THE ULTIMATE GUIDE FOR A HEALTHY AND STRONG CORE

Aggiornato il: 9 dic 2020

Structure Intro What you need to know Functional Myth What is the core Why you should train your core (benefit) Common problems Core training made simple (PROGRAMMING considerations)





Intro One of the most debated topics amongst trainers and trainees is core training. Some trainers believe that to develop a strong and resistant core section performing the big 3 (bench press, deadlift and squat) it’s more than enough whether others believe that you should perform what they call ''functional'' exercises to ''fill'' the gap left by the compound lifts. Some bodybuilders coach instead approach core training like there is little difference between the ''core'' and the ''abs'' and they train the abdominal muscles like any other muscles performing mainly spinal flexion and lateral flexion usually in the 10-25 reps range. I just want to point out that a lot of coaches say: ‘’here are the 10 best core exercises’’ without giving a rationale behind that choice, whether other give a very specific scientifical rationale but they don’t provide a practical application on how to implement core training in someone’s training schedule in a balanced and time-effective way.

This article will provide a comprehensive guide for trainers and trainees on how to build a strong and resistant core which will translate in a better abdominal section look, training longevity and improved sports performance and a practical application on how to implement this into your current training program.

What you need to know 1) Functional training is not a helpful word. It’s better to distinguish exercises in General and specific;

2) ‘’Abs’’ are only part of the Core which is a group of muscle that provide stability to the spine and allow the transfer of force from the trunk to the upper and lower limb;

3) The only way to see a six-pack is through a prolonged calorie deficit;

4) Core training improves performance, reduces the risk of injuries and allow a better posture;

5) Core training should be done in three distinct planes of movement, frontal plane (side flexion), sagittal plane (forward flexion- extension) and transversal plane (rotational);

6) Core training should aim to improve not only the strength of the core but also endurance, stiffness, and active recruitment into different body positions;

7) Implementing core training in each session might be helpful for many trainees. (you can follow some of the templates provided in this article);

The functional Myth

I have an interesting story about this: I once encountered a trainer who was having a client practising kettlebell swings. The problem was that in the gym where we were working with our clients the heaviest kettlebells were just 24 Kg which for most advanced or moderately advanced clients would serve just as a good warm-up.

I heard the trainer complaining about the gym equipment available in that gym (poor in his opinion). I remember I asked the trainer why he didn't want to use dumbbells instead which went up to 46 Kg and could be a valid substitute. He then looked at me like halfway through between irritated and surprised and answered: because a dumbbell is not functional, of course! The definition of Functional is: Designed to be practical and useful rather than attractive. If we want to dig into the Strength and conditioning area Mike Boyle one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the US functional training should prepare an athlete to better play at his sport with a strong focus on training movements rather than muscles. My position is very clear: If a functional exercise is an exercise that is designed to be useful it's confusing to divide exercise in functional and non-functional. For example: If your goal is to improve your 60m dash, would you say a leg extension is functional or non-functional? What about a Split squat? It makes much more sense to divide exercise into Specific and General. Regarding the example above a leg extension is certainly more general and less specific than a Split squat because the second is much closer to mimic the movement involved in the final goal: Running faster.


What is the core? In their book, Gajda and Dominquez described what the core is and what it does: The first essential concept in total body training is that of the "core," which is our term for the muscles of the centre of the body. These muscles stabilize the body while we are in a correct, antigravity position or are using our arms and legs to throw or kick. They maintain our structure while we do vigorous exercises... These are the muscles that control the head, neck, ribs, spine, and pelvis. The core of the human body is those muscles that keep the trunk and neck in a tube-like form... When your core is firm and rigid, you can do the activities it's intended to do. If the rigidity is enhanced, then you can maximize your athletic performance. We can refer to the core as a group of muscles located in the mid-section of our body and that provide stability to the entire body and help to transmit the force from the centre of the body to its extremities. Some Muscles are quite popular in the fitness industry such as the abdominal group or Anterior core: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques and form the well known six- pack a lot of people are thriving for. Other are less famous such as the quadratum lomborum, the glutes medius, maximus, minimus, but also Latissimus dorsi, multifidus, pelvic floor and diaphragm. These get sometimes forgotten but they can tremendously impact our performance and training longevity. I am not going to dig into the anatomical details of every single one of the core components as this is not so relevant to the purpose of the article, instead, it's important to understand how the core function as a whole.


