Ben Bruno On Core Training
by Ben Bruno T-Nation
A few months back I wrote an article called My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle where I shared, you guessed it, my favorite exercises for each major muscle group... except I left out the abs, or the core, or whatever else we're calling the midsection these days.
I left it out because honestly, I don't like core training all that much. I find most traditional core exercises to be painstakingly boring, and as such, I look for any excuse I can to skip it. And I often do.
However, as much as I might not enjoy core training, it does have tremendous value in terms of aesthetics, performance, and injury prevention, and I've noticed much better results when I've been consistent with including it as opposed to when I've left it out – my abs stand out more, my lifts are stronger, and my back feels better.
So I think some core work is a good idea for the aforementioned reasons, but I also think that once you've developed a good base of strength, most basic core exercises are simply too easy and become a waste of time.
A good rule of thumb is if it doesn't feel like you're doing anything, you probably aren't. With that in mind, here are some exercises to crank your core training up a notch.
In the past year or so, bodysaws have supplanted ab wheel rollouts as my favorite core exercise.
They're very similar to rollouts in that the goal of both exercises is to resist extension of the lumbar spine (i.e., avoid arching your back too much), but I like bodysaws more for a few reasons:
I feel them more in my abs.
They don't fatigue the shoulders like rollouts can, so they're easier to pair with upper body exercises.
They're more user-friendly for people with preexisting shoulder injuries and/or poor shoulder mobility.
Some people I work with complain of back pain from rollouts, but I've found that most people can keep much better form with bodysaws and thus tolerate them better.
To do them, start by getting in plank position with your feet on something slippery such as Valslides, a slideboard, furniture sliders, a paper plate, a TRX, etc. From there, maintain that body position and push back and forth on your arms, like this:
Go back only as far as you can handle while still maintaining your original spine position. If you start to arch excessively and/or feel them in your lower back, you've gone too far. They're a lot tougher than they look, so it probably won't take much range of motion to feel them working.
Once you've got that down and it feels easy, you can progress to doing them on one leg at a time, or if you want to get really frisky, doing them with straight arms starting from the bottom of a push-up position, which extends the lever arm and makes them pretty brutal.
Don't jump into this version too fast, though, because you don't want to hurt yourself.
Like rollouts, these also work the shoulders a lot, so keep that in mind when putting them into your program. For example, I wouldn't pair them with a pressing exercise.
Similarly, if you have a pre-existing shoulder injury or lack good shoulder mobility, I'd probably just stick to the regular version on your elbows.
Plank Walks / Plank Sled Drags
This is a great "bang for your buck" exercise that kills a bunch of birds with one stone.
Think of it as a moving plank, literally. Start in plank position with your forearms on the ground and your feet on a pair of sliders, and crawl forward while trying to keep your torso and hips as still as possible. To do this successfully, you really have to brace your core and squeeze your glutes the entire time.
When that's no longer difficult, start in push-up position and propel yourself forward with your arms straight, again keeping the rest of your body still. You'll find out quickly that this really works the shoulders, triceps, and even the chest to some degree.
If you still need to make it harder, add load. I've found that wearing a weighted vest can lead to wrist and elbow pain, so it's better to drag the weight behind you, either by putting your feet on a weight plate, or if you're really masochistic, dragging a weighted sled.
Here's what it looks like in action:
These will also jack your heart rate up, making them a great finishing exercise for the end of an upper body workout.
The obvious drawback to this one is that it requires both space and specialized equipment, which not everyone has. If you do though, definitely give these a try.
I mentioned before that I like ab wheel rollouts. Fallouts are essentially the same as rollouts, only using suspension straps instead of an ab wheel.
The nice thing about fallouts is they can be easily regressed and progressed depending on your current level.
Start by doing them standing on your feet. The shorter you set the straps, the easier it'll be; conversely, the longer the straps, the harder it'll be. Start with the straps at about waist height and lengthen them as you improve.
Where you stand in relation to the anchor point will also affect the difficulty significantly. Standing in front of the anchor point will make it easier, while walking back underneath the anchor point will make it harder.
The next step is to try them starting from push-up position. These suck, in an awesome way.
You can also elevate your feet, but that's more than I can really handle.
Sliding Push-up Reach
With this exercise, one arm performs a push-up while the other slides out straight ahead like a rollout (or I guess slideout would be a more fitting).
You can also do these using rings, but I tend to prefer sliders.
