Total Core Training for Lifters

How and When to Train Your Core

There are two popular beliefs about core training. On one side, there are the functional pundits. You know the type: hell-bent on transverse abdominus activation, breathing into balloons, and dedicating an entire day to pelvic clocks and glute activation. On the opposite side is the faction that proclaims, "I don't need direct core work; I do squats and deadlifts." The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The core has two major tasks when you're throwing weights around the gym:

  1. It prevents unnecessary movement. This protects internal structures, like your spine, from folding like an accordion and setting you up for months of PT.
  2. It transfers force between the upper and lower body. Think of this as minimizing flexing and any power leaks in your spine. Using a high-bar squat as an example, you'd rather have a core that holds a static, mostly neutral position over one that "gives" under load and turns your squat into a good morning.

Back injuries can be a death sentence to hard training. And injuries tend to happen because of either poor technique or poor strength-activation of core muscles. Technique is a case-by-case issue and should be fixed independently. Activation, however, is something you can control, and it starts BEFORE you even touch a barbell.

Most lifters work the typical desk job, sitting in the same position for 8-12 hours a day, 300 days per year. This makes jumping into a similar flexed position (deadlift, squat) risky. By training the core first in the workout, you're activating dormant muscles that spend most of the day relaxed.

If the muscles primarily responsible for preventing unwanted movement and transferring force to your core aren't activated and working, how can you expect them to prevent your spine from folding once you add a heavy load? You can't. A muscle that isn't fired-up can't resist massive force and improve your training. Let's change that.

Nail down your pre-lift core activation. Take a balanced approach and thoroughly attack all the functions of the core. That means working it a few ways: anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, anti-rotation, and improving glute engagement.

  1. Do anti-extension exercises. Resist extension of the spine, like arching your lower back.
    • Variations: Planks, body-saws, TRX fallouts, walkouts, stability ball rollouts, and ab wheel rollouts.
  2. Do anti-lateral flexion exercises. The goal is preventing your body from bending sideways, like good old dumbbell side bends. The coach-speak way of describing this is "resisting lateral flexion" – an action carried out primarily by the quadratus lumborum (QL) and obliques.
    • Variations: Side plank variations, single-arm carries, suitcase deadlifts, and the almighty man-card act of carrying all your groceries in one trip. In general, exercises where you're standing tall and hold an offset load have an anti-lateral flexion component.
  3. Do anti-rotation exercises. True anti-rotation exercises are done to resist rotation at the lumbar spine. Every now and then you'll see someone with a wooden dowel or barbell on their shoulders, rotating side to side to "loosen the back." Unless you fantasize about disk herniations and walking like a hunchback, please avoid shit like that. Yes, some athletes need explosive rotational capabilities, but this is built over a foundation of strength and anti-rotation stability first.
    • Variations: Pallof presses, half-kneeling iso-holds, and half-kneeling chops and lifts reign king here. Compound exercises like an offset dumbbell split row or renegade row work well, too.
  4. Work on glute engagement. Maintain a neutral, braced spine position while generating force without losing position – folding like an accordion during a squat or deadlift. The collective role of the glute muscles is to extend the hip (lock out a lift, push-off into a sprint), abduct (bring your leg away from the middle of your body), externally rotate (turning your leg out), and internally rotate (turning your leg in) the hip joint.
    • Variations: Quadruped hip extensions, clamshells, lateral band walks, x-band monster walks. Also, compound exercises like squats, hips thrusts, deadlifts, and lunges with a focus on full hip extension and a glute squeeze at the top of a movement.

Many coaches and researchers state that the glutes should be the primary hip extender, done without losing neutral spine position. In cases like that, the quadruped position teaches athletes to set the core and fire the glutes. Extrapolating this function and applying it to big lifts like the squat is exactly what we want to accomplish.

Stimulate rather than annihilate your core. This is best done during or after a dynamic warm-up, before your first major lift. Remember, body position is your primary focus, so don't try to be explosive here or chase fatigue. Choose whichever level best fits your needs.

Do anti-extension, glute activation (gluteus maximus), and anti-lateral flexion.

Level One, Least Difficult

  Exercise Sets Reps
A RKC Plank or Push-up Plank 2-3 45-60 sec.
B Quadruped Hip Extension 2 8/side
C Side-Plank 2-3 45-60 sec.

Level Two, Moderately Difficult

  Exercise Sets Reps
A TRX Fallout or Stability Ball Rollout 2 8
B Supine Hip Thrust 2 8/side
C Feet-Elevated Side Plank 2-3 45-60 sec.

Level Three, Most Difficult

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Ab Wheel Rollout 2 8-12
B Single-Leg Hip Thrust 2 8/side
C Single-Arm Farmer's Carry 2 30 steps

Do anti-rotation, glute activation (glute medius).

Level One, Least Difficult

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Half-Kneeling Anti-Rotation Hold 2 15-20 sec.
B Clamshell 2 8

Level Two, Moderately Difficult

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Half-Kneeling Pallof Press 2 8-12
B Lateral Band Walk 2 8-12

Level Three, Most Difficult

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Tall Kneeling Pallof Press 2 8-12
B X-Band Monster Walk 2 8-12

Eric Bach is a highly sought-after strength and conditioning coach, located in Colorado. Eric specializes in helping athletes and online clients achieve optimal performance in the gym and on the playing field. Follow Eric Bach on Facebook