Category Archives: Core Training
Writing articles can be funny sometimes. There are times I’ll address a topic that gets me all jazzed up but fails to get much of a response from readers. Other times I’ll write something that I think is solid and helpful but not necessarily thrilling, and it’ll be a huge hit.
Such was the case with my “hit” article, Not Your Average B.S. Core Training. I thought it was a good article and I shared some fun and innovative core stability exercises, but to be honest, I almost didn’t even write the article because – let’s be real here – core stability isn’t very sexy or exciting.
It’s important no doubt, but it’s boring. Heavy lifting excites me. Brutal workouts excite me. Core stability? Not so much.
As important as it is to include for performance, injury prevention, and aesthetic reasons, I still look for any excuse I can to skip working core, and honestly, I often do.
So at first I was really surprised that my core stability article was such a hit. After I thought about it, though, it made perfect sense. I think a lot of people are in the same boat as me regarding core stability work – they acknowledge its value on some level but find it really boring, and most of the traditional core stability exercises are just too easy except to those who work out three times a week with soup cans.
With that in mind, here are some more challenging (dare I say fun?) core exercises to add to your arsenal.
1. Band-Resisted “Anti” Rollouts
Ab wheel rollouts are a great exercise to train the anterior core – one of my favorites – but they’ll quickly become easy for stronger lifters. Unless you want to bang out sets of 30+ reps, you’ll need to make them harder.
You can do this a number of different ways, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.
One way to go is to progress to standing rollouts starting from the feet rather than the knees. However, standing rollouts are simply too hard for most and I’ve seen several people hurt themselves trying to build up to them, so I’ve since looked elsewhere.
Another way to make standard ab wheel rollouts tougher is to add weight with weighted vests or putting plates on your back. I’ve done this a lot with good success, but I find that it quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns where adding more weight changes your leverages in such a way that makes it difficult to maintain good form and increases the demands on the shoulders more than the core.
So while I’m not against adding a little bit of additional weight, I no longer advocate adding a ton of additional load because it detracts from the intended goal of the exercise, which is to hone in on the core.
For that reason, I really like band-resisted rollouts. They offer a significant additional challenge over just using your bodyweight without changing your leverages or interfering with your ability to move freely.
Plus, they offer accommodating resistance – so they’re easier at the point of full extension where you’re weakest, and they also take stress off the shoulders in their most vulnerable position.
Band-resisted rollouts are usually done facing the band straight-on so the resistance is primarily front-back in the capital plane. While that’s certainly fine and a great exercise in its own right, I’ve found that setting up at a 45-degree angle to the band but still performing them just as you normally would (moving straight back and forth) creates a unique challenge.
You’re still ostensibly moving purely in the sagittal plane, yet you now have to resist getting pulled sideways by the band too, which forces you to stabilize in the frontal and transverse planes to resist rotation and lateral flexion, thereby working the rotary and lateral core along with the anterior core.
I thus call them “anti” rollouts because they train anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion all at the same time.
Here’s what they look like in action.
These are a lot harder than they look, trust me. The band will have a tendency to pull you towards the anchor point, especially as you reach the point of full extension, so it’s important that you’re sure to move out and back in a straight line.
If you don’t have a buddy or training partner to keep you honest, it’s helpful to put something straight next to you to serve as a guide so you don’t veer off course. You can easily increase or decrease the difficulty simply by setting up farther away or closer to the anchor point of the band. The farther back or the farther off to the side, the harder it is and vice versa.
2. Single-Leg Slideouts/Rollouts
Another way to make rollout variations harder is to decrease the base of support by doing them one leg at a time.
This is nice because it substantially increases the difficulty for the core without making it harder for the upper body. It also introduces an anti-rotational component to the exercise so you’re challenging the rotary core along with the already great anterior core work that you get from regular rollouts.
