Jan 9th, 2017
Long time no newsletter! Here’s a good one to make up for that.
The most common thing I hear when asking people about the goals they have for working out is, a stronger core. In this edition, you’ll find exercises that are core-specific and also compound exercises, which build a stronger core while also working plenty of other muscles. But first, a breakdown on what exactly is the core, and why and how to train it.
So what is your core? A lot more than those “six-pack” muscles on top.
When people think of the core they often think of the rectus abdominus muscles, commonly trained to create the six-pack abs effect. But the core is made up of a lot of major and minor muscles – the obliques along the sides of your abdominal area, the latissimus dorsi at your sides and back, the gluteus maximus, and even the pelvic floor, to name just a few. These core muscles work together to stabilize movement, to transfer force from one side of the body to the other, or to initiate movement itself. Our core allows us to move in all three planes of motion: the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes. Think of the core as the nexus of your fitness capabilities. Everybody should focus on strengthening their core.
The list of core muscles is long and easily forgotten; the important thing to remember is that they all work together and should be trained as a whole through a balanced and varied workout plan which, along with proper nutrition, may get you six-pack abs in the process.
In everyday life, the core acts as a stabilizer. Every time you pick something up or hold something over your head, your core is helping to stabilize your body in place. Developing this core stability protects the spine and surrounding muscles from injury. Training the core also helps a person improve their balance, have more confidence on uneven terrain, and improve mobility in other areas whether it is skiing or hiking. A stronger core makes a person stronger overall and gives more control of the body.
In the gym, the core functions as a sturdy base upon which you can build greater strength in other muscle groups, because of the stability in the midline.
So what are the best ways to develop core strength and stability? The best are compound exercises which target multiple muscle groups and replicate movements we all do every day. That way, you’re being efficient with your time in the gym, training yourself for functional everyday movements, and hitting many muscles – those that are part of the core, and those that are not. My favorites are deadlifts and front squats but there are many to choose from to keep your workouts varied. Other bodyweight movements to train the core indirectly by maintaining a rigid core throughout each rep are push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, or dips which should all be practiced regularly.
The other way to strengthen the core is to include core-specific exercises into your workouts, such as sit-ups, ab twists, knee raises, and back extensions. These exercises should be incorporated into your workouts frequently along with other bodyweight movements and compound exercises using kettlebells, barbells, or dumbbells, to compose a well-rounded workout routine built upon a strong core.
Listed below are several exercises that focus on strengthening the core through stabilization, transfer of force, and initiation of movement. These exercises should be practiced regularly through various rep schemes and time constraints.
Dumbbell front squat
- Works core, legs, shoulders, and kind of everything. Great for all levels. Core function is to stabilize.
Start with dumbbells resting on your shoulders. Make sure your elbows stay elevated and parallel to the floor throughout each repetition. This will keep the weights from wanting to slide forward onto the floor. This also engages the shoulder muscles so the weights are resting on muscle instead of bones. Take a deep breath and squat until your hip crease comes level with or below the top of your knees. Exhale as you stand back up and complete the rep. Be sure to keep your chest up, gaze forward and knees out. Keep a tight, active core to ensure your chest does not come too far forward which will stress the lower back.
- Works core, legs, shoulders, and kind of everything. Advanced exercise, takes time to develop the technique. Core function is to stabilize.
Now, the overhead (OH) squat is a bit more technically difficult than other squats. Anyone doing this move for the first time should begin by practicing with the PVC pipe (usually found tucked behind the dumbbell rack downstairs.) The PVC pipe allows you to first work on form before adding weight to the movement.
Start with the barbell in the back rack or back squat position taking a wide grip on the barbell as the barbell should only be 8 to 12″ above your head when your arms are fully extended. Push jerk the weight overhead and stabilize your shoulders by pressing up with them making sure your armpits are facing forward. Take a deep breath and slowly squat to proper depth (hip crease level with or below top of knee) while maintaining the center of the bar over the top of your shoelaces. Exhale as you stand up and complete the rep.
OH squats require a tight core throughout each rep to maintain the integrity of your back. This exercise trains the anterior and posterior core muscles equally.
