If it hurts to cough the next day, then you have worked your core effectively!
With this post I would like to get back to the gym and write about (and demonstrate) my favorite core exercises that can help you in running (and really any endurance sport), weight training, Strongman and even bending. You will be able to run more efficiently (by being able to more easily maintain a torso perpendicular to the ground longer in a race), generate more power on each foot plant, and reduce the shock impact to your organs and spine during your runs. In the gym (and in strength sports competitions) you will be able to utilize your lower body power more effectively and reduce the risk of injury in all lifts (even standing curls.. seriously). Even in bending and grip work having a store core allows you to utilize the power that you have more effectively… the adage of the weakest link in the chain is true.
In addition to all those above.. who wants to be a serious athlete and have a “humorous” core? I doubt many of you. When I refer to our core I am generally referring to the abdominals, obliques, intercostals, lumbars, erectors and glutes (with other smaller muscles surrounding these areas that get worked and strengthened as well).
All exercises demonstrated can be done with a relatively wide rep range. Generally core work is on the higher side (8 – 30) but there are times when you are doing very challenging reps (like the hanging leg raises to your chin) and you may only be able to get 2 – 6 reps (when you are able to get to the point where you can even do them). With core work you generally know when you are done! There comes a point where there just isn’t another rep left, but (especially for the first few months) you are probably better off stopping a few reps before you get to that point. These exercises will work without going to absolute failure.. you will know that within 24 – 48 hours after doing them!
One more thing to note.. and this is probably the most important thing that I want to get across in this post… any trainer or writer or friend that tells you that your core muscles (they will usually be referring to your abdominals and obliques) are “different” from the rest of your muscles somehow and therefore can be worked 5 – 6 days a week… gently grimace and then run away very quickly! Especially if you are paying them to train you! This is such utter nonsense and if you get nothing else out of this post then please understand that core muscle fibers are no different than other muscle fibers in the most basic ways. They need to recover just like all muscles. Does this mean that you can only work them once a week (like say a very punishing squatting session)? No. They are generally smaller muscles and you won’t be attacking them in the same way.. but you should not be hitting the individual core muscles (you can split up abdominals, obliques, glutes and lumbars on different days if you wish) more than every other day. They need 48 hours of rest and really respond just as well if not better with 72 hours (if you work them very hard). So what I am saying is 2 – 3 times a week is plenty if done correctly and aggressively. I usually only work my core twice a week and all muscles involved have never been stronger. RECOVERY is the key!
So below you will find video demonstrations of my favorite core exercises performed by myself and my friend Rich. I noticed that in some of them I have some pretty silly facial expressions.. so enjoy! I aim to not only instruct, but also entertain 🙂 In most videos there is some descriptions being voiced, so if you can listen to them it is to your benefit. You should most certainly not plan on (unless perhaps very advanced and have a decent amount of time) doing all of them in one session. In fact one abdominal exercise (hanging leg raises, reverse crunches, decline situps, cable rope crunches and planks), one oblique (mainly oblique.. much of the core is involved in these exercises) exercise (hanging side crunches, side plank crunches, russian twists and ax chops) and one glute/lower back exercise (planks, good mornings, romanian deadlifts and reverse hyperextensions) in one session is plenty. Do 2 – 3 hard sets of each exercise (for a total of 6 – 9) and you can feel like you have worked them well. As you progress can you add more sets? Yes of course but I would rather you not do more than 4 sets of any one exercise and instead add another exercise to your routine (to hit different areas) if you want to work longer.
