The Core Training Hierarchy – Are You Ready for Abs?

by | Aug 22, 2019 | Training

Are you REALLY satisfied with the way your core looks?

I don’t believe I have a single client who feels completely secure with his or her midsection.

In my years as a coach, I think there are a select few instances where someone was confident in their core.

Personally, I’m not even confident in what’s under my shirt.

I truly believe this is the area of biggest discomfort for the majority of the population.

We all want to eat better and to workout a bit more regularly.

Even more, we want to see that scale number drop.

But I had a college professor who put it best, what we all really want is to look good naked.

Well, since the core makes up the majority of what we see when we stand in front of the mirror naked, that’s why it’s our biggest area of insecurity.

It would be so easy to roll this blog into a mindset piece.

“Your core does so much for you, appreciate and love what it does for you!”

You should absolutely know that and value to all that the core does, but that doesn’t take away the insecurity.

That’s why I want to teach you about the core and how to train it best, so you can start to feel proud and confident about this section of your body.

Defining the Core

The first thing to improving your core is to actually understand WHAT the core is, or should I say where?

There’s more to the core than what we think…

I remember a very frustrated client telling me that Supermans are not a core exercise.

She’s not alone.

In fact, the majority of the population believes their core only consists of their stomach.

Heck, I was part of that majority until I learned about it in COLLEGE.

So if it’s not just our abs, what actually IS the core?

In short, the core is essentially everything besides your arms and legs.

The anatomical definition states that the core is a complex series of muscles involved in nearly every bodily movement.

The core is broken into two categories

Stabilizers are the muscles that aid in your ability to steady and maintain core stability.

These muscles include:

  • Transverse Abdominus
  • Internal Obliques
  • Lumbar Multifidus
  • Pelvic Floor Muscles
  • Diaphragm
  • Transverse Spinalis

The other core muscles are regarded as the movers. The purpose of these muscles is to create force and help the body move.

These muscles include:

  • Rectus Abdominus
  • External Obliques
  • Erector Spinae
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Hamstrings
  • Hip Adductors
  • Hip Abductors

You see, the core is much more than your “abs.”

It extends well above and below the area we pray one day resembles a 6-pack of beer.

The core extends far beyond our belly, just as it’s capabilities and functions are far greater than just appearance.

According to Breaking Muscle, the core has three possible functions:

  • Initiate movement itself
  • Work as an isometric or dynamic stabilizer for movement
  • Transfer force across extremities

Did you notice that not a single one of those were “be the most defined part of the human body?”

That’s not its purpose.

It’s called the core for the reason – it’s at the center of all body movements.

The core is able to help your body move in all three planes of movement:

  • Sagittal Plane – divides the body left and right with front to back movements.
  • Frontal Plane – divides the body front to back with sideways movements.
  • Transverse Plane – divides the body top and bottom with rotational movements.

The primary purpose of the core is to protect the spine, internal organs, and related musculature during static and dynamic movements in order to prevent injury.

Once the core is stable, then you can work on its secondary function – the effective and efficient production and transfer of force during dynamic movements with ability to maintain core stability.

That takes training and work.

But that training and work does not mean you need to start pumping out the sit-ups.

In fact, sit-ups are such a dynamic movement that they should be one of later exercises you add into your training regimen.

First, you need to strengthen the core for it’s primary purpose – protection and stabilization.

In Andy Waldhem’s Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models, he suggests motor control and function as the two foundational components of core stability; therefore, only after those two components are solidified can one develop core strength, endurance, and flexibility.

However, too often, despite research showing greater core stability directly correlates to a lower risk for injury, people train in the reverse order…

I get it, your primary goal (like nearly everyone’s!) is to look good naked, and there is nothing sexy about motor control and basic function.

But don’t give up on me just yet….

Taking the time to stabilize the core’s motor control and functioning will ABSOLUTELY give you a leaner, stronger, sexier core.

On top of that, you’re going to FEEL better.

You’ll notice things like back, hip, and shoulder pain to be a little less nagging or

HOPEFULLY gone all together.

How great would it be to LOOK and FEEL good naked?

You can’t honestly tell me that doesn’t sound appealing…

So let’s talk about how to start that training.

Just like every other pyramid, you must start at the bottom, solidify the foundation, and

THEN move to the next level.

Now you may think to yourself, “Breathing? Seriously? I do that all the time! Move me right on up to bracing.”

But the reality is that the majority of us breathe in a way that requires little to no core engagement.

The diaphragm is a thin muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. Its primary purpose is in respiration; however, the short and shallow breathing standard to so many of us restricts the diaphragmatic action.

The diaphragm is the primary stabilizer to the core, which is why diaphragmatic breathing is the base of the pyramid.

In order to build on that foundation, you must first know whether or not your diaphragm is contributing to your breath.

The best way to do this is to sit comfortably in a chair or lie down on the floor. Place one hand on your chest, and one on your belly. Inhale in, and take note as to which hand rises first. If the hand placed on your chest rises before or simultaneously as the one placed on your belly, your diaphragm could use some work…

There are 3 breathing exercises, I recommend to help start up that diaphragm again:

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing – lie on your back again placing one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a deep breath in, and work to breathe THROUGH the hand placed on your belly.
  • Box Breathing – Sit comfortably in a chair or lie flat on the floor. Inhale to a four count, hold for four, exhale on a four count, and hold again for four seconds. Focus on breathing deep through the belly.
  • Bear Breathing – Set up on the floor with the hands under the shoulders, knees under the hips a few inches off the floor, and the toes on the floor. Inhale allowing the belly to expand, and pulling the elbows toward the knees to brace the core. Exhale while maintaining core positioning.

