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Modern Core Training

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Modern Core Training

By: Josh Henkin

Yes, I used the infamous word, “core”.

Did you just lose interest? I hope not as understanding what we really mean by core training can completely alter how you see the training and the outcomes we are trying to achieve.

When I say core training you probably either think of endless sit-ups in gym class, the current infatuation with planks, or “forget core training I do heavy deadlifts and squats!” The truth is that core training goes beyond any of these concepts.

The main issue begins that we use the term to reference several concepts at one time. Real core training involves the following ideas.

Resisting Movement:

In physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann’s book, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, states "during most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk…A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5- S1 level." (2002 p.71)

Most will mostly associate this concept with planks, but there are actually two big issues relying too much on the classic plank. For one, people miss the just as important strength and stability of the lateral stabilizers of the body. That is one reason that many are shocked when renown spine experts like Dr. Stuart McGill, actually test spinal stability with the side, not front plank.

Why is this the case? As Dr. McGill describes, “consider exercises such as the squat. Interestingly, when we measure world-class strongmen carrying weight or National Football League players running planting the foot and cutting—- neither of these are exclusively trained by the squat. This is because these exercises do not train the quadratus lumborum and abdominal obliques, which are so necessary for these tasks.

In contrast, spending less time under a bar squatting and redirecting some of this activity with asymmetric carries such as the farmers walk (or bottoms- up kettlebell carry—see Figure 12) builds the athleticism needed for higher performance in these activities in a much more ‘‘spine friendly’’ way.

What is equally shocking to many that the standard front plank isn’t the most functional exercise. Its real use is to teach full body tension and bracing that will carry over to more dynamic exercises. In fact, Just et al, “Currently, plank exercises are considered an adequate method of training the core for athletes to improve core strength and stability. This is a problem because it puts the athletes in a nonfunctional static position that is very rarely replicated in the demands of sport-related activities. The core is the center of most kinetic chains in the body and should be trained accordingly.

Core Isn’t Just Abs:

Appreciating the core is understanding there are many muscles involved in “core stability”. Far less sexy muscles like quadratus lumborum, transverse abdominis, and glute medius, are key muscles in creating that core stability, but often get overlooked.

Some of these muscles we can’t really isolate like the deep abdominals, but we can activate them to a higher degree using specific exercises. Muscles like the quadratus lumborum and glute medius bring us back to the importance of building lateral stability.

Of course, many believe if they put in some token side planks and bad monster walks they are all set. Yet, the truth is your strength should focus upon stressing these concepts more and more so that really progression in your training isn’t just a functional of load or volume, but challenging real core stability. Here is an example of how we can progress the squat pattern.

Level 1

Press Out Squat Barbell Front Squat Double KB Squat Sandbag Front Loaded Squat
Anti-Flexion Anti-Flexion Anti-Flexion Anti-Flexion




Level 2

Mixed Kettlebell Front Squat One-Arm Kettlebell Squat Shoulder Squat Mixed Kettlebell Rack/Sandbag Shoulder Squat
Anti-Flexion/Resisted Rotation Anti-Flexion/Resisted Rotation Anti-Flexion/Lateral Flexion/Rotation Anti-Flexion/Lateral Flexion/Rotation



Outwardly, some of these variations may look redundant. For example, what is the difference between a barbell front squat, double kb squat, and sandbag front loaded squat? After all, the look very similar. The difference lies in weight distribution and the weight sitting more anterior or differently along the body. There are many people that can front squat over 200 pounds, but far less that can use two 44 kg kettlebells and squat, and even less than can squat with a sandbag of 160 pounds. So, if these drills were truly equal, then we would see the same weight used across the board.

Which one do you use? You could cycle a phase of each, you could alternate weekly training of them, or if equipment wasn’t an option go from most least stable to most (sandbag squat to kettlebell to barbell)

Looking at these drills in a bigger picture you see that each represents a different type of standing plank. Now we are try to maintain the bracing and stability of the trunk under the limbs moving. Sounds simple, but we see people fail at them all the time.

As we move to level two exercises you see we not only have to worry about the load challenging us vertical or pulling us into flexion, but resisting frontal and transverse planes. We start to get to more real world type of stresses with this form of training as McGill referred to utilizing.

Reflexive Core Training:

Another big and often overlooked aspect of good core training is development of a reflexive core. A what? According to McGill, a reflexive core involves, “An interesting example is provided with speed training. Many train speed by using resistance exercise for strength gain. But speed technique, when measured, also usually requires superior rates of relaxation. This ap- parent paradox can be exemplified this way. Consider the golf swing. The initiation of the downswing involves some muscle contraction but too much actually slows the swing. Speed comes from compliance and relaxation. At the instant just before ball contact, the farthest ball hitters in the world then undergo a full-body contraction that creates superstiffness throughout the entire linkage (45). Then, just as quickly the stiffening contraction is released to allow compliance, speed in the swing follow through. This same cyclic interplay between relaxation for speed and contraction for stiffness is measured in the best sprinters in the world, the best strikers and kickers in mixed martial arts, the best lifters, and so on.

 Okay, so how do accomplish this reflexive training? Instead of moving to straight power, we can progress by changing plane of motion and slowly building speed. An example of this is in the following table.


Sandbag Press Out Sandbag Around the World TRX Rip Hip Punch Medicine Ball Horizontal Throw


In the following progressions we move from relying on less reflexive core work to more via speed, leverage, and the stability of the implement. The sandbag drills build movement accuracy, even though we are using slower speeds we are getting feedback from our foot movement to create power and learning how to resist forces with the instability of the sandbag, especially as the weight moves in the 360 degrees around our body.

The TRX Rip Hip Punch and medicine ball allows us to create maximal acceleration and create “overspeed” eccentric work in this pattern. All in all, requiring this really quick pulses of high tension and relaxation.

There is so much information about core training, hopefully this provided you with some insights that you may have not thought about before based upon the science of such training. It is key to appreciate that core training is real, we just have to gain a better understanding of what that means!


About the Author
Josh Henkin, CSCS is creator of the Dynamic Variable Resistance Training (DVRT) system and Ultimate Sandbag. He has taught his DVRT system in over 12 countries worldwide and has appeared in some of the top publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, and over 10 other media outlets. His DVRT program is currently being used by professional sports teams, military units, and top fitness facilities all over the world. You can check out his program at http://DVRTFitness.com

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