Three of My Favorite Core Exercises
I’m back! Did you miss me?? (I hope so, because that would be sad if you didn’t even notice my lack of blogging). Anyways, it seems that when summer arrives, house projects begin to take over my life. Last year it was remodeling the bathroom, among other things. This year it was putting in a patio!
Nonetheless, I’m back today with a post I really think you’ll enjoy. Core exercises are some of the most popular, yet misunderstood aspects of exercise. Unfortunately, the most popular core exercises are often the most dangerous ones for the low back. Today I’ll show you a better way to train the core:
Today I want to get super practical with you and give you three of my favorite core exercises. These are exercises I use all the time for core training, and I think that you should too!
When talking about training the core I must first provide a little context because most people’s idea of core training comes from an old-school way of thinking. To demonstrate this, let me ask a question: what are the first exercises that pop into your head when I say, “core training”?
For most people exercises like Crunches, Sit-Ups, Russian Twists, and V-Ups come to mind.
Now don’t get me wrong, these exercises do challenge your abdominal muscles. The problem is they also challenge your spine – in a bad way. If you take a close look you’ll see one common theme in each of these exercises, and that is that the spine is being flexed or twisted to an extreme level. The spine doesn’t like this!
These exercises became popular because they give you that abdominal burn that most people are seeking with their core exercises. However, as we learn more about the damage these exercises can do to the spine, they are becoming less popular and many professionals are recommending that you stay away from them.
When you perform these old-school core training exercises you’re more or less locking your pelvis into place and asking your spine to repeatedly flex, extend, and twist. Now, your spine is meant to move, but not in the way that these exercises demand it to.
In fact, these exercises train your core to do the opposite of what it is meant to do. Your core muscles primary job is not to flex, extend, and twist the spine. They can do this, but their primary purpose is to prevent excessive motion through the spine. In other words, they work to stiffen, and stabilize the spine so that it does not move into a dangerous range of motion that could cause injury.
For this reason, the core training exercises that I use in almost all of my programs are designed to strengthen the core in the same way that it is meant to function.
The goal when properly training the core is to find a neutral spine position, in which the spine is neither extended or flexed, and then learn to brace all the core muscles simultaneously. Once this neutral, braced posture is found, the goal is to be able to breathe without losing the position or the bracing in your abdominals.
Take a look at this excellent video by Matthew Ibrahim on finding a neutral spine position prior to performing core exercises.
This is the position that you must be able to get into and hold before we can go into any other exercises.
For some people, especially those with compromised spine or core function, learning to find this neutral, braced position and to breathe while holding that position may be enough of a challenge to begin with. For others, the challenge comes when trying to maintain this position during more advanced core exercises.
Either way, this neutral, braced, breathing position must be held throughout each exercise, so it’s important to own that position first.
After you can successfully get into this position, then you can proceed to the three core exercises I will outline below.
#1: The Curl-Up
The Curl-Up is an excellent core exercise which works on what I refer to as the anterior core, or in other words, the part of the core that everyone thinks of as the core.
This mainly involves the rectus abdominus (i.e. your “6 pack” abs), as well as the obliques. However, as I said before, you should be maintaining a good brace in all the core muscles as you do each exercise. So, think about maintaining bracing all the way around your mid-section, and not just in the front of the stomach.
I learned this exercise from Dr. Stuart McGill, who is a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. He advocates for the Curl-Up as opposed to the Crunch or Sit-Up because it’s much safer on the spine, and it teaches you how to brace your abdominals in a similar manner to how they’re used in real life.
Rather than creating motion at the spine and repeatedly flexing the low back, the Curl-Up trains you to brace your abdominals in a static position and to hold the spine in a stable position.
Here’s a video of me showing you how to perform the Curl-Up (and I apologize for the cell phone camera quality. I’ll do better next time!):
The only down-side to the Curl-Up is that it can be a bit too challenging for some individuals who have abdominal injuries such as hernias, diastasis recti, or any other weakness to the structure of the abdominal muscles and fascia. In this case it is best to start with a less challenging exercise, such as a variation of the Dead Bug exercise
Here is a video showing you some progressions which take the Dead Bug exercise from very basic, to a more challenging level:
#2: The Bird Dog
The second core exercise is the Bird Dog. While the name may seem funny (it comes from the similarity in how the exercise looks to a hunting dog pointing to a bird), it is an excellent core exercise that often goes unnoticed and underappreciated by many.
