I have worked with many different athletes over the years. For each one that presents with persistent back pain or injury it usually comes down to missing one element of core training. Everyone knows the exercises. I’m not here to teach you a new type of amazing fix-all core exercise; it’s the implementation of holistic core training that is the key. Ask someone when the last time was that they checked on their obliques. You’re usually met by a blank stare.
What Is Core Training?
Ask ten different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. You’ll get responses like: planks, sit-ups, the deadlift, back extensions, knee raises—and they’re not wrong, but where is the standard? What is it that you are actually trying to achieve with these movements? What’s the point in doing these core exercises? How often should you do them?
To me, everyone needs to have the ability to brace, rotate, and resist an external force and have balance within those strengths no matter what their discipline, sport, or way of life. If you are great at rotating in one direction but show a massive difference in the other, you’re going to develop issues down the road.
Real core strength comes down to balancing these three things:
- Isometric strength
- Rotational strength
- Anti-rotational strength
Just holding a position for a set duration couldn’t be difficult, could it? As a trainer, it is common to see people who can hold a „perfect“ plank position with ease, but then give them a barbell and all of a sudden their spine looks like a giant question mark. Clearly, the plank isn’t giving them any actual core benefit.
Someone’s ability to relate a plank to actual weight-bearing exercises is where the benefits lie; otherwise, you’re just relying on joint stacking and making yourself uncomfortable for 2 minutes. Techniques such as the Hard-Style Plank (probably the best invention there ever was) that was made popular by RKC are what will give you the ability to learn how to create maximal tension in a static position in a safe way.
To perform a hard-style plank, have your elbows directly underneath your shoulders and your fists clenched. Your pelvis should be in a neutral position with no hyperextension of the lumbar spine, glutes engaged, legs straight, and feet pressed into the floor hard.
Take a breath in, hold good intra-abdominal pressure; imagining trying to crush the air in your belly with your abs; and contract every muscle in your entire body, even your fists, hard for 10 seconds. Then take 10 seconds rest by maintaining the plank position without the tension then repeat. One minute of that will be way more beneficial and relatable to lifting instead of just being in the position for 5-10 minutes without proper tension.
This same principle applies to the side plank. The side plank is a great tool for the obliques and by adding a simple leg lift into it you can really start to connect the hips and core together. Most people with hip pain or back pain will struggle to do this on one side more than the other.
It’s crazy how many people I have met that can deadlift very heavy and do all kinds of intense training but fail at this fundamental movement. When they get injured guess what gets the blame? Their training. People start to criticize movements they once loved just because they lack proper core strength.
In my opinion, this purely comes down to the amount of information available. People got along fine for years when jumping jacks and planks were standard warm-ups. Now we’re so damn intelligent that we’re trying to mobilize and “fix” everything, but we are forgetting to get strong. If you can’t hold a side plank for thirty seconds, you don’t need to be on a foam roller, you need to side plank.
The first few minutes of all of your sessions can contain hard-style planks, and that’s your isometric core strength taken care of.
I count any kind of movement that you do with your spine as rotational, so the sit-up falls under this category, but at the end of the day, sit-ups aren’t that important and can actually be quite aggravating to people with back issues and those who are bigger people in general. It is more important to train torso movements because they are more practical when it comes down to side to side rotation, like when throwing a punch or chopping wood, all that kind of groovy stuff.
Rotational strength is something that is missed by those who only strength train or want to get bigger. One of the best ways to add in some rotational work is to stand side-on to a wall and throw a medicine ball against it, repeating for both sides.
As we are only talking about the core itself and not the transfer of weight and adding the hips, the video example shows the core being isolated by using a kneeling position and lunge variations. This is a phenomenal way to teach the body how far it can rotate and the elasticity that it can access. Your core should feel like it’s been loaded and “let go” like a bow and arrow, rather than you just swinging and rotating.
One of the best ways to avoid getting back tightness is to just move your spine, see how far you can bend side to side, touch your toes, lean back, see how far you can rotate and reach behind yourself. Do all of those movements feel similar on both sides?
When I was recovering from my back injury one of the biggest things I noticed was how uncomfortable lateral flexion was on one side compared to the other, and even after years of training it was something I never once thought to check, but it was actually a contributing factor to my pelvis twisting. I think a lot of people put too much importance on the work and advice of others, forgetting that they can experiment with their own movement. No one knows how you feel better than you.
This is a fun one. Anti-rotational strength is the ability to resist being pulled out of position. Similar to rotation strength, this refers to all directions of movement. Anti-rotational strength is important for everyone, but it is paramount for anyone partaking in a sport in which there’s an external load or force.
When working on anti-rotational strength, there are very few things that can compare to partner drills and martial arts training. Resistance bands go a long way, though, in supplementing anti-rotational strength and the best part is that they are cheap and you can use them easily outside of gyms. Just like you need your rotators to rotate, you also need them to stop and hold a position when you ask them to. Any kind of weakness in your game here will see you pulled out of position and squashed like a bug, especially during moves such as a heavy squat clean.
Probably the most noticeable issue with people who have weak anti-rotational strength is that their quadratus lumborum (QL) will stiffen up causing consistent lower back tightness that most people try to stretch out. Instead, working their obliques would be far more beneficial. It is a common mistake to stretch out long-term tightness when instead you should be asking: why has this area tightened up? Nine times out of 10, stability and strength are what’s actually required to take the pain away.
The Pallof press has got to be a favorite anti-rotational exercise for a lot of people. It should have a place in every gym of every discipline in the world. It is one of the simplest ways to get anti-rotational strength training done with only a small time investment: 1 minute each side for three to five sets will really keep your core fired up. You will find that if you play a side-dominant sport such as golf or hockey, or even do MMA, this will be incredibly easy on one side compared to the other.
Set yourself up with a band attached to something besides you, grab it with both hands, outstretch your arms and take sideways steps away so the band is pulling you back. Make sure that you are predominately feeling it in your core. This is not a shoulder exercise, so try to keep your arms relatively relaxed throughout.
Brace as if you were holding a plank and start to move your hands forwards and backward while maintaining a strong core position. You should move as if the band wasn’t there while resisting the pull back the entire time. If you haven’t already been doing Pallof presses then prepare to have your training changed forever.
You Must Incorporate These Methods
Having these three elements as part of your training, warm-ups, or cooldowns every week will keep your core solid and make your overall training even more effective. Try adding planks to your warm-ups, Pallof presses between your sets of squats or presses, and wall balls as a session finisher.
These movements are the basics before you start getting fancy with anything else and they should never be forgotten. Treat these exercises with respect, being mindful as you do them, and always remember you can get stronger, better mind-muscle connection, longer duration, whatever! Never assume that you have mastered them. No one has ever regretted having a stronger core.