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The Best Core Exercises to Protect You from Injury

Stepping into the gym, most people are focused on growing their biceps, increasing their bench press, or taking countless selfies by the mirror. While each of these has their place in the gym, except the selfie nonsense that is, there’s a glaring omission from most athletes’ training regimen — core training.

Ask the typical gym goer if they’re training their core, and you’ll almost always get the same reply — they do a few sets of sit-ups or crunches at the end of their workouts 3-4 times per week. Here’s the dirty little secret though…

Endless bouts of crunches and sit-ups aren’t the solution to building a rock-solid core, but they are the way to a really achy and sore low back. The way to a stable, strong, and ironclad core are ones that strengthen the entire girdle of muscles enveloping your midsection, not just your abdominals. Proper core training increase balance, stability, and performance in just about everything else you do in life!

More than just Abs

When people think about training their core, they almost always focus on crunches and sit-ups. What they fail to realize, aside from the fact that these exercises are far from the most effective ab exercises, is that the core is made up of much, much more than just your 6 pack. In fact, the core is best described as a complex (lumbopelvic-hip complex, to be precise) of multiple muscles including [1]:

  • Diaphragm (superior)
  • Abdominal and oblique muscles (anterior-lateral)
  • Paraspinal and gluteal muscles (posterior)
  • Pelvic floor and hip girdle (inferior).

As you can see, the core isn’t just your abs on the front of your body. It’s actually a three-dimensional “corset” of muscles that stabilize the trunk and spine. Core stability is a foundational component of everyday movement. Lack of core stability makes daily tasks like picking up the groceries difficult and athletic activities (i.e. squatting) virtually impossible. Improving core stability enhances your power, efficiency, and control in just every other sports skill imaginable.

The trick is to avoid these common core training errors.

Core Training Mistakes

  • Too Many Exercises

    Sure, the idea of performing 5, 10, or 15 exercises for your core might sound like a great workout. You’ll certainly work up a sweat and “feel” like you’ve had an effective workout, but a more appropriate approach would be to select 2-3 exercises at most.

    Focusing on only a few movements allows you to better judge how well your core is performing at certain functions. You’ll have a better picture of where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and what areas need some work.

  • Waiting Until the End

    Most trainees tend to think of ab/core training as the “finisher” to a tough workout. The truth is, your core is extremely fatigued by the end of your workout from supporting and stabilizing your body during each movement of your workout.

    A smarter approach would be to perform one or two core exercises during your warm up prior to hitting the weights. Performing core training prior to lifting helps activate the core and ensures it’s ready for the heavy lifting to follow. This way, your body is primed and ready for when you go for those heavy squats and deadlifts, and you’ll reduce your risk of injury

  • Not Progressing

    Just like curls, squats, and presses, the intensity of core training must be gradually increased in order to keep progressing. The same rules apply to core training as they do your standard lifts. To make things more difficult and challenging, increase the number of reps, sets, or load for the exercise. You can also employ more difficult variations of the exercise if you’ve gotten out everything from the current variation you’re using.

    In line with this, don’t be afraid to change up your core training routine from time to time. You prioritize your weight training routine (or you should be), and core training is no different!

5 Crushing Core Exercises

Planks

  • Get into a low plank position with your elbows directly under your shoulders, back flat with eyes looking at the ground
  • Brace your core by pulling navel towards your spine and hold for time
Perform 3-4 sets holding the plank for 60-120 seconds

Note: Plank can be progressed to a high plank where you assume a push-up position and hold for the specified time.

Superman

  • Lie prone (face-down) on the floor or mat
  • Simultaneously elevate your arms and upper back above your head as well as your legs (stomach remains in contact with the ground)
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds
  • Lower under control to the starting position
  • Repeat for prescribed number of repetitions
Perform 2-3 sets of 10 reps

Bird Dog

  • Position yourself on your hands and knees with your hands underneath your shoulders and knees below your hips
  • Simultaneously, extend your left hand forward in front of your head while extending your right leg behind you and tightening your abdominal muscles
  • Hold for 10-20 seconds
  • Return to quadruped starting position
  • Now, extending your left leg back while raising your right hand off the mat and extending your arm forward past your head
  • Hold for 10-20 seconds
  • Repeat for prescribed number of reps
Perform 2-3 sets of 5 reps/side

Note: An advanced version of this can be performed by starting in a high plank, push-up position. Lift your right foot off the mat while simultaneously raising your left arm and extending it forward.

Side Plank

  • Lie on your right side with your elbow underneath the body, directly below the shoulder. Left foot stacked on top of right foot
  • Keeping your body rigid and tight, elevate your hips so that you’re only balancing on your forearm and outside edge of your right foot
  • Hold for specified time
  • Repeat on opposite side
Perform 3-4 sets per side holding the plank for 60-120 seconds

Pallof Press

  • Assume an athletic stance perpendicular to a cable machine
  • Using a firm grip, grab single handle attachment and press arms straight out, extended at chest level
  • Relax neck and upper shoulders, focusing on maintaining tight core and not rotating towards the machine
  • Hold press position for a prescribed time
  • Repeat on opposite side
Perform 2-3 sets per side for 30-60 seconds

Core Strong

Hopefully, by now you realize just how vital core training is to your performance and overall function. With a strong core, you’ll be able to tackle anything and everything that stands in your way, without it, you’ll have trouble rolling out of bed in the morning. Use the pointers and exercises outlined above to forge an iron core so that you’re stronger, more durable, and primed for the big time.

References

  1. Huxel Bliven KC, Anderson BE. Core Stability Training for Injury Prevention. Sports Health. 2013;5(6):514-522. doi:10.1177/1941738113481200.

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