- A core-specific movement. Great for all levels. Core function is transfer of force.
Ab twists are a great exercise for isolating the core, and specifically for training the obliques and abs. They are also very scale-able: they can be done with feet on the floor or feet raised and with no weight or with added resistance in the form of a medicine ball, dumbbell, or kettlebell. Start seated on the floor with your arms extended on one side of your body. Rotate your trunk to the other side of your body then return to your starting position. That is one rep. Keep your chest up and make sure not to hunch forward. This is a great exercise to add to your routine on days when you want a more core-specific focus.
Try this: GHD sit-ups and back/hip extensions
- Core-specific movements targeting the abs and lower back. GHD sit-ups are advanced, back extensions are for all levels. Core is the primary mover.
Glute-ham developer (GHD) sit-ups target the abs and hip muscles. Start by figuring out the proper setting on the GHD stand for the GHD sit-up. Most people will have the foot holder set 4 to 6 notches from the end. You want your hamstrings to be centered on top of the padding and your glutes and lower back to be near the end of the padding. Facing up, secure your feet in the foot holds. Extend your arms overhead and lower yourself until you touch the floor. Then extend your legs, contract your hips, bring your arms back in front of you and touch the pads by your feet. This is one rep.
People who have never used the GHD stand should start by doing no more than 50 reps their first time out. The reps can also be scaled by limiting your range of motion to halfway, 3/4 of the way, or by stacking stretching mats on the floor behind you and touching those instead of the floor. If you do too many GHD sit-ups too early without working up to higher numbers, you can be left seriously sore for a while. You should be able to do multiple sets of sit-ups using the ab mat before trying the GHD stand.
Back/hip extensions target the lower back and hip muscles. Start by adjusting the machine for your body size. To do back extensions on the GHD stand I move the setting one notch further toward the end than I do for GHD sit-ups. Your hips should be free of the padding, and the padding should not be digging into your quads. Facing down, secure your feet in the foot holds. Cross your arms over your chest with your chest parallel to the floor, contract your hips so that your chest is perpendicular to the floor, and extend your hips back to your starting position of chest parallel to floor. This is one rep.
If you do a lot of sitting for your job this is an excellent way to combat lower back pain. As with GHD sit-ups, start with a modest amount of reps and work your way up to higher numbers. Also, make sure not to overextend your back coming up from the bottom position of the back/hip extension.
TRY THIS: Workout II
Every 2 minutes, for as long as possible, complete:
- Pull-ups, 7 reps
- Front squats, 2 reps
- Pull-ups, 7 reps
- Front squats, 4 reps
- Pull-ups, 7 reps
- Front squats, 6 reps
Continue adding 2 reps to the front squat each subsequent 2-minute round for as long as you are able. Your rest is the time left after finishing front squats for that round. This workout is over when you cannot complete front squat reps during a 2-minute round.
For this workout, I did strict pull-ups and used a 185-pound barbell for the front squats. I made it into the 7th round, or 14th minute, before failing my front squats. I completed 49 pull-ups and 51 front squats. Front squats are a strength of mine and I have been working hard to improve my pull-ups. This workout went better than I expected.
How you do the front squats is determined by your level of fitness. A beginner should start with dumbbells. Pick a weight that looks safe, and do a few test reps. If you can’t keep your elbows parallel to the floor throughout the rep, the weight is too high. If five test reps feel too easy, then the weight is probably too low. Most women start between 10 and 15 pounds, and most men between 20 and 25.
For a greater challenge, use the barbell and choose a weight that’s approximately your ten-rep maximum. Keep in mind the barbell front squat requires a high degree of mobility in the wrists and elbows. Talk to Nate if you want to acquire this move.
How you do the pull-ups is also determined by your level of fitness. Beginners should sub ring rows for the pull-ups. Other subs for strict pull-ups are band pull-ups, jumping pull-ups, and kipping pull-ups.
Reps add up quickly in this workout. The first two rounds should be easy but the intensity should quickly ramp up. To complete the maximum amount of reps, don’t break between pull-ups and front squats.