Category Archives: Core Exercises
Ever meet one of those true strength freaks? One of those guys that can bench 300 for reps, deadlift 500, dunk a basketball, and carry heavy furniture around like it’s plastic lawn chairs?
While this kind of full body strength is impressive – not to mention useful when you need someone to help you move – it’s also a fine example of exceptional core strength.
Now I’ve done it. I said “core,” which immediately conjures up images of 30-second ab infomercial products and skinny men in spandex contorting on Bosu balls.
However, I prefer to use the word core as how the dictionary defines it: “the basic or most important part; the essence.” Extending this definition to training, it means your seemingly strong physique is nowhere near its true potential if your core strength isn’t up to par.
Now there’s no shortage of good core training articles available, and literally dozens of very effective exercises. But one of the problems with even sound core training advice is a lack of relevance to what you want to improve.
Considering you’re reading T Nation, there’s a good chance that you want to improve your squat, bench, and deadlift. So what will ground-based core exercises do for you?
Answer is, very little. You might improve your “isolated” core strength, but your performance in the Big 3 will likely be unaffected.
To get truly strong you need to choose what I call full contact core exercises. By “full contact” I don’t mean getting hoofed in the bread basket for sets of 8-10, but rather specific exercises that address and eliminate what I refer to as energy leaks.
Here’s an example: If your back rounds in the squat and deadlift, that’s an energy leak. And because you didn’t stabilize the trunk sufficiently, your power will fail to transfer from the ground to the bar. The consequence of this is injury, or a failed and ugly lift. So you need to find core exercises to address this.
How to Develop a Full Contact Core
The following four steps will help you develop a full contact core in no time. However, under no circumstances may you skip a step.
Imagine when you were a kid if you tried to skip the walking stage and went straight from crawling to sprinting. Exactly. Swallow your pride, do the steps in order, and derive the full benefits.
I’ll also provide two different exercise examples and progressions. You can use both or choose the one that best suits your routine.
Step # 1: Build Tension
The first step is all about creating tension. Isometric contractions are an effective way to learn this skill – most are familiar with planks and other foundational shit – but I’ve found moving resistance over short distances with control is better.
Full Contact Twist – Arm Movement Only
Start by holding a plank position with tense glutes, abs, and thighs. Squeeze the bar and push forward with one arm while pulling the bar with the other to create upper body tension. This helps prevent energy leaks in the shoulders and elbows.
Slowly rotate the arms to one side, pause for a second, and then return to the start position before switching sides. The goal is to be able to hold a position with maximum tension while performing a slow arm movement, all without letting any other body segment move significantly.
Band Rotations – Arm Movement Only
I learned this from Nick Tumminello and it’s a great way to teach athletes what a full contact core is all about. Start in what’s known as a “pallof press” position with maximum tension in the glutes and abs, and then rotate the hands between the shoulders.
Note: these should be small, rhythmic movements. Avoid using the hips or momentum to create the movement. Try standing in front of a mirror and making sure the navel doesn’t move at all. If you can manage that, you’re stable.
Step 2: Grinding
The second step is all about grinding. An often-used analogy for grinding versus exploding is the comparison of a tow truck and a sports car. If your car gets stuck in a snow bank on a winter night you want a tow truck to come save your bacon, not a Ferrari.
To lift heavy weights, you have to be able to create considerable tension. While it’s tempting to attack a big-ass weight with maximum speed, it isn’t always effective as the faster you move, the less force is generated.
You can always try moving faster through a sticking point once you start slow, but what happens if you explode into a sticking point and then get stuck?
The key is to learn to grind and control the force with the following grinding moves.
Grinding Full Contact Twist
The full contact twist exercise also includes hip movement. While you worked with a tight trunk in the first exercise, here you’re moving your hips while still remaining tight. This teaches you to transfer force as a single unit and while moving, stopping, decelerating, and accelerating.
Start the rotation to one side while pivoting with the feet. Lower the bar close to the thigh and under control before moving it with tension back up. Make sure to start the movement with the hips. The movement is very similar to what happens while punching and throwing.
