive Core Strength.


The first one is task based, training your balance and coordination with set rules:

youtubeid=INOQdpF78yQ

Second, we want chaos, we want to try and make ourselves fall over so that our body has to think for itself. The last time you tripped, nearly fell but stopped yourself, you didn’t have control over the actions your body made - it was purely instinctual and reactive.


If you never develop this skill further your body can lose a lot of confidence over the years which eventually carries over to how you walk and move: you’ll slow down and start to shuffle everywhere because your body will know it is not going to cope well if you get in to a predicament.


So, for some unplanned, unregulated chaos, enter the Plate Balance Drill:

youtubeid=YW_7xJmkv0g

Other things that can come under Reactive Strength & Coordination are:

  • Throwing & Catching
  • Juggling
  • Single Leg Deadlifts
  • Single Leg Squats
  • Wrestling
  • Jujitsu
  • Judo
  • Sprint drills
  • Ball sports


Example Core Training Session

So, all you need to do to ensure you’re getting complete Core Training, is pick an exercise from each section!

Here’s a routine example to get you started:

2 rounds:
20s Side Plank (Left)
20s Plank
20s Side Plank (Right)
2 mins Banded Rotational Movements
Pallof Circuit:
    5x Left Side (in each position; 15 reps total)
    5x Right Side (in each position; 15 reps total)
Plate Balance Circuit:
    1 min Left Leg
    1 min Right Leg
    1 min Both Legs

It will take you roughly 7-8 minutes per round and all you need is a band and a small step or thick book to balance on.

If you do this at either the start or end of your sessions, or even as a standalone routine, you will be covering the all the principles to truly be giving yourself “complete core training”.

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Start to get lazy with them or miss any of the four out for too long and that’s when you fall into the trap of stiffness, pain and injuries easily which can be avoided just with a little bit of attention!

It’s not hard to do! Train a bit smarter and give your spine the baseline elements it needs to feel good and you are on to a winner with your core training!

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