The Bird Dog is an exercise that achieves many goals with one movement. It trains the body to reflexively coordinate and stabilize the core muscles while removing two points of stability. It also trains the extensor muscles of the back that run along the spine to co-contract and stabilize the spine during movement. Additionally, it trains the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder and hip to provide stability to those joints throughout the movement.
All told, this one exercise gives you work on all of the core muscles as they contract to stabilize the spine during movement, it gives you work on the extensor muscles of the back, and it gives you practice stabilizing the hip and shoulder during a dynamic movement. As you can see, it’s an exercise which gives you great bang for your buck!
Another benefit of the Bird Dog is that it provides a good training effect for the back without putting the same compressive load on the spine that other common back extension exercises do. This is because the Bird Dog activates only a portion of the back extensors at once. According to McGill:
The key to preserving a therapeutic muscle activation level while minimizing the spine load is to activate only one side of the spine musculature at a time…For the purposes of this discussion, we can think of the extensors in four sections – right and left thoracic portions and right and left lumbar portions. The common extension task of performing torso extension with the legs braced and cantilevered upper body extending over the end of a bench or Roman chair activates all four extensor groups and typically imposes over 4000 N (about 890 lb) of compression on the spine. Even worse is the commonly prescribed back extension task in clinics, in which the patient lies prone and extends the legs and outstretched arms; this again activates all four extensor sections but imposes up to 6000 N (over 1300 lb) on a hyperextended spine. This is not justifiable for any patient! (91)
In this section, McGill refers to several common back extension exercises, all of which cause large compressive loads on the spine. Hyperextensions (also known as “hypers”), Glute-Ham Raises, and other similar back extension exercises can cause more harm than good.
Hyperextensions off a Back Extension Machine
Additionally, the final exercise McGill refers to, popularly known as the “Superman,” in which you lie on your stomach and extend both arms and both legs off the ground at the same time, can cause enough compression on the spine to come close to the weight of a cow!
Surprisingly, this exercise isn’t just done in gyms, but it’s also very popular in rehab clinics where it’s given to people with back pain. This doesn’t make much sense!
Instead of performing these exercises that compromise the spine and add more loading on it than it can handle, McGill advocates for the Bird Dog exercise. Done properly, the Bird Dog adds about half as much loading on the spine (about 3000 N) as the Superman exercise, which is enough to train the muscles without compromising spine health.
Here’s a video to demonstrate how to properly perform the Bird Dog exercise:
#3: The Pallof Press
The final of the three exercises is the Pallof Press. Named after physical therapist, John Pallof, who popularized the exercise, the Pallof Press is an excellent core exercise that is quite different from traditional core training exercises.
The Pallof Press is an anti-rotation core exercise, meaning that it is used to train the core to resist rotation. As I discussed above, while the core is meant to move, it’s main function is really to prevent excessive movement and to provide stability to the spine. So, the goal with this exercise is to use the core muscles to stabilize the spine against a rotational force.
To perform the exercise, you can use either a cable machine or a band with adequate resistance. You will set up in line with the band or cable, facing sideways. Starting from the stomach or sternum, press away from your body with both hands. As you increase the distance from your body that the resistance is held, you’ll feel the pull from the cable or band getting stronger. Being able to hold stable under this increased resistance is what makes this core exercise so effective.
This is a much better, not to mention safer, way to train the rotational muscles of the core, such as the obliques. Exercises like Russian Twists place far too much rotational stress on the spine, with the result that you will wear down the spine rather than train the core to prevent spinal injury.
The other benefit of the Pallof Press is that it can be scaled up or down to meet the ability level of almost anyone. You can vary the resistance, change the stance, or add in some lower body movement to enhance the effect of this versatile core exercise. Because of this it can be performed by anyone from geriatric clients to high level athletes.
So, give these three core exercises a try. I promise you’ll notice a difference in core strength and stability, without compromising the health of your back!
McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders. Human Kinetics, 2007.