You can do these with an ab wheel, a barbell, or sliders as I demonstrate in the video below:
Interestingly, with regular rollouts, I find that the ab wheel is the easiest followed by the sliders and the barbell. However, with single-leg rollouts (or slideouts), the ab wheel is actually harder because it has a tendency to tip on you because the hands are so close together, whereas you can spread them out wider with the sliders and barbell, making for a more stable base.
That’s just something to keep in mind when trying them out.
3. Single-Leg Sliding Pushup Reach
To progress the previous exercise a step further, you can try going to a one leg sliding push-up reach.
Start in push-up position with your hands on a pair of sliders. One arm performs a push-up while you slide the other arm straight out in front of you as far as you can. Whichever arm you reach out, lift up the opposite foot.
Since I’m sure that explanation did nothing but confuse you, I’ll just show you what it looks like:
You can do all the reps on one side before switching sides, or do them in alternating fashion as I’m doing in the video.
In the past I’ve done the sliding push-up reach with both feet on the floor and progressed it by adding a weighted vest, but that seems to challenge the push-up portion of the exercise much more than the core aspect, whereas decreasing the base of support by switching to one leg jacks up the core demand without increasing the upper body demand. So as always, the best exercise choice really depends on your goal.
If doing it from push-up position is too hard, you can also do them from the knees.
4. Walking Push-up Slides
Here’s a core exercise that will also crank up your heart rate, making it a great “finisher” for an upper body workout.
Perform a push-up slide as normal, but rather than return to the starting position on each rep, walk your feet forward until your hands are even and continue in that fashion for as long as you can handle, or as long as the space in your gym will allow.
Just a few sets will have you huffing and puffing and have your core and upper body burning and begging for mercy.
Most finishers and conditioning work crush the lower body: sleds, sprints, bikes, etc. That’s fine, unless you’re trying to give your legs a rest, in which case you’ve got a problem.
Apart from battling ropes and upper body complexes, there aren’t as many good finishers for the core and upper body that don’t tax the legs. This exercise fits that bill nicely.
Since a lot of dudes (myself included) don’t particularly like either core work or conditioning, it’s also a good way to kill two birds with one stone.
I won’t say it’s quick and painless, but at least it’s quick.
5. Half-Kneeling Landmine Lateral Raises
I shared a new lateral raise variation I’ve been doing with the landmine in a recent article. They feel awesome on the shoulders, and I’ve received a lot of good feedback from people that have tried them out and really liked them.
If you do them from the half-kneeling position, you can still blast the shoulders, but it also doubles as a heck of a core exercise, while also giving you a fantastic hip flexor stretch to boot. That’s some serious bang for your buck.
From a core standpoint it’s very similar to the increasingly popular half-kneeling lift exercise, only you get the added benefit of crushing your shoulders at the same time.
Some factions in the fitness community scoff at the notion of doing isolation work like lateral raises because it’s not “functional,” or is somehow deemed to be vain. That’s dumb, but if that’s the case, this exercise would be a good way to get around that problem because you fry your delts to your heart’s content under the guise of a “functional” core and hip stability exercise.
Interestingly, I’ve found I can handle just as much weight in the half-kneeling position than I can handle standing, so you aren’t giving up anything from a shoulder-building perspective.
You can do them from a true half-kneeling position with your back knee on the floor or raise the knee slightly like I’m doing in the video, turning it into more of an iso-lunge and making it harder on the glutes and hip stabilizers. Your choice.
6. Sliding Pushup Reach/Flys (Bottom Position)
These are the same as the regular sliding push-up reach, only you stay in the bottom position of the push-up for the entire set.
Doing them in this fashion increases the demands on the upper body quite a bit, but still challenges the core a lot through anti-extension and anti-rotation.
To increase the rotary stability demands further and also put more stress on the pecs, try reaching the arms straight out to the sides instead of reaching straight out. This is also a great progression to build to sliding chest flys, one of my absolute favorite chest builders.
7. Ring Push-up Reach
All the push-up reach variations I’ve shown thus far have involved sliders. If you don’t have sliders, or don’t have a good surface to use the sliders, you can also use rings.
Here’s an example of the regular push-up reach:
From here, you can progress on to all the same variations that I’ve demonstrated with the sliders.
If you have both options available to you, I much prefer the sliders because they just feel better, but the rings are still a good option and will work similarly.
They’re more or less equal in terms of difficulty, so you shouldn’t have much of a problem switching from one to the other, and you could certainly use both for more variation.
8. Long-Lever Plank Shoulder Taps
Each of the exercises I’ve shared in this article (and the previous article) require the use of an ab wheel, sliders, rings, a landmine, or some other piece of specialized equipment.
What do you do if you don’t have any of those goodies? Or what if you’re on the road traveling and don’t have access to a gym?
Fear not, I’ve still got you covered.
Long-lever plank shoulder taps are a brutal core exercise that requires nothing more than your bodyweight.
Regular shoulder taps are where you get into push-up position and alternate touching each hand to the opposite shoulder while focusing on keeping your torso and hips steady.
That’s a great exercise as it is, but it may not be very challenging for more advanced lifters. To make it substantially harder, try walking your feet back into a longer lever plank before doing the shoulder taps.
The same rules apply for these as for the regular push-up taps – do each rep slowly and deliberately and make sure you aren’t arching your back and/or swiveling your hips and shoulders as you reach across your body.
The farther you walk back, the farther you extend the lever and thus the harder the exercise becomes.
Start with the regular version in standard push-up position and slowly work your way back over time, progressing only to the point you can maintain good control of your core and keep good form.
9. Long Lever Plank Flutters
This one is very similar to the long-lever shoulder taps (albeit a bit harder), only you keep both your hands on the ground and instead alternate picking up your feet one at a time, almost like you’re doing a freestyle swimming kick – hence why I call them ‘flutters’.
Just as with the previous exercise, you want to keep steady and avoid arching your back. To that end, don’t lift your legs up too high, and make sure you’re squeezing your glutes and having them do the work to lift your leg rather than extending from the lumbar spine.
If you’re doing these correctly your glutes should be on fire by the end of the set. If you feel it more in your lower back, you’re not doing it right, or you may need to shorten the lever and make it easier by walking back in a bit.
Again, start in a standard push-up position and work your way back over time as you become more proficient.
If you’ve been skimping on your core work, try some of these exercises for yourself. I think you’ll quickly start rethinking just how boring and wussy core stability training really is. And who knows? You may actually start to enjoy it.
Just don’t go trying them all at once or else your abs will feel like they’ve been brutalized. You’ve been warned.
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!
We’ve all heard it from strength coaches, training partners, even the old jacked dude in the corner who squats five plates on an easy day.
Okay, what does that even mean?
Are they just saying suck in your gut, or is there something special about this core-tightening thing? And if so, why give a rat’s ass if your weightlifting goal is to be comparable to a barbarian who crushes his enemies and hears the lamentation of their women?
The often-missed point of keeping a tight core is to stabilize the spine. If you’re constantly hurting your back, this is for you. I’ve seen lifters hurt their backs from just bench-pressing because they had no understanding of spine stabilization.
Before you tune out and write this off as another pre-hab article, pay attention to this – proper spine (core) stabilization coupled with breathing techniques can actually help you lift more weight and improve performance.
Learning to properly contract the core and use intra-abdominal pressure is what separates the guys who are pretty strong from the ones who are freakishly big and strong.
The Core Defined
Your core isn’t just the washboard that you see in the mirror, or in most cases, the bag of laundry that hangs from your midsection.
Along with the abs in the front (rectus abdominis), it includes the internal and external obliques, the transverse abdominis, quadratus lumborum, and psoas major, extending down to include the hips/glutes and up to include the pelvic floor and the muscles by the spine called the multifidus and erector spinae.
Some core muscles are more superficial and are classified as global muscles involved in spinal movement. Other muscles are classified as local muscles, which are deep and specifically involved in stabilizing the spine.
For movement to occur anywhere in the body, force has to be transferred through the core.
The most common techniques to stabilize the spine for preventing injuries and achieving greater levels of strength and performance are hollowing and bracing.
Hollowing is derived from drawing in, and is performed by trying to draw your belly button in to your spine.
You’ll hear some say to find a neutral spine first. This technique has been used in rehabilitative settings to teach patients how to activate their transverse abdominus and internal oblique correctly. These are thelocal muscles involved in stabilizing the spine.
Abdominal bracing, on the other hand, involves contracting both your anterior abdominal musculature and your low back muscles at the same time and bracing, like you were about to get hit in the stomach. Some accompany bracing by pushing the abdomen out. This involves the use of the obliques to produce a more stable and powerful contraction.
A study done by Grenier and Dr. Stuart McGill showed that abdominal bracing is better than hollowing – and a purely observational study conducted by yours truly found that fitness “professionals” who talk about finding a neutral spine and drawing in while squatting usually never squat above 225 pounds.
Learning from Doing
Bracing is a technique learned in the gym or on the mat. When a fighter goes to strike, he instinctively immobilizes his trunk to a degree, braces his midsection, and swings his limb.
When an experienced powerlifter or informed gym rat gets ready for a maximal lift, he forcefully pushes his belly out and arches his back hard to keep it tight.
What he’s doing is contracting his anterior abdominal wall and low back muscles simultaneously, creating a perfect brace. It’s a technique acquired from putting your time in.
Looking at this method, it’s important to emphasize that sticking your gut out does not create a stabilized spine.
Some physical therapists teach to actively force the abdomen out while others don’t. I find it helpful to push out my abdomen when lifting heavy, but I also remember to actively contract the entire abdominal and low back areas as well as the hip musculature.
I’ve found this addition to be the difference between hitting a new PR and bombing out, or finishing those last two reps and failing before my potential was reached.
Learning Pelvic Floor Contraction
This full contraction can also include pelvic floor contraction.
A technique used to teach the full co-contraction of core bracing is to pull your pelvic floor upwards. This is similar to the kegel exercises that women practice while pregnant or that adolescent boys try in hopes it will give them a little more staying power in bed when they get to play with a real live girl.
To practice true pelvic floor contraction, imagine finally getting an opportunity to take a whizz after drinking a big cup of strong coffee along with a gallon of water during your hour-long commute to work. Now imagine you had to stop midstream. That feeling is pelvic floor contraction.
To practice a full brace with pelvic floor contraction, squeeze your glutes like you just sat on a tack, perform the pelvic floor lift, and brace your abdominals, obliques, and low back muscles like you were about to get hit.
Rest a second and repeat.
Obviously when you start throwing plates on the bar you’re not going to be thinking about stopping a piss stream, but the big guys in the gym do it without thinking.
Does Your Core Work for You?
Have you ever seen someone bend his back squatting as if he were trying to kiss his shoelaces? He’s doing so because of poor mobility and a lack of core strength, but working on core strength after restoring mobility is an oversimplification.
Spending too much time without adequate mobility and stability often results in a faulty core stabilization pattern. Adding core strength to a bad pattern won’t necessarily fix the problem.
There are exercises that help fix this patterning, but just like strength training and bodybuilding, they have to be practiced. It’s also best to add them in after you’ve first established adequate hip, ankle, and thoracic spine mobility.
The following exercises teach anterior and posterior core stability in the saggital plane as well as rotary and lateral core stability in the transverse and frontal planes.
The first three basic exercises are the curl-up, the bird dog, and the side plank. These movements have typically been used as an introduction to formal strength training after an injury or long hiatus as they recruit the proper pattern in an unloaded state.
The curl-up pattern helps if you have difficulty stabilizing while bending and teaches you how to resist excess extension of the spine in the anterior plane:
The bird dog helps if you have trouble stabilizing in trunk extension and teaches you to resist lumbar spine flexion in the anterior plane:
The side plank teaches you to resist lateral flexion in the frontal plane:
These should always be progressed to more dynamic and loaded movements. For example, a progression that trains you to resist lumbar extension in the anterior plane is the rollout:
A progression to teach resisting excessive spinal flexion in the anterior plane includes hip extension movements like the deadlift, while the suitcase carry teaches resisting lateral flexion in the frontal plane dynamically:
Rotary stability, which involves resisting too much spinal rotation, is also an important part of core stability that’s been receiving considerable attention.
Exercises to train this include cable chops and landmines.
Why Even Care About these Exercises?
I’m sure you’ve seen ‘that’ guy, the one who can do front, side, and one-fingered planks on a half-deflated Bosu ball. He can hold this for an hour with perfect alignment, but if you ask him to do a deep squat he literally can’t – despite perfect ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility. What’s the problem?
He has no dynamic stabilization. All that core strength in a stationary position doesn’t mean he can stabilize himself during movement.
Bottom line is, it’s wise to spare yourself a similar frustration and learn a couple of techniques that will save you time and energy in the long run.
Breathing techniques can and should be coupled with bracing to allow for better performance. The bracing techniques discussed above won’t help you lift more weight if there’s no increase in intra-abdominal pressure.
Spinal stability is generated partly by diaphragm activation.When pressure is increased in the abdominal cavity, it helps support the spine and works against the compression forces of axial loading (the kind of loading in a squat or standing shoulder press).
Without intra-abdominal pressure created by breathing in air against a braced abdominal musculature and forcing the diaphragm down, true spinal stability can’t occur.
The classic breathing technique used is the Valsalva maneuver.
The idea behind this is to create intra-abdominal pressure, which is meant to lead to a greater production of force and stability.
Perform the Valsalva maneuver by breathing deep into the lungs (which are down near your abdomen, for those who still think making your chest and shoulders rise is taking a deep breath), then holding it and forcing the air against a closed glottis.
To learn how to breathe into the lungs and create that intra-abdominal pressure, you can practice something called crocodile breath.
Lie on your stomach with your face resting on the back of your hands. Now breathe deeply so that your low back rises instead of your shoulders and upper back. You want to feel your abdomen pushing against the floor and expanding out sideways. Practice a few times and you’ll get the idea.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
There are a few drawbacks to this type of breathing pattern. It can seriously increase blood pressure and restrict blood flow back to the heart. This can be harmful to anyone, let alone someone with a history of heart problems.
Because of this, it’s recommended that the Valsalva not be held more than a few seconds to ensure blood pressure doesn’t increase dramatically.
Why even use this technique? The opposite idea of breathing out during a heavy lift has been shown to compromise spinal safety. Furthermore, the Valsalva can improve performance in everything from getting a new PR to aiming a gun.
If this isn’t for you but you’re still looking to create intra-abdominal pressure and brace your core, you can also use forced expiration. Easily explained, this is done by sniffing in air against a braced core and blowing out some air against a braced abdomen on the working phase of the lift.
Everyone wants to learn the newest program, lifts, and techniques to wow the treadmill bunnies and stand above their friends. It’s wise to first take a step back though and look at the champions in any sport – I guarantee you’ll see that they all share an obsession with practicing the basics that produce results.
Don’t believe me? Just ask that 50 year-old grey beard squatting a Mack truck what’s more important, the newest advanced periodized squat program or knowing how to arch your back and “keep your damn core tight”?
The Core Defined
Learning from Doing
Learning Pelvic Floor Contraction
Does Your Core Work for You?
Why Even Care About these Exercises?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The most heated argument in strength and conditioning today is to crunch or not to crunch. It’s bewildering that this seemingly harmless, short ROM exercise could create such a rift between so many smart strength and conditioning professionals, yet the great crunch debate rages on.
At the center is research showing that repeated spinal flexion using cadaveric porcine spines resulted