One of the big problems I see with clients - whether it's elite athletes or "average Joes" - is poor core strength. Now, with "core training" being all the rage and everyone wanting washboard abs, how could that be? 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 by abdominals. If you want a strong core, you have to do compound power movements. Here are four extreme core exercises that will put you to the test.
A basic bodyweight plank is my all-time favorite core exercise because it works every muscle in the core and it can be tailored for use by beginners up to advanced athletes. Once you can hold a static front plank for two minutes, you are ready to start adding some weight. Start with one plate and shoot for a 30-second hold, then work up from there. It's very important to keep the abdominals flexed and avoid lowering your hips, as this could strain your lower back. This picture is from a recent workout where I performed 20-second holds with five 45lb plates (225lbs).
For this movement, start with a barbell, broom stick or PVC pipe, and hold it out in front of you with your feet shoulder width for a nice solid base. Climb down hand over hand, then back up, shooting for sets of three to five. Keep your abs flexed the entire time. Like most of my favorite core exercises, there are a lot of other muscles being worked, and these 'climbs' will really tax your lats and test your grip strength. It's very important to not attempt this on a slick surface where the bar could slide out from under you, and it may be a good idea to wedge the bar in the corner and have a spotter on your first attempt.
Medicine Ball Rollouts
I like to think of these as the crazy older brother of the Ab Wheel. Start doing them from your knees and keep your back "hunched" and abs tight (see a pattern here?) as you roll the ball out and walk it back in. In addition to the abs and hip flexors, these roll-outs really work the lats, serratus, and triceps. If you're experienced on the Ab Wheel, try these from a standing position. I usually hit five Standing Roll-Outs and use an 80lb medicine ball. If you can do 10 reps from your feet, you are an absolute beast.
Ok, when I called these exercises extreme, maybe you rolled your eyes…but it doesn't get any more extreme than this. These are one of the hardest exercises in my arsenal and you better have a lower back of steel and abs of granite if you're going to attempt them. Start with a set of Rings or TRX straps hanging a few feet from a wall. Walk your feet up the wall until your body is tilted down and settle into a push-up position. Perform a deep push-up but as you come up, gradually extend your arms out overhead until they are in line with your body and you are perfectly straight. Fight for stability the entire time and channel your inner Peter Parker. Good luck.
Now you should have a good idea of not only how to build a strong core but also what kinds of movements are possible when 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. Now, of course, I didn't start out being able to do any of these movements. I had to work up to them. In my next article, I will teach you my weekly core strength routine that I use with all of my athletes to prepare them to execute these extreme power movements.