Rollouts and push-ups both typically focus more on anterior core stability, but the unilateral element of this exercise challenges rotary core stability as well.
I go back and forth about whether I think this is more of a push-up progression or a rollout progression, but it can really be either depending on your goals and how you implement it in your program.
You could use it in place of a pressing exercise (i.e., dumbbell presses, push-ups, etc.) for some additional core work, or you could substitute for another core exercise for extra pressing work. I tend to do the latter, but either way is fine. It's a sweet exercise no matter how you classify it.
Don't worry if you can't extend out all the way – just go as far as you can while maintaining control of your core.
This is similar to the exercise above, only here the arm not performing the push-up goes straight out to the side as opposed to straight ahead (similar to a fly motion), which increases the chest involvement and places even more of an emphasis on rotary core stability.
Not only is this a terrific exercise on its own, it also serves as a great progression when you're building towards being able to do full sliding flyes, which I think is one of the best chest exercises going (and is also a great core exercise in its own right).
Deep Squat Landmine
I'm terribly uncreative when it comes to naming exercises, so this one is just what it says, a landmine done in the bottom of a deep squat.
I like this one because it addresses two things I (and most people) need to work on but dread doing: core stability and hip mobility. To combine them both into one exercise is a huge win in my book.
The normal standing landmine is already a great exercise to work the rotary and lateral core, but doing it in the bottom of the squat increases the stability demands even further while also building stability in the pelvis and serving as one hell of a hip and groin stretch to boot.
I'm a big fan of the basic squat stretch where you just chill in the bottom of the squat and push your knees out, and I also like doing it with a light weight in the goblet hold to enhance the stretch even more. In this exercise, the bar functions similarly to promote a deeper stretch, but once you start moving your arms you must reflexively stabilize your hips and core to keep from shifting or swaying.
While these may look easy enough, they're actually very difficult, so be sure you've mastered regular landmines before trying them, and when you do, only move your arms as far as you can before you start to lose stability.
Trust me, you'll know exactly when you reach that point. It's very hard to cheat on this one, so when you're done, you're done, which keeps you honest and keeps you from hurting yourself.
If you don't have a specific device to anchor the barbell, simply put the barbell in a corner. Just be sure the walls aren't sheetrock; I've learned that lesson the hard way, and it ends with a hole in the wall.
Bodyweight Overhead Pallof Press
While the exercises thus far have focused more on the anterior and rotary core, this one focuses more on the lateral core with the goal being to resist lateral flexion.
Set a suspension strap at above waist height and face sideways. Lean out so your body is somewhere between a 60-75 degree angle to the floor, and press your arms straight overhead.
You might think at first that with such little body lean the exercise can't possibly be challenging enough, but a little lean goes a long way.
Once you feel comfortable, you can make it harder by leaning out farther and/or walking your feet further underneath the anchor point.
To progress it even further and add an anti-rotational component, start by pressing straight ahead first until your arms are fully extended and then going right to the overhead position. I call this the "Anti Press" because it forces you to resist motion in all three planes, training anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion, and ant-extension simultaneously.
I picked these up from Chad Waterbury, and I really like them as a replacement to standing ab wheel rollouts.
Standing ab wheel rollouts just aren't optimum for most people, so I don't recommend them as a general rule. It's not that I don't think they're a good exercise, it's more that I think it actually might be too good of an ab exercise for some.
I love kneeling ab wheel rollouts, but the transition to standing is just too hard for most, and I've seen several people tweak their abs trying to do so.
If you're someone that can do them well, then I'm certainly not going to tell you to stop, but for those that can't, I suggest that once you're comfortable with kneeling ab wheel rollouts you progress to a different exercise, such as those that I've mentioned already or even standing hand walkouts, which are safer.
The eccentric portion of hand walkouts is much slower and more controlled than using an ab wheel, so you'll be less inclined to tweak something. It's also self-limiting in the sense that you can only really walk out as far as your core can control, so you aren't going to find yourself out beyond your level of capability.
Since these don't require any equipment, it's a great option for when you can't make it to the gym. You can also do them from the knees if the standing version is too difficult.
Look, core training will never be as sexy and fun as deadlifts, squats, presses, and basically anything else you can do in the gym, but it's still worth doing. If you've been skipping your core work out of sheer boredom or just need to spice things up, hopefully I've given you a few ideas to pique your interest and take your ab training to the next level.