Grinding Band Hip Rotations
This exercise is very similar to the full contact twist. From the same starting position as the previous exercise, rotate toward the attachment point with the hips while remembering to stay tight and not leak energy from the trunk.
Next, rotate in the other direction with the same hip action as with the full contact twist.
Step 3: Slow to Fast
After you’ve learned how to generate maximum tension and grind, it’s time to explode!
This step closely resembles the often advocated “controlled eccentric and explosive concentric” lifting mantra. This is an effective lifting cadence for both hypertrophy and maximum strength development but you still need to know how to stay tight! And this is how to do it.
Full Contact Twist – Slow to Fast
This exercise is performed like the previous version in step #2, but now you slowly lower the bar and pause for a full second before exploding up. Make sure you create max tension before exploding. If you can’t, start lighter.
Controlled Band Rotations – Slow to Fast
This is also performed like its previous version in step #2, but again you add the pause for a second before exploding up.
Step # 4: Fast and Furious
Reactive training methods are very important training tools, especially for athletes that have to be able to react when heavy objects (such as a 230-pound fullback) are rushing their way.
To effectively decelerate an object with high velocity you have to get extremely tight, fast – you essentially have to create an immediate pulse of maximum tension as there’s no time to slowly build it up. In this fourth and final step you’ll work to develop this vital quality.
As stated before, you can’t skip steps. Jump in here at number 4 and you’ll only get injured. You’ve been warned.
While the basic movement is similar to what you’ve already done, here you have to “jump” from position to position. This creates less control as each repetition will vary somewhat from the previous one. Because of this you must be able to demonstrate a full contact core despite slight deviations from a pre-planned path.
Explosive Band Rotations
Again, the execution is similar, only with a faster eccentric phase. Even though it’s easier and less dangerous than the explosive twist exercise above, you’ll certainly have to work hard to prevent energy leaks.
Now it’s up to you. Are you willing to let sub-optimal core training sabotage your strength and hypertrophy gains? Or are you going to embrace the power of intelligent core training?
It should be an easy decision. By learning to develop total control over a given resistance, you harness the power of energy transfer, thereby maximizing your strength potential.
All by developing a full contact core!
I have a confession to make: I love lifting weights, but I don’t enjoy training the beach muscles.
It’s not that I hate bodybuilding or training arms – I love all training – but if given the choice, I’d pick legs ten times out of ten.
My hierarchy would probably look something like this:
- More Legs
- Wander aimlessly around the gym
- More Back
- Read a magazine
- Clip my toenails
Most typical upper body exercises bore me to tears. I just can’t get hyped up for bench presses, pushdowns, and curls like I can for squats, lunges, and pull-ups.
Call me crazy.
One thing that helps make upper body days more fun, and consequently keeps me pushing hard, is experimenting with different exercise variations. Here are some upper body exercises that even I like.
1. Rotational One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
When I first saw the one-arm dumbbell bench press, I didn’t give it the respect it deserves. It didn’t look particularly hard, so I unassumingly grabbed the same weight I’d use for a regular dumbbell bench press.
Bad move. Anyone that’s tried the exercise before knows where this is going.
On the first rep, I literally tipped to the side and fell off the bench, dropping the dumbbell like a total jackass and causing a scene. I knew immediately I was going to like this one.
While it’s essentially an upper-body pushing exercise to work the chest, shoulders, and triceps, you’ll learn fast that it’s really a full body exercise. To be successful, you must create massive tension throughout your legs, core, and even the opposite arm.
You’ll want to start out light to avoid my embarrassing fate, but interestingly, after a few tries to get the hang of it, you’ll find you’re able to use more weight unilaterally than you could bilaterally.
I like to start with a neutral grip at the bottom and pronate my wrist as I press. This feels great on the shoulders, and the rotation allows for a better contraction in my chest.
2. Ring Flies
These are brutal, but if you can pull them off, they’ll fry your chest like no other. I first tried them after seeing a picture of Larry Scott doing them on some badass old-school chain rings.