Why you should implement specific core training right now Who would like to have shredded abs? Let me be straightforward on this: You can spot enhance but you can’t spot reduce. Research is clear on this point so far. Doing appropriate direct work on the abdominals will eventually result in having bigger, stronger, and more toned abs but if you have a thick layer of fat on your abdomen you will never be able to see your abs, regardless of the number of sets, reps or exercise you are doing at the gym. That being said we can get the best bang for bucks and implement exercises that are progressively challenging your core as a regular part of your training program. In this way when you will go through a calorie deficit period you will then be able to see a shredded mid-section and keep free from injury at the same time. Your core is responsible for creating stability in your whole body, mostly in your spine, and it prevents it from buckling and becoming injured. However, having a strong core is just part of the matter. You need your core to be also (or turned on when it's needed such as during a deadlift 1RM), resistant, flexible and stable because the human body is designed to perform a broad variety of movement and some people have very strong abs and lower back but are deficient in term of stability and endurance and motor competency. Interestingly enough apart from the aesthetic part of core training (which is still a pleasant collateral effect), the main benefit is the reduction of injuries rate. Sometimes this is not very interesting for the general population who is interested mostly in getting stronger, fitter and looking good.

Being less prone of getting injured also is something we can’t easily test unless we were able to spin the clock forward until our last gym session, in that case, we would be able to say if our core work had been effective enough. This is certainly less interesting and than testing other fitness quality such as Strength, endurance or speed. If this applies to you I hope that this article will help you to change your mind because being injured sucks. Take care of your core and lift with good technique and you will very likely stay free from injuries.


Common mistakes

1) Focus on just a few movements. None of the core muscle is more important than others. For this reason, proper stability training should not focus on one specific muscle. For decades, medical practitioners were incorrectly taught to focus and isolate certain muscles such as the transverse abdominis (TA), multifidus, or QL in an effort to enhance core stability. This method, however, is flawed, research has shown it is impossible for an individual to solely activate one specific muscle of the core.

2) Work just on strength. Many people who develop back pain already have strong backs! Some exercises are great to enhance the amount of tension in the abdominal area but they do little to increase core stiffness. In order to enhance the quality of stiffness, one must train the core differently. This comes through using isometric exercises built to enhance muscular endurance and coordination. An ‘isometric’ describes when a muscle or group of muscles are activated and contracted but there is no change in the joints they cross. For example, during a side plank, the lateral oblique and quadratus lumborum (QL) muscles are very active yet the spine and hips remain still and do not move. Research has found that isometric exercises to enhance muscular endurance are far superior when compared to dynamic strengthening exercises in enhancing spinal stiffness and stability (making them ideal not only for rehabilitation of back injuries but also in the training and enhancement of athletic performance). This is because the core functions to limit excessive motion (especially in barbell lifting) rather than creating it. When this is done correctly through a bracing action, your body creates it’s natural “weightlifting belt.” Not only will this stiffen your spine and keep it safe when performing heavy lifts (like a squat or deadlift) it will also help transfer force throughout your body.

3) Under-Training – Many people do not train their core at all. Contrary to popular belief, compound exercises like squats and deadlifts are not sufficient to provide the body with the core stiffness that it needs.

4) Neglecting Core Stability – The main function of the core muscles is to stabilize the pelvis and spine. This spinal stiffness will safeguard the body against injury and will allow you to generate significantly more power with your upper and lower body. Unfortunately, if you look around most gyms and even personal training studios, you will observe people performing endless amounts of crunches, sit-ups, twisting exercises, and so forth. Very few people focus on core stability, and as a result, they never achieve the spinal stiffness that is needed to perform exercises, sports, and even daily activities safely and effectively. As a general rule, about 80 to 90% of the core exercises I coach focus on stability, with the remaining 10 to 20% on dynamic work (medicine ball slams, crunches, etc). This percentage can vary depending on sport-specific requirements and personal preference.

5) Loss of Mind-Muscle Connection – When it comes to training the core, it is absolutely vital that you do so with intent. Going through the motions, and not focusing on the task at hand will shortchange your results, both in terms of strength, and overall aesthetics.

6) Thinking that core and abs are the same;

7) Being inconsistent with core training;

8) Believing that is possible to achieve a 6-pack with particular exercises;

9) Mistaking impressive for effective;



Smart and Time-efficient Core training As said before, there are different aspect of core training: -Strength -Stiffness and coordination; -Endurance; -Mobility and active recruitment; Even if some exercises are great to develop a great amount of tension (such a compound lift with a heavy load) they do little to improve core stiffness. Also, research shows that isolation exercises are superior to dynamic compound movements in creating stiffness and stability. The professor Stuart McGill is a master in research low back pain and has shown how important core stiffness is in order to prevent injuries. Mcgill showed how subjects who failed to create stiffness in the core by coordinating muscles activation, were more prone to develop injuries. When failing with stability during a certain lift (which by the way, might occur during daily life activities and not only during barbell work) certain parts of the spine will be overloaded in order to match the demand placed on the body during that particular movement. You might have a very well developed abdominal but still have low back pain because you're lacking stability or muscle coordination. The exercises in this article will combine dynamic and static work in order to cover all the aspect of core training without leaving any stones unturned.

