A New Way To Train Your Core

Carve a sleek midsection without doing a single crunch.

Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS | March 21, 2016

By now you’ve planked, mountain-climbed and woodchopped so much you could win the Lumberjack Olympics, all the while actively moving and strengthening your abdominal and core muscles.

Now it’s time to stop.

While the muscles of the legs and arms cause movement at the joints when they contract, your core muscles actually work to stop movement all day long. For example, your obliques and side-body muscles work to resist the sideward pull of a heavy grocery bag, and your core protects your back while deadlifting, bracing your spine against the downward pull of gravity.

This ability to brace your trunk against unwanted movement and outside forces is called core stiffness. Not only does a stiffer core transfer force more easily through the body, resulting in faster, more powerful movements, but it also increases the spine’s loading capacity. A stiffer core means improved performance on heavy lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses and shoulder presses, and lifting heavier translates into more muscle, more definition, increased fat burn and a better physique.

This workout is made up of moves that will challenge your ability to control the stiffness of your core, requiring anti-rotational strength as well as unidirectional support. These moves train you to tighten your core and supporting muscles just the perfect amount to support your spine and transfer forces from the lower to the upper body (or vice versa) without wasting energy or risking injury.

Brace Yourself

Learn how to properly brace your core with these steps:

  • Place your hands on the sides of your waist above your hipbones and press your fingers into your obliques.
  • Now tighten your abs as if getting ready to take a punch to the gut. Don’t crunch down or suck in your belly — you should feel no movement except perhaps a slight pushing of your abdominals into your fingers.
  • Now relax the brace just a little — not like a punch but more like a tickle.
  • Practice changing the intensity of your core brace for several minutes.
  • Practice the brace when sitting, standing, rotating and walking. You should be able to maintain that stiffness no matter what you’re doing.

The Workout

Do a five- to 10-minute warm-up of some light cardio, followed by a series of dynamic stretches that includes cat/cow, side bends and some gentle trunk rotation, then begin the workout. Do each superset two times, resting no more than 15 to 30 seconds between moves and 90 seconds between supersets. You also can parcel out and blend these moves into your workout programming, incorporating them into your warm-ups before heavy lifts to wake up your core and get it ready to brace itself.

Exercise Sets Reps Suggested Weight
Suitcase Carry 2 15 sets each side 20- to 30-pound dumbbell
—superset with—
TRX Palloff Press 2 15 each side bodyweight
Side Plank with Band Row 3 15 each side medium-weight resistance band
—superset with—
Single-Arm Band Chest press 3 15 each side medium-weight resistance band
Swiss Ball Stir the Pot 2 15 each direction bodyweight
—superset with—
Superman 2 5 bodyweight

Superset 1

Suitcase Carry

Setup: Hold a single, heavy dumbbell at your side with your chest lifted, shoulders down and back, spine neutral and hips level. “Crush” the weight with your grip to activate your rotator-cuff muscles.

Move: Take 15 quick, small steps forward in a straight line. Turn around, switch hands, then return to the start.

Stiffen up: Pack your shoulder by allowing the weight of the dumbbell to draw your shoulder blade down and tight into your back, and engage your lats to keep it there. Then brace your opposite oblique to keep you upright and straight, resisting the pull of the weight to the side.

TRX Palloff Press

Setup: Anchor a TRX to a squat cage or pull-up bar. Adjust the straps to midlevel, and thread the handles through each other twice to get a single handle. Stand perpendicularly to the TRX anchor with a split stance, inside leg forward. Hold the handle with both hands at your chest, fingers laced, then walk your feet toward the anchor until you are suspended at a slight angle and there is tension on the TRX.

Move: Keeping your body straight from head to heels, press the TRX handle straight out and away from your chest and pause at full extension, then slowly return to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching. The greater the angle, the more difficult the exercise.

Stiffen up: As you press the handle away from you, tighten the outside oblique as the resistance increases.

Note: If you’re slipping, place a 45-pound plate (or two) underneath the anchor and prop your feet against it for support.

Superset 2

Side Plank With Band Row

Setup: Anchor a medium-weight resistance band to a stable object. Get into a side plank on your elbow with your hips and shoulders stacked facing the anchor, and hold the handle in your top hand, arm extended. Make sure there’s enough distance to create some tension in the band.

Move: Hold side plank as you pull the handle in toward your rib cage, pinching your shoulder blade down and back and keeping your elbow in tight to your side. Slowly return to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.

Stiffen up: Engage your abs, back and glutes in both phases of the exercise to maintain your stability because the band will attempt to pull you forward.

Single-Arm Band Chest Press

Setup: Anchor the band to a stable object just below shoulder height. Stand facing away from the anchor with your feet hip-width apart. Take an overhand grip on the handle with your elbow bent and your arm lifted to shoulder height at your chest.

Move: Engage your core and press your hand forward and toward the midline of your body to full extension. Return it slowly to the starting position, making sure not to let your elbow go back past your rib cage. Do all reps on one side before switching.

Stiffen up: To increase intensity, double up the band by looping the handles through each other to make the band “heavier.”

Superset 3

Swiss Ball Stir The Pot

Setup: Get into plank with your elbows on a Swiss ball, feet just wider than shoulder-width apart. Your shoulders should be directly above your elbows, and you should have a neutral spine and a relatively straight line from your head to your heels.

Move: Keeping the rest of your body steady, roll the Swiss ball around by “stirring” your elbows in small circles. The movement should come only from your shoulders and elbows — not from the trunk or lower body. Do 15 rotations in one direction, then switch.

Stiffen up: Keep the stirring movements slow and fluid to maintain core stiffness throughout the entire move.

Superman

Setup: Lie facedown with your arms and legs extended, shoulder blades packed to prevent shrugging.

Move: Lift your arms and legs off the floor simultaneously into a Superman, lifting as high as you can with your glutes and shoulders without arching your back. Maintain a neutral spine by engaging your abs (imagine pressing them into the floor) and keeping your gaze down. Hold for a count of five, then lower slowly back down.

Stiffen up: Up the ante by adding a “banana” to the move. Keeping your core stiff, roll onto your back without letting your arms or legs touch down. Once you’re faceup, lift your arms and legs slightly higher. Hold for five seconds, then roll back to Superman. Repeat for five reps in each position, alternating the direction of your roll each time.

About the Author

Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS

Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS

Erin Calderone has a master’s degree in kinesiology from California State University, Northridge, and is a kinesiology instructor at Glendale Community College. She recently started taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. Her advice to dedicated exercisers? “Focus on the quality of your movement patterns. If we want to keep moving our whole lives, we have to not just move more but move well.”