1) Hanging Leg Raises – These have gotten a bad rap from some because they have been described as being mostly a hip movement. It is possible to have it work your abdominals less and your hips more if you don’t stretch your legs back more at the bottom of the movement (actually a bit behind you.. I showed that in my video but it didn’t come out well) and also crunch in at the top of the movement.. pull your abs in and up.. don’t just swing your legs up. In this (as in all abdominal exercises) use your abs to do the work.. don’t swing your legs or your torso to finish the movement. This is a very tough and very productive movement when done right. A staple in my core routine. Believe me when I say you will know that it worked your abs the next day! Many times getting out of bed is a challenge! Rich shows a shorter range of motion with a heavier dumbbell. This is a good movement and really works to strengthen and toughen the deep abdominals. As Rich is a bodybuilder and powerlifter it will work to really strengthen his abs for heavy deadlifts and squats. In my video, I show a natural inverse progression of intensity (hardest to least difficult) going from straight legs attempting to touch your nose, to straight legs to bent knees.
2) Hanging Side Crunches – With this exercise you essentially you start in the same position as hanging leg raises and instead of levering your legs forward.. you crunch your obliques to each side individually and raise your legs (they should be bent at the knee) together laterally. First to one side and then to the other. In other words, raise your bent legs up in front of you once and then instead of lowering them down and raising them again.. keep them bent and raise your feet up together to each side and then back down to the standard bent leg position. Alternately you can raise your legs completely down each time and then up and crunch to the side. This is an intense and really powerful oblique movement that you see very few do and one that also does work the abdominals.
2) Reverse Crunches – Reverse Crunches can be done on a bench or on the floor, but there is a better range of motion on a bench and it is generally easier to hold yourself in place (alternatively you could use a bedpost or couch leg to hold onto one the floor). One thing you can do to make it more intense it to increase the incline of the bench, but don’t raise it very much. When you raise the incline significantly it puts a lot of pressure on your neck and I have had some neck issues doing that. There is no reason to have much of an incline (i generally have a small incline).. done correctly and hard this movement is very powerful. It is one of my staples. It works the whole abdominal wall (if you raise your glutes high enough off the bench) but does target the lower abs. The progression in intensity (as you get stronger on this movement) is from bent knees to straight legs to straight legs with extra weight (as you can see in the video).
3) Weighted Decline Situps – These are well known by almost all but Rich does a bit of a different take on them by holding a dumbbell high on his chest to add the resistance and also not going all the way down on the bench each rep. The reps are also very controlled.. don’t bounce up and down when doing situps. This raises the injury potential and disengages the muscles being used. You can go lower then he is going in this video, but be careful to feel the stretch and not to overstretch your abdominal wall. By not laying completely back on the bench, you are also keeping constant tension on the muscles. In the beginning, you certainly do not have to use weight. Decline situps are intense without weight, but as you progress adding weight allows you to increase the intensity without adding endless reps.
4) Weighted Planks – What I demonstrate here is simply standard planks with weight added to my back and with the addition of alternatively raising one leg to engage the glutes and the lumbars in a different way. It took me some time to get to the point where I could do these with 180lbs on my back (I am only using 90lbs for the demonstration) and weight isn’t necessary for some months when incorporating planks into your routine. Always do these for time and as you get stronger, you will last longer. There will come a point though (around 3 – 5 minutes) when you will want to increase the intensity with weight because it will get boring and kind of annoying if you get to good at them without weight.
5) Side Plank Crunches – Here I am showing both side planks for time and side plank crunches. Once again you should not worry about using weight in the beginning.. side planks are very challenging without weight so don’t feel bad if you find them quite difficult. Do the side planks for time (you shouldn’t be able to hold them as long as regular planks as you are using smaller muscles) and the side plank crunches for reps. Make sure to do both sides evenly. This exercise very thoroughly attack your obliques. I find them to be one of the best for tightening up my sides.
6) Russian Twists – A friend of mine told me (when I was about to show him how to do this movement) that anything with “Russian” in the name has to be hard 🙂 and he is right. With this movement you can use any type of weight (medicine ball, weight plate, dumbbell) and once again no weight in the beginning, but the key is full twists, changing the angle of your torso to the ground throughout the movement (in other words getting your torso closer to the ground and farther away as you do them) and keeping both your feet and your torso off the ground the entire time until done with the set. They are tough but good and work both the front abdominal wall, the obliques and the low back to an extent.