How to effectively implement core work in your training Our Spine is capable of 3 different types of movements, flexion and extension on the sagittal plane (Hip hinge), lateral flexion on the frontal plane (leaning on the side whilst facing forward) and Rotational (like during a golf swing) Picture Canva three movements For simplicity, we can divide the characteristics of core training into 6 categories, -Rotational -Anti rotational -Lateral flexion -Anti lateral flexion -Flexion -Anti flexion -Extension -Anti extension We know from the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) that our body will adapt specifically for the demand we are imposing to the body. If your goal is performance then you certainly want to tailor your core training around specific body positions. If your goal is overall physique or fitness development then performing a broad variety of movement might be a smart idea for mosts. NB: This works as well for any other muscle group, perform a standing bicep curl and your Bicep will certainly get a big challenge in the Mid-range, but to challenge the bicep in the shortened range and in the lengthened range we will have to perform exercises in those specific ranges too. The principle of specificity again, suggest that not only we perform exercises that challenge the core from the mentioned planes of

movements but that challenge the muscles at a different point within the range of motion. If you're not familiar with the concept of the full range of strength you can check it out here. Given the fact that training your core is not your main and ultimate goal and given that you are already following a resistance training program your core has already a good demand and the last thing you want to do is to get bored doing endless sets of ''core activation'' exercises before during or after the session. You want to feel good, strong and have a long-lasting lifting career. To give your workouts a structure I selected what I researched are the 3 best exercises for each plane of movement. Here’s what to do:

  1. Every time you train a particular movement chose a different variation from the list I provided below;

  2. Choose a rep range from 8-20 reps and stick to it for the entire mesocycle. I am a big fan of variety but you get enough of it by rotating exercises so changing repetition range would create too much confusion. This is simply a way of achieving variety it doesn’t mean it’s the best but in this context, I think it work better;

  3. Perform every rep in a controlled way (unless specified differently);

  4. Fully exhale before setting up for each exercise.

  5. Rest between sets is between 45 seconds and 2 minute but I generally coach my client to ‘’rest until you feel ready to go for another round while still being slightly out of breath;

  6. Perform 2-3 set based on training experience, main goal and training level;

  7. Feel free to decide when to perform your core work because this is highly subjective.

  8. If you like to do your core work at the beginning of the session because you feel your core remain more engaged throughout the rest of the session, fine. If you instead like to perform other exercises in a fresh state first to then ‘’empty the tank’’ with your core work at the end of the session, fine as well. Note that one strategy is not superior to the other. Just pick up one and don’t overthink it.


But let’s go to the nitty and gritty of core training. Here are the top 3 exercises I selected for you.


Top 3 Anti -rotational

  1. Pallof press;

  2. Single-arm cable press;

  3. Lock-off push-ups;

Top 3 Rotational

  1. Cable chop ;

  2. Weighted Plate chop;

  3. Medicine Ball rotational Slam

Top 3 Flexion

  1. Mcgill curl up;

  2. Inverted Crunches;

  3. Hanging leg raises march;

Top 3 Anti-Flexion

  1. Hip Lift March;

  2. Overhead elastic band extensions;

  3. Wall squat with stick;

Top 3 side flexion

  1. Butt walk

  2. Side lean

  3. Swissball Pike rollout;


Top 3 Anti- Side flexion 1. Weighted side lean; 2. Unilateral farmer carry;

3. Side plank

Top 3 extensions

  1. Bird dog;

  2. Reverse hyperextensions;

  3. Superman;

Top 3 Anti extensions;

  1. Plank variations;

  2. Swissball stir the pot;

  3. Arms Walkout;

Now that you know the best exercises to effectively train your core it’s time to see how to implement those exercises into your training program. Now the way I organised the exercise in the different programs is not random and I’d like you to take a closer look. If you workout 3 times per week



In this case, you just repeat the group of exercises through the 4 weeks. Because there are 4 paired sets (8 total exercises per week) the order of the weekly set changes every week.

If you workout 4 times per week


In this case, without mixing things up a little bit you would end up doing the same weekly exercises from week 1-4. Also, research shows that performing an exercise earlier in the session will provide a slightly better stimulus so every week you change the order of each paired set. If you pay attention you will notice that week 1 and 3 are the same and so it’s in week 2 and 4.

If you workout 5 times per week


In this case, you would perform the exercises with the same style as in week 3.

If you workout 6 times per week


If you workout 6 times per week you can train each movement once a day. I recommend you try with this chart for at least 4 weeks and then you can add more if you feel you need to.

Here you can find some of my favourite core combos: Anti rotational + Anti extensions Lock-off Push-ups into a walkout

Side flexion + Anti flexion Butt walk + Overhead extension hold

Flexion + extension Reverse crunches with stick + Bird dog

Rotational + Anti- side flexion Weight plate chop + Weighted Side Lean.


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