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It's Time to Look at Core Training Differently
Due to recent trends, too many lifters and coaches approach core training from a place of fear. All of a sudden, too many exercises are dangerous for spinal health or they're not functionally "useful." Oh, and shudder, they can promote the wrong results for a lifter from an aesthetic perspective.
Look, the things you're afraid of might actually be true, but you need to take context into consideration.
Every "bad" exercise isn't bad for everyone, every time. Just because someone, somewhere said that trunk flexion can have negative side effects doesn't rule them out for anyone who wants to build strong abs. The last time I checked, one major function of the abdominals was to create trunk flexion.
Exercises that place the spine in flexion like a sit-up, pike, or crunch pattern shouldn't be shunned if you're an otherwise healthy person. That would be ridiculous. It's not like you'd be doing such patterns 24/7.
On a similar note, direct training of the obliques likely won't "thicken your trunk" unless you're genetically predisposed to that kind of response, or you're ready to apply a whole lot of volume to induce hypertrophy.
Here are five exercises that serve as a worthwhile departure from "safer" training movements:
1. Off-Bench Oblique Chops
Off-bench movements are hard enough as they are, but once you manipulate the lever arm by extending your extremities, you take them to a whole new level.
This is the most advanced version. It takes massive oblique stability and lateral flexion strength to pull it off. As you can see in the video, I'm performing my reps with a 5-pound plate. I wouldn't recommend going any higher than 10 pounds, no matter how strong you are.
Do this exercise with integrity. Using incomplete ranges of motion takes away from the movement's quality and efficacy.
2. Decline Supine Rollout
During the standard ab-wheel rollout, many people exit lumbar neutrality and enter extension at the end ranges. That's not good.
Being in excessive extension with the arms overhead is a very stressful position for the spine that usually causes immediate discomfort. It also presents risk. Changing the movement pattern from a prone rollout to a supine pattern that mimics the same action is the money shot.
Think about it: Typically, the decline bench promotes trunk flexion only, but we can use this to our advantage here since that flexion usually involves a posterior pelvic tilt. Holding a mid-range position and increasing the lever arm prevents the spine from exiting a neutral position while challenging the abs and anterior chain to an insane degree.
I'm only holding 10 pounds in the video, so it clearly doesn't take much to torch the targeted muscles.
3. Banded Decline Sit-Up with Eccentric Emphasis
This exercise is typically done with ropes and a cable pulley system, but I like doing them with a band for a couple of reasons. First, the obvious. This version is much more convenient than hauling over a decline bench to your pulley system.
Secondly, using a band instead of a pulley changes the resistance profile. In English, that means that near the bottom of the rep (near the top of the bench), the resistance is little to none. At the top of the rep – where the hips are the most flexed – the resistance is at its max (since the bands are the most stretched).
This is a great modification to safeguard long-term health, especially for people who have a history of lower back issues. The key is to accentuate the negative rep and descend as slowly as possible.
Take a close look at the movement pattern. Don't underestimate this. Just like the rollout variation, increasing the size of the lever arm (by reaching above your head) makes a world of difference. It doesn't take much weight – and definitely not a thick band – to get all the benefits. Anything more and you'll lose your form in a hurry.
4. Suitcase Deadlift
When you want to torch your obliques, you need to work lateral flexion of the spine instead of just rotation. In this case, we're going to brace against lateral flexion. The suitcase deadlift does just that.
To ensure proper execution, set up beside the loaded bar with your typical deadlift stance. As you perform the lift, everything about it must look as though you've got weight evenly loaded on both sides – no twisting, leaning, or dipping.
To increase the core activity of virtually any major movement, simply throw in a Zercher hold where you carry the bar in the crook of the arm.
Doing squats, good mornings, lunges, loaded carries, or even shrugs in this position requires the body to do a whole lot more bracing through the trunk since you're carrying the bar slightly farther away from the body.
Just to familiarize yourself with Zercher work, here's a basic Zercher squat:
The most common issue people find with Zercher carries is that it can be slightly uncomfortable to carry the bar in the crook of the elbows. Rather than be a meathead who just says "man up," I have an actual solution.
Wrapping the bar with a towel can be helpful, but towels can often slide around on the bar. Instead, using Fat Gripz on the spots where the bar contacts your arms works great. The added surface area of the grips disperses the pressure of each contact point.
Second, if you plan on doing Zercher work, wear a hoodie. The long sleeves create a softer surface and you won't have to explain the bruises at your next social gathering... whenever that might happen again.