IF you still cannot get that diaphragm to fire, then I recommend you set up an appointment with a chiropractor or breath work therapist. Dr. Tom Pastor might dig his fingers into my diaphragm, but I think he’s one of the best so if you’re looking for an appointment, click HERE to get in with him!

Once you’ve taught yourself how to breathe and engage the diaphragm, you can move to the next step of the pyramid – bracing.

Bracing exercises are designed to strengthen the core for its most fundamental purposes – protection and stability.

These exercises improve the isometric contraction of the core or what is better known as creating tension.

Whether you know it or not, your core creates different degrees of tension every moment throughout the day. Without this tension, you would not be able to sit up at your desk chair or walk around your home.

These exercises are not the flashy exercises you see on Instagram, but here are my top recommendations for bracing exercises:

  • Plank
  • Hollow Hold
  • Hanging Holds

With all three, it’s important to make sure the rib cage is tucked in and the spine is in a neutral position; therefore, you’re able to contract the core top to bottom.

Now, just because you master those exercises, does not mean you can move right to the flashy Instagram exercises.

The next step up the pyramid is to anti-movement exercises.

Breathing and bracing are designed to strengthen the core for protection and stability, but anti-movement exercises are those that begin to train the core for more intense training and day-to-day movements.

Your body has the ability to rotate and move in a variety of directions; however, insufficient strength or too much movement can not only impede movement but damage the muscles built from breathing and bracing.

Here are my most common suggestions for anti-movement exercises:

Bird Dogs

  • Description: While on your hands and knees, reach out overhead with the right arm while simultaneously extending the left leg leading with the heel.

Paloff Presses

  • Description: Stand with the feet shoulder width apart with a band or cable held with both hands in the center of the chest. Keeping the hips and shoulders facing forward, press the hands away from the chest until the arms are straight. Pause, and slowly bring the hands back to the chest.

Cable Holds

  • Description: Stand with the feet shoulder width apart with a band or cable held with both hands in the center of the chest. Keeping the hips and shoulders facing forward, press the hands away from the chest until the arms are straight. Hold that position for 15 to 30 seconds, and then slowly bring the hands back to the chest.

Plank Pulls

  • Description: Set up into a high plank position with the hands directly below the shoulders and a weight, sand bag, or weight plate underneath the chest. Lift right hand off the floor, grab hold of the weight and pull the weight across the floor from left to right. Once you cannot pull any further, leave the weight and return the hand to a plank position. Lift the left hand up, and pull the weight from right to left.

Renegade Rows

  • Description: Set up into a high plank position with a dumbbell under each hand. Pull the right hand with the weight off the floor by pulling the right elbow toward the back hip. Return the weight to the floor, and repeat on the left side.

Shoulder Taps

  • Description: Set up into a high plank position. Lift the right hand off the floor and bring the right hand to tap the left shoulder. Return the right hand to the floor and repeat with the left hand.

Offset Movements (Single Side Squats, Presses, RDLs, Rows)

  • Description: With any of these movements, you will hold a weight on one side of the body as you move through the various body movements.

You’re getting closer to the flashy Instagram exercises with the anti-movement exercises, but remember, these are not meant to be flashy, the purpose as your body goes through its daily motions.

There is so much potential for variety in this step of the period, that it’s perfectly acceptable to never move up past this point, and dependent on your training and health history, it might be best for you to stay at this stage.

If you are someone who has mastered anti-movement exercises, your next step would bring you to bodyweight flexion exercises.

These are the exercises commonly thought of as core exercises, as they include sit up variations, crunch variations, and caterpillar variations.

It’s important that as you move from anti-movement to flexion exercises, that you do start with bodyweight. Flexion exercises are commonly the flashy Instagram exercises, but it’s important not to jump right to these exercises because of excitement.

Bodyweight movements build the motor control and stability as you begin to flex and extend the core and reduce the chance for injury.

I recommend you start with:

  • Basic Sit Ups or Crunches
  • Butterfly Sit Ups or Crunches
  • Leg Raises
  • V Sits or Accordion Sit Ups
  • Basic Caterpillars

Remember, it is more than acceptable to stick with anti-movement exercises, so if these flexion exercises generate any aches or pains, consider reverting back to or primary utilizing anti-movement exercises.

The last step of the pyramid is loaded carries.

These sit atop the pyramid because these exercises primarily involve an unstable core and some relatively heavy weights.

Loaded carries include exercises such as:

  • Suitcase Carries
  • Farmers Carries
  • Waiter Carries
  • Trap Bar Holds or Carries

These exercises truly require the core strength and stability built from the bottom up of this pyramid, and may only be necessary for competitive lifters or athletes.

The Core Training Hierarchy contains a wide enough variety of core exercises and progressions that most would be set for a lifetime.

Regardless of where you’re starting or currently at in this hierarchy, it’s important to remember four things:

  • Don’t Rush the Process – start where you are and work to solidify and strengthen the movement pattern. How the abs look is just as important to me as it is to you, but remember that how they look is much less important if you cannot move around to show them off….
  • Form ALWAYS Matters – core work (like most exercises actually) is more about quality versus quantity. Improper form or movement can easily turn off the right set of muscles and turn on the wrong ones. Be in tune with how your body is moving, stop when you need a rest, and make every repetition your best one.
  • Don’t Forget the Foundation – Your breath work is the foundation to ALL exercises, not just core work, so no matter which step of pyramid you’re at, keep up with the exercises from the steps below. You’ll notice a difference in performance AND appearance.
  • Exercise Only Goes so Far – You can work your way all the way up this pyramid, but if you don’t put forth similar effort into your diet, your abs will never look the way you want them to.

If you don’t know where to start, how to improve your form, or how to put together a diet that will actually get you the core you desire, click HERE to see how you can start to build that TODAY.

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