7) Ax Chops – Ax chops are very good at ensuring rotational stability. You are pulling across the abdominal wall and the obliques and this allows you to strengthen them in a way that stabilizes as you pull across your body in any movement. If this ability is weak, you will find it harder to run forward efficiently and also maintain the bar in a stable locked in position in the squat. The key is to stop the chop with force. Stop it suddenly and quickly.
8) Cable Overhead Rope Crunches – Rope Crunches are an exercise that has been around as long as cable machines have existed and while they are not the most powerful of all of the abdominal exercises.. they do work it through a unique range of motion and stretch your abdominal wall a bit more than most movements. My video shows a longer range of motion than Rich’s and both are good. Rich also shows a cool way to work your obliques when you are done with the cables at the end of his video. Don’t worry about going too heavy on these, the key is the tension on the muscle not overloading too much with weight.
9) Good Mornings – Good Mornings have a history of being somewhat maligned by some as (it is true) if done incorrectly and too heavy they can be somewhat dangerous. So take them lighter (especially at first) and don’t (as I do for some reason on my first rep) look down when doing them but look ahead so as to keep your back flat. Please keep your knees bent as you do the movement (straightening them as you finish at the top) and do not keep them straight and locked… this increases the potential for injury significantly. It is a very powerful movement for strengthening the erectors along the spine and the lumbars in the back. Done on the light side, slowly and cautiously they are a great lower back strengthener.
10) Romanian Deadlifts – Romanians are my favorite overall exercise for working the entire posterior chain (lower back, glutes and hamstrings) and are a tremendous addition to any workout plan. If you already deadlift then you can do 2 – 3 sets of these after you dead, but if you don’t then make them a staple of your gym routine once a week and you will be granted much more power and reduced injury potential. The key (as you can see from our videos) is to not lock your legs throughout the movement! Performing this exercise that way makes it a straight legged deadlift and there is little place for it in most people’s routine. It dramatically increases the pressure on your spine and takes the glutes and hamstrings mostly out of the movement.. and you want to work them! Straighten out at the top (like good mornings) but then bend your knees and keep them in that bent position.. holding them bent unlike a regular deadlift. You are essentially pivoting at the waist with your legs bent. I really like these and have for a lot of years. I show them with dumbbells and Rich shows them with a barbell. I do round my back a bit by looking down at the floor as opposed to looking straight ahead.. and this isn’t ideal but with lighter weights a rounded back actually sometimes has its place in your routine. In general, I recommend looking straight ahead and keeping your back flat. Rich shows this technique very well in his video. If you do not have the required flexibility to go all the way down to the floor with the bar or the dumbells then go as far as you comfortably can until you gain more flexibility.
11) Reverse Hyperextensions – The Reverse Hyperextension machine
is seen in very few but the most hardcore of gyms and that is ashame. I have one at the house but they aren’t cheap and I actually don’t use it very much because I don’t workout at the house much (which is kind of ridiculous now that I think about it!). It is a wonderful restorative exercise for the lower back and glutes and actually works to lengthen and decompress the spine whereas almost all movements (including running and most of what we do throughout the day) compress the spine. I have known many over the years that have essentially cured their back problems with this movement. Some powerlifters go very heavy on it (and you can if that is your area of focus) but without the machine you have to do light and do them the way I show in the video. Do them both with your legs together and your legs apart (separate sets for each or combine them in one set). Doing it on a bench with an exercise ball there aren’t many ways to add weight except perhaps with ankle weights or holding a medicine ball in between your legs. You don’t need weight though as one way to increase intensity is to raise the incline. You will feel this movement working without any weight believe me and it should feel really good. My back always feels better after doing them. They work your back and glutes in a unique way (and you won’t see many if any doing them at the gym) and I would work to include 3 – 4 sets once a week into your routine!
Well that is about it for now (this was a rather long post) but please work to incorporate core work that actually works into your routine and you will be stronger, more stable and more injury proof because of it!
Any questions at all about any movements please leave a comment.
Best of luck in your training!