Best Core Exercises For…
When it comes to training the core, it doesn’t really matter what your purpose is. Maybe you want to know the best core exercises for golf. Maybe you want to know the best core exercises for back pain. Maybe you just want to know what the best core exercises are for men or for women. The truth is, these are the best core exercises for…everything and everybody!
Some very quick anatomy and physiology: the ‘core’ is the major musculature that attaches to the spine. While there are several muscles that attach to the spine, the largest muscle groups are the abdominals and the hip flexors (in the front), and the spinal erectors and the glutes (in the back).
Now, your core is only as strong as your ability to hold your spine neutral through a range of motion – compression or torque. Compression is when a load is pressing down on your spine (like in an overhead press) and torque is when the spine is at an angle to the load being moved (like in a deadlift). So, core strength is your ability to resist flexion and undue hyperextension of the spine.
Flexing and extending the spine requires strength but not as much strength and resisting movement through the spine. With that information, I want you to forget everything you think about sit-ups, crunches, or any other ‘6-pack abs’ gimmicks. The best way to train for a strong core is through isolation of the spine while lifting or moving heavy loads.
The 5 Best Core Exercises
#1 – The Overhead Squat
There are not many exercises that put the kind of compression and torque on the spine through a full range of motion like the overhead squat. This movement is listed first due to its difficulty and reputation. There are some Division I college sports teams that will not allow you to play unless you can perform a body weight overhead squat.
The overhead squat requires you to hold a barbell overhead with straight arms and then squat until your hips pass below the level of your knees, finishing the movement by returning to the standing position. The demands on the core to stabilize the spine are tremendous and this movement has put many athletes to shame with little more than an empty bar overhead.
#2 – The Deadlift
Another common lift that is usually performed improperly and therefore given a poor reputation of ‘hurting’ people in the gym. In actuality, the deadlift is commonly used to rehabilitate back injuries because it mimics the motion required to bend down and pick something up off the ground. Performed at low loads, this movement has no loaded functional equal. Performed at heavy loads, the deadlift develops raw core strength and power which transfers into all sporting endeavors.
The deadlift requires an athlete to maintain a neutral spine, bend over and grab a barbell that is resting on the ground, and lift it to a full standing position. There is no need or requirement to over-extend the back past a position where the shoulders are over the heels. A healthy individual should be able to lift their own bodyweight loaded onto a barbell at least once. Physically dominate individuals can lift 2-4 times their own bodyweight. Since the deadlift trains the hamstrings as well as the core, this lift is excellent for building leg strength and toning.
#3 – The Overhead Press
You might be surprised to know that the overhead press, also known as the shoulder press or simply ‘press’, is in the top 5 best core exercises. The overhead press does utilize and demand upper body strength but to correctly execute this movement, the requirement of core strength to keep the spine from overextending is incredible.
The overhead press starts with a barbell at the shoulders. To initiate the movement, the athlete will flex their legs, butt, and abs (engage the core) and begin to push hard on the barbell so that it passes their face and finishes overhead, directly over their shoulders and heels. The compressional forces placed on the spine during this movement make the overhead press a great core exercise. If the core is not engaged, the barbell will crush the athlete or the athlete will change the position of their spine (usually into hyperextension) which can lead to injury. When the movement is executed correctly, there is little equal in the adaptation an athlete goes through being able to push hard against objects while keeping their core engaged – sports like football and rugby highly rely on this type of athletic requirement.
#4 – The Glute-Hamstring Developer Sit-up
The GHD Sit-up is one of the best core exercises you can do but be careful when dosing this movement into your workouts – it has been a killer, literally. Although the word sit-up is in the title, don’t let that fool you. The GHD Sit-up requires you to hold your spine neutral through a range of motion and use the legs (hip flexors) to close the hip. Since this movement has such a long eccentric phase to it, it has been known to cause rhabdomyolysis in rare cases. Respect this exercise!
The GHD Sit-up requires a Glute-Hamstring Developer, a piece of gym equipment that is underutilized yet has no equal – a must for any serious athlete. Set your feet in the GHD so that you are sitting on the pads with your toes pointed up. Set the pad so that your butt hangs off the edge (it’s the only way to achieve a full range of motion). Extend your knees ALMOST fully and reach all the way until you touch the ground. Then violently extend your legs, locking out your knees, and sitting back up to touch your toes. This is a full range of motion GHD Sit-up. Going back halfway (to parallel with the ground) is a good place to start for introducing this exercise.
#5 – The Plank
All the above exercises require equipment of some kind. But if you don’t have a barbell or a GHD, you can still train your core. The best core exercise you can do without any equipment is the standard plank. This movement is simple to do but has an excellent stimulus. Hold the plank for 5 sets of 30 seconds and you will get a good burn in your abs. Hold the plank for 3+ minutes with a load on your back and you will develop an amazingly strong level of core strength.
To perform the plank, you can be on your hands or on your elbows with all your body off the ground except your toes, facing the ground. Squeeze your butt tight and pull your lower back towards the sky (away from the ground). Keep your abs engaged and hold this position for as long as possible or for intervals of work and rest. For added difficultly, have a partner put some weight on your back – be sure the weight is placed on your upper back. The plank is great for travelling workouts – you can do them in a hotel room or outside in a park. You can even add a push-up every 10 seconds!
There you have it, the best core exercises for…everything and everybody! If you have any questions about training the core or about these specific exercise, please leave a comment below.
Train for Chaos.