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Athlete Abs: A Simple, Solid Solution For Training Your Core

Core Training doesn’t need to be complicated…

Every once and awhile I hear a trainer say that the best way to train core is by doing the big 3 (squat/bench and dead). Or even better, from an athlete as an excuse not to train core, because they already “Squat, Bench & Dead.”

As a coach who’s been around the industry for a fair while now, the only thing I enjoy poking my stick at more is crossfit (I actually love the crossfit games, and for intermediate and advanced athletes, crossfit is awesome. It’s a sport however, not a lifestyle training program and should be considered as such). But I digress…

I see it all the time – these ‘athletes’ can move 200kg/450lb’s on the bar, but can’t move themselves around a paloff press. Unless of course your sport is powerlifting (in which case keep on going) your athlete development is suffering.

Being able to resist movement, or controlling trunk movement whilst your limbs do cool things is fundamental to almost every athletic endeavour.

If you’re pro core training, be anti.

I remember the exercises that were synonymous with core training when I first started in the gym – sit ups, leg raises, roman chair, crunches and the like… These exercises have two things in common – they are all loaded flexion exercises, and they are also all crap for lifting your athletic game.

And I’m not being alarmist… I’m just being honest.

For the majority of us – sitting down in flexion and working in front of a computer, whether that be for school, work or university, then heading to the gym to do more flexion is stupid. Not only because flexion represents a very small component of core training, but because it’s like smearing butter on your morning butter.

For everyone in this position, we’d be more likely to encourage neutralising the spine and teaching the trunk to remain stable while the arms or legs move, with or without external resistance. This idea is largely due to the work of Stuart McGill who has been a pioneer in spinal biomechanics, and then adopted by giants like Mike Boyle, Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson.

Now, it’s commonly accepted that we’ll leave loaded spinal flexion for the new gym goers who refuse to get good advice and to those bootcamp trainers who prescribe exercise for the sake of it.

 

Enter The World of Anti-Core Training.

 

The trend of the past 5 years has come to a pretty strong undisputed conclusion – we are better off teaching our athletes how to resist and limit trunk movement than we are promoting it.

Because of this, we get our bro’s and brolette’s tell us the big three are enough, piggy-backing off the idea that resisting trunk movement is the aim of the game. But this assumes that the bench, squat and deadlift also provide the complete solution to the asymmetries, weaknesses, breathing problems, spinal alignment, and motor control issues we commonly see as coaches. If the best coaches are using breathing drills, deadbug variations and chops as troubleshooting initiatives for faulty big 3 mechanics, perhaps it’s good enough for you too. This article breaks ‘anti-’ core training into it’s three parts – anti-extension, -rotation and -lateral flexion.

Anti-Extension Training (AET)

This is all the rage at the moment. Improving anti-extension essentially involves coaching the client or athlete OUT of an extension pattern, commonly seen as an excessive anterior pelvic tilt. We’ve all seen it – that athlete with the long stretched out abs, the curve in their lower back, and the butt that pokes back as they are about to hit a twerking routine.

If you aren’t sure how to assess if this is you – turn side on in the mirror and stand relaxed. If you look like you could pass as a duck waddling – you’re probably like the majority of athletes I work with who are in an overly extended pattern.

This patterning can lead to hamstring strains, lower back pain and a host of other movement complications. The anterior pelvic tilt associated with this kind of positioning can be corrected with AET by teaching more awareness, motor control, and trunk strength.

If you’re an athlete or client who regularly gets pain in the lower back from squats or deadlifts, I’d start here with AET.

Below is a simple progression (exercises to come) on a four tiered progression for anti-extension training.

Phase 1:

  1. 90/90 breathing – leg’s unsupported
  2. Deadbug, single leg extended
  3. Deadbug, contralateral arm and leg extended
  4. Deadbug, resisted (behind head), leg extended

Phase 2:

  1. Plank
  2. Plank, Weighted
  3. Half Kneeling Overhead Vertical Cable Press

Phase 3:

  1. Ab Rollout, Knees, Eccentric Only
  2. AB Rollout, Knees
  3. Ab Rollout, Knees, Band Resisted
  4. Standing Overhead Vertical Cable Press

Phase 4:

  1. Ab Rollout, Standing, Band Assisted
  2. Ab Rollout, Standing
  3. Overhead Carry

Some general rules for progression are as follows:

  1. You can complete at least 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
  2. There is no ‘break’ in the system; aka the lumbar or thoracic vertebrae don’t deviate away from neutral throughout the exercise.
  3. The relative intensity (we define that as an RPE, or rating of perceived exertion), is less than an 8/10, and;
  4. You’re pain free, during and after the exercise.

 

Anti-Rotation Training (ART)

 

For the vast majority of athletic endeavours, there almost always exists a rotational component. Pick any striking, throwing, or field based sport and there will be a degree of transverse movements where the trunk rotates about the hip. If this is you, then not only do you need to train rotation, but you need to learn how to prevent it, too. Unless you want to do something like Paul Chek would do and have one foot in front, one foot behind the bar when you deadlift, you’ll need to have a different strategy to improve this movement pattern.

Similarly to that above, here is a floor-to-standing progression plan for ART. The same progression rules that applied for AET, apply here too.

Phase 1

  1. Paloff Press, Supine, Belly Breathing
  2. Cable Lift, Half Kneeling

Phase 2:

  1. Deadbug, band resisted (to side), legs still
  2. Cable Chop, Half Kneeling

Phase 3:

  1. Paloff Press, Split Stance
  2. Chop, Banded, Horizontal, Eccentric Focus

 

Anti-Lateral Flexion Training (ALFT)

 

Every once and awhile, you see the odd dude or dudette hold a DB on one side of their body, the other hand resting on their head, and they do some kind of standing lateral crunch. The exercise is as horrid as it looks.

(Anti) – Lateral flexion training first came to my attention with the suitcase deadlift – a variation I first utilised as a trainer (yes back then I trained people, I didn’t coach them, and there is a difference) after seeing it in a book by Alwyn Cosgrove… I can’t remember exactly what it was called, but it pioneered the idea of training movement patterns, not exercises.

 

As a young trainer, the logic of it made sense – you’d never pick up your suitcase by holding your head, sliding your hand down your leg and laterally flexing to get back up – so why train that way?

Since then, we’ve realised that the unassuming side plank, single arm farmers carry, waiters carry’s and oblique holds can do a fantastic job at training anti-lateral flexion, important for any athlete who needs to remain stable under external loads and pressures – contact and grappling athletes come to mind here.

Here is one way to progress ALFT.

Phase 1:

  1. Side Plank
  2. DB Suitcase Carry
  3. Rack Carry, Single Arm

Phase 2:

  1. Side Plank, Top Leg Raised (hold or pulse/reps)
  2. BB/Farmers Suitcase Carry
  3. Waiters Carry
  4. TRX Row, Single Arm

Phase 3:

  1. Oblique Hold on GHD, with or without plate raise.
  2. Waiters Carry,  KB Bottoms-Up
  3. DB Row, SA, Non-supported

 

Putting it Together:

This doesn’t need to be hard. Choose one of the movements patterns, whether it be anti-extension, rotation or lateral flexion, and follow the exercises within each phase as outlined above at the end of a given training session. 3 sets of 8-12 reps is sufficient.

Next session, choose another of these movement patterns, and repeat.

If you train 3x per week, complete each movement pattern once. If you train more than 3x per week, complete each phase for each movement pattern and allocate rest days as necessary.  

This should keep almost every athlete going for the better part of half a year. If you already think you’ve competently reached phase 4 in each of these patterns, get in contact and we’d be more than happy to send you through to phase 5.