This is an extremely advanced exercise, so don’t just jump right into trying it if you don’t have any experience on the rings. Doing so will inevitably lead to either a shoulder injury or a face plant, neither of which you want.
Make sure you can first knock out at least 25 ring push-ups to get acquainted with the inherent instability. From there, progress to flies with your arms bent at approximately a 90-degree angle. You may even want to do these on your knees at first.
Once you’re comfortable with those, it’s time to progress to full flies. Be sure to maintain a slight bend in your elbows to protect your shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
If you get comfortable with full flies (and by comfortable I mean proficient – I can assure your pecs won’t be comfortable), give ring “fly-aways” a shot. I got the idea for these from a recent Livespill from TC where he talked about a similar concept using dumbbells.
You’re basically going to do a drop set going in the reverse order of the progression I laid out to work up to full flies: five full flies, five bent-arm flies, and five pushups, all in succession with no rest. Superset that with five minutes of lying on the floor, hating life.
3. Ring Push-up/Fly Combo
Like the name suggests, one arm does a push-up while the other arm does a fly. You’ll want to place more weight on the arm doing the push-up and de-load the arm doing the fly as much as possible. It may help to think of it as a modified one-arm pushup where you reach the other arm straight out to the side. Alternate between arms each rep.
Confused? I don’t blame you. Check out the video below.
The unilateral nature of the exercise may lead you to believe it’s significantly more difficult than bilateral ring flies, but from a pressing standpoint, it’s actually slightly easier since the arm doing the push-up is supporting the majority of the load where the lever arm is shorter. The “fly” arm simply provides some assistance to counter the rotational demands of the one-arm push up, and gets a decent stretch and bit of activation in the process.
From a core standpoint, however, it’s much harder. The unilateral nature of the exercise introduces a big anti-rotational stability component since you have to brace extremely hard to avoid twisting toward the arm doing the fly.
4. Supinated Ring Chins
Some bodybuilding coaches spout that chin-ups are the best biceps exercise going and no direct biceps work is required. Others say to build mammoth bone-crushing pythons, you need to devote an entire day (or two or three) per week to arms and do every type of curl imaginable.
I’m somewhere in the middle.
I love chin-ups as much as anybody, while curls are the absolute bane of my training existence.
I dropped curls all-together about two years ago, and have just been doing a heavy diet of chin-ups and rows. In that time, my arms have stayed about the same size while the rest of my body has grown, leading me to believe that chin-ups obviously work the biceps to a large degree and are sufficient if your goals are more performance-based, but probably aren’t enough if you hope to start selling tickets to the gun show.
Here’s the thing: it depends largely on how you do the chin-ups.
For instance, I usually use a shoulder-width grip (often wider) and think of my arms as being hooks while my back does all the work. I also come to full extension at the bottom of every rep and do them explosively while maintaining control of my body (i.e. no swinging).
Interestingly, the better I’ve become at chin-ups, the less I feel them in my biceps. Fact is, when I do feel my biceps working a lot, I take it as a sign I’m not retracting my scapulae as I should be.
However, you can easily tweak them to hone in on the biceps. The best way I’ve found is with close-grip supinated ring chin-ups.
Place the rings as close together as possible and take a supinated grip. Perform the reps slower than normal on both the concentric and eccentric and stop just short of full extension at the bottom to keep constant tension on the biceps. It’s important to be strict with these.
If you don’t have rings, you can do them with just a bar, although the rings definitely add something to it from a biceps standpoint. You’ll find that towards the bottom of the rep, the rings will start to twist and your biceps will be forced to kick into overdrive to keep that supinated wrist position.
These are a lot tougher than they look, so if it’s too much at first, you can also try a similar concept using inverted rows instead.
Doing reps like this will invariably shortchange your back to some degree, so do them after your regular chin-up or inverted row workout to finish off your arms.
5. Super Slow Chin-ups
The explanation for these is simple, but they’re far from easy. Do a close-grip chin-up as slowly as you can. That’s it.
Shoot for 20-30 seconds on the concentric and 30-40 seconds on the eccentric to start. If you can do that, add some weight. If that’s too much, then just go as slowly as you can.
I also like to do a static hold at the top.
Use a supinated grip for more biceps emphasis or a neutral grip to target the brachialis. Either way, it’ll also blast your forearms and help build tremendous grip strength.
Save this for the tail end of your workout and just do one painstaking rep. Trust me, if you’re doing it right, that’s all you’ll be able to muster.
6. Bodyweight Triceps Extensions
This is an awesome triceps exercise that, when done correctly, also smokes the core.
TC wrote about doing these in a Smith machine in a Livespill and while I like that exercise too, I prefer doing them using suspension straps for two reasons.
First, you can get a bigger range of motion. When you use a fixed bar, you’re forced to do the exercise like a traditional skullcrusher where you bring your forehead to the bar. With straps, you can extend your arms forward slightly as you drop down so that at the bottom, your hands are actually behind your head. This enhances the stretch on the long head of the triceps and takes stress off the elbows.
Second, the straps allow you to rotate your hands freely as you move through the rep, making it more shoulder-friendly and increasing the contraction in your triceps.
To get the full benefit for your core, it’s imperative that you keep a straight line from your feet to your head. There will be a tendency to want to pike at the hips, so you’ll need to squeeze your glutes and brace your abs to prevent that from happening. It should feel similar to the sensation you get from an ab wheel rollout. If it doesn’t, you’re probably not doing it right.
This is a lot tougher than it looks, so start with the straps fairly high at first (approximately chest level) and work your way down.
7. Reverse Grip Dumbbell Floor Press
Perform this exercise just as you would a regular dumbbell floor press, only supinate your hands as you press. At the bottom your palms will face each other, while at the top they’ll point back behind you.
Where you feel this exercise will depend on your set up. If you use a wider grip, you’ll feel it more in your chest, whereas a closer-grip will put more emphasis on the triceps. I prefer a close grip because I find a wide grip puts undue stress on my shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
You can also try holding a supinated position throughout the rep, but I prefer to rotate to allow for a neutral, shoulder-friendly position closer to the chest.
Think about pressing the dumbbell down towards your feet rather than up over your face like you might in a typical barbell bench press. You obviously won’t be able to, but having that cue in your mind makes the exercise go more smoothly.
Start with about 50% of the weight you can use for a regular dumbbell press and go from there.
8. The “Anti” Press
In response to Dr. Stuart McGill’s research regarding spinal health, much of the new-age core training focuses on “anti” movement stability training: anti-rotation, anti-extension, and anti-lateral flexion. I called this exercise the “anti press” because it addresses all those categories simultaneously.
Grab the handle of a suspension strap and face sideways. Lean out so that your body is at about a 60% angle to the floor. Now brace your core to keep from twisting and press straight out until your arms are fully extended. This part of the motion is similar to a Pallof press you might do with bands or cables and works anti-rotation.
From there, bring your arms straight overhead and pause for a brief second. At this point, you’re focusing on anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion. Rinse and repeat for the desired reps.
Along with building tremendous core stability, this also assists with shoulder strength and mobility. I’m always looking for ways to kill as many birds as I can with one stone and this exercise fits the bill nicely.
It’s easy to progress or regress simply by adjusting your foot position and/or the length of the strap. The further out your feet are from the anchor point and the shorter the strap is, the easier it will be. Move your feet more underneath the anchor point and increase the length of the strap as you get better.
This is a very advanced exercise, so you may want to start with just the overhead portion and see how that goes first.
If you’re one of those people that when asked how you’re doing always responds with “same shit, different day,” some of these exercises may be just what you need to spice up your gym life and get growing again. Don’t go throwing all the basics out the window, but use these as supplements to reignite your training vigor or to help break through a rut or plateau.
Have fun, and be sure to save me a seat at the gun show.
Actually, don’t bother. I’m pretty sure I’ll be training legs that day.