What Is Core Strength?
Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past decade, you are aware of the term “Core Strength” and it’s importance to your training. Hold one hand below your chest and the other below your groin. Basically every muscle that falls in between that range is considered your “core”. The midsection of your body - the abdominals, obliques, hip flexors, and low back erectors - are not only some one of the most crucial factors in strength and performance, but they are also some of the most sought after for aesthetic purposes. But if you are only concerned with having a toned six pack, you can accomplish that with basic crunch variations, a strict diet and some cardio. There’s nothing wrong with wanting abs for the sake of appearances, but it’s important to understand that the most important function of your flashy ab muscles is to provide stability to your torso.
When I was 21 years old I suffered an injury while deadlifting. Poor form (and a youthful ego) led to a trip to the hospital and 3 bulging discs. I opted not to get surgery, and spent the better part of the next decade training like a bodybuilder and struggling with recurring back pain. Some days it was just lower back tightness and other days it was deabilitating. Although I was strong in the weight room, I was not “functionally” strong. I looked good but was not athletic. In 2008, I decided to quit bodybuilding and wanted to pursue boxing which had been a hobby of mine since I was young. I found out very quickly that all that weight room strength didn’t necessarily translate to the Ring, and realized I had to make some changes to my training. One of the first things I needed to rethink was the way I approached core training. Up until this point my core training consisted of primarily hanging leg raises and high volume crunch variations. It’s no wonder that my core wasn’t strong from an athletic standpoint, but also that my weak abs were one of the reasons I continued to experience back pain while training. Rather than supporting my torso and protecting the existing injury to my discs, my lagging midsection was causing undo strain on that area. The first and most major change of thinking was to focus on building strength and power across the entire midsection.
A major problem I see with weightlifters - whether it's elite athletes or "average Joes" - is poor core strength. I think it has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to achieve a strong core. It's common for an athlete to have a strong lower back from squatting and dead lifting, but have weak abdominals. I frequently see guys with a six-pack stomach but a weak lower back. In most of these scenarios, the lifter probably does individual exercises for the muscles comprising the core - the abdominals, the lower back, obliques, hip flexors, serratus, etc. - but may not do movements that require stability and build strength in these muscles as a whole group. Accessory lifts, such as leg extensions, are great for toning and defining the quads, but that is not how you would build a functional, powerful lower body; if you want strong legs you would do heavy compound movements, such as squats and lunges. Similarly, body weight crunch variations are not going to build strength and power in your midsection because they don't place a significant load on all of the muscles that stabilize the core, they merely tone the abdominals. Another problem I see with most "core" or "ab" regimens is the sheer number of reps. If you are capable of doing 100+ reps of an exercise in a single set, are you really building strength or just exercising? To build a strong back, I don't use a weight that is light enough on the T-bar row to do 100 reps, and you will never see me doing sets of 100 crunches to strengthen my abdominals. If you want a strong core, you have to do compound power movements.
The idea is to make all of the muscles in your core STRONG so there is no weak link in the middle of your body. Whether you are a football player throwing a ball, a boxer throwing a punch, or a wrestler throwing your opponent on his head, your core needs to be strong so that the power you generate from your legs and hips doesn't get lost as it travels through your upper body. For any weightlifter it is crucial to have a solid wall of support for your spine both behind and along the front of your body.
My top 10 best movements for REAL Core Strength:
2. Ab Wheel
3. Reverse Hyper
4. Plate Lay Outs
5. Dragon Flags
6. Side Plank
7. Ring Lay Outs
8. Chinese Push Ups
9. Barbell Roll Outs