Once upon a time as a personal trainer, my favorite thing to do was assess a client or possible client’s core strength. Not in the, how many horrible form crunches can you do in 2 minutes way, but in a functional way. We all know about the plank – the standard static core exercise that is still butchered even when done by some trainers. Do you know what muscles you are training when doing a plank? Do you know what cues you should be thinking.. and when your form breaks do you know how to reset it? Besides the plank, which many people don’t do even though they know they should, there are so many ways to train your core to be strong and functional without ever doing a crunch.T
The rectus abdominis are the muscles you “see”, and are also what are referred to as the “6 pack”. Depending on your level of conditioning, you may also be able to see your external obliques and your serratus. It is also my belief that your erectors (the muscles in your lower back that run vertically on either side of your spine) make up your core.
If done correctly, this exercise will activate all of the musculature in your core. This means that you are actively rolling your hips under and “tucking” your belly button into your spine. Your hips will form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles.. no sagging or forming a triangle. From the standard plank you can introduce all sorts of variations to increase difficulty – side plank, plank on bosu ball, plank to pushup position, plank while bringing one heel up to touch your glutes and back down… the list goes on and on.
Stability Ball Exercises
There is nothing more humbling than attempting to do a core stability exercise on a ball for the first time. Even experienced athletes wobble a time or two when introducing these movements. Some of my favorites include toe taps, mountain climber (I’ve always called them “runners”), and of course pikes. These exercises are difficult because you can’t use momentum to your advantage and cheat – you must focus on the movement and contract your core to stay in position. Don’t forget that you will also be activating your shoulders, chest, triceps, and legs to perform these; unlike crunches or sit ups.
If you have never done a loaded carry or a “farmer carry”.. drop what you’re doing (unless it’s heavy, in which case keep holding on), grab something moderately heavy and equal for both hands, and walk around in a steady and controlled manner for about 20-60 seconds. If your traps, forearms, and/or hands aren’t tired after a few sets.. it probably wasn’t heavy enough. Although you may not feel your core activate while doing carries like it would in the other exercises, the obliques and transversus abdominis are firing away to keep your body upright and stable. These muscles help to prevent bending and rotation and receive the most benefit from training in a scenario where they resist these motions.. rather than loading up weight and side-bending yourself dizzy. If you want to learn more about the carry and see several variations, check out www.drjohnrusin.com.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to become a certified TRX instructor – I’ve never been more sore in my life after completing the certification class. TRX straps are those super cool straps that hang from the ceiling, a doorway, a squat rack, or even a tree if the mood strikes you, with two handles that can be adjusted to different lengths depending on the exercise. The premise is that you are activating your core while performing everything from a pushup to a row, or even a handstand with your feet locked into the strap. The cue that has been permanently etched into my brain is to always squeeze the glutes and roll your pelvis under to keep everything engaged… aka no soft “applesauce” glutes like my instructor referred to them. Exercises that specifically target your abdominals include standing or kneeling rollouts, pikes, and planks.
If I see one more Insta-fit person throw on a waist trainer, do kipping toes to bar, or promote a weight-loss supplement while doing side bends with 45lb plate I’m going to throw my shaker bottle at them. I’ll throw up an ab flex photo during contest season, no judgement there. It is one of the easiest ways to tell how lean I’m getting. However, I know that my core is just as strong and functional as it is shredded.