The Core: Abs, Spines & Everything Fine
Written by Kirsten Ahrendt

Coach, give me some core work! We hear this a LOT. And in answering this question, let’s try to kill two proverbial birds with one stone.

Bird #1 – Athlete’s desire for stronger/leaner looking abs or 6-pack (usually unstated, often subconscious desire).

Bird #2 – Coach’s desire for you to have a safe and healthy spine, predicated on a functioning, strong, and stable core (usually stated and definitely conscious desire).

Below are the principles of how I program core for myself and my clients, provide some samples, and discuss how you should look at building a better core training.

**Alert! Alert!** – Coaches do not inherently care if you have 6-packs abs. At least most of the performance and strength coaches that I work with don’t. We care that you can reach the health, fitness and performance goals you have while staying pain free. If abs are a byproduct of that…cool! If you are expressly here to train for a bodybuilding figure competition where muscle definition wins you the competition, that’s a different story. 

Most coaches recognize that the two factors contributing to ab definition are diet and genetics (where each of us tends to store fat). So, while, “yes”, targeted training of all aspects and functions of the core is one step towards creating defined midlines, if your nutrition isn’t great or your genetics aren’t aligned with the stars, you might not see the exact definition you want. This is why your coach may follow up a request for an ab routine with the following questions: “What’s your diet look like? And what are your goals?” 

#300crunchesDontUndoZeroVegetables

What is the core? 

In very simplified terms – the core is a collection of muscles which stabilize and move the spine. 

Muscles of the Inner Core

Some muscles are close to the spine and deep within the abdomen (the “inner core” – diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidi, transverse abdominis, interior obliques). They work in conjunction with each other and are the first engaged during bracing, movement or breathing.

Muscles of the Outer Core

Other muscles in the “outer core” are also responsible for stabilizing and protecting the spine, but have other movement functions. These include the rectus abdominis, lats, erectors, glutes, even hip flexors.

What does the core do?

The core has two main functions:

  1. Stabilize and protect the spine from load (think: squatting)
  2. Transfer force from the lower body to upper body and vice versa (think: baseball pitcher)

What’s the best way to train the core?

A well-developed core program will cover all the roles that your “core” must do to keep you a healthy, functioning human as well as to satiate your potential desire for more defined abdominals. But the biggest mistake would lie in confusing them as the same. If you only performed exercises to train your “6-pack” muscles – the rectus abdominis – not only would you miss out on greater all around abdominal/core aesthetic development, but you would be missing the boat entirely on how to build a strong, functional core that carries over to performance and spinal health. 

How to Program Core Work

Here are some things to keep in mind when programming core work for yourself:

Program for Core Function

A well-rounded routine needs to cover the spectrum of: anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion movements. These are functions that the musculature of the “core” must perform in order to keep the spine safe.

Program for Core Endurance

Many of the anterior core muscles are ‘endurance’-based muscles. Meaning they need some volume accumulation. Do this smartly – such as increasing sets over time 3×15 > 4×15 > 4×20, etc. rather than 1 x 200 > 1 x 300. #rhabdoIsSo2010

Program for Core Cohesiveness 

Move beyond the ‘mirror muscles’. In your quest for a defined 6-pack (if that’s your thing), don’t neglect the sides and back of your core. They are as pivotal towards developing a cohesive core unit that functions optimally – allowing you to move more weight and protect your back. And obliques are dead sexy. Duh.

Don’t Go Overboard with Your Core Program

You do need core-specific work. But don’t go overboard. Once upon a time in health and fitness routines, folks wasted hours chasing the ‘burn’ by performing endless sit-ups and crunches. They probably caused as much damage cranking on their necks and lumbar spines as muscle growth to their abdominals. 

Then the industry swung to the opposite end of the spectrum, with the belief that big compound lifts were all the core work you needed. (Your core works HARD when you’re bracing in a deadlift, squat, press, etc). Nowadays, coaches recognize that there is a beneficial middle ground. Go ahead! Incorporate core-specific accessory work to target positional strength and endurance. Place it at the end of a session or do it by itself. However, I advise against doing a ton of core-fatiguing work prior to heavy lifts.

Sample Core Workouts

Here’s some of my favorite combos so you can chisel some abs and protect your spine down the road! Enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments!

Core Workout #1
Three to Four Sets of:
Suitcase Deadlift x 8-10 reps + 50 foot carry (or 30-second isometric hold) (right arm)
Suitcase Deadlift x 8-10 reps + 50ft carry (or 30-second isometric hold) (left arm)
60-seconds of hands-to-elbow plank support transitions
Rest 60 seconds

Core Workout #2 
Every Minute on the Minute for 10 minutes:
Odd Minutes – Strict Hanging Knees-to-Elbows x 10 reps (seriously, touch your knee to elbow, not tricep!)
Even Minutes – Double Kettlebell Front Rack Carry x 100 feet

Core Workout #3 
Three to Four Sets of:
30-second Hollow Hold
15-20 reps of V-Ups (or Tuck-Ups)
30-second Superman Hold
15-20 reps of Superman Lifts
Rest 60 seconds

Core Workout #4
Four to Five Sets of:
Farmer’s Carry x 100 feet (As Heavy as Possible)
30-45 seconds of L-Sit (or L-Seated Pike Liftoffs)
Rest 60-90 seconds

Core Workout #5 
Three Sets of:
Wall-Facing Rotational Medicine Ball Throws x 10 reps each side
Plank Position Foot Slide-in-Outs (feet on sliders) x 20 reps
Rest 60 seconds

Core Workout #6 
Three Sets of:
Pallof Press x 10 reps @1111 (right side)
Pallof Rotations x 10-15 reps (right side)
Pallof Press x 10 reps @1111 (left side)
Pallof Rotations x 10-15 reps (left side)
Support in Rings x 30-60 seconds
Rest 60 seconds

Core Workout #7 
Three to Four Sets (for quality) of:
Plank or Quadruped Cross-Body Dumbbell Drags x 8 reps each hand
Dead Bugs x 12 reps
GHD Hip Extensions x 15 reps
Rest as needed

Core Workout #8
Accumulate 20, Half Turkish Get-Ups on each side
Partition reps as needed

Core Workout #9 
Every Minute on the Minute for 9 minutes (3 sets of):
Station 1 – 40-second Side Plank (left)
Station 2 – 40-second Side Plank (right)
Station 3 – 40-second Front Leaning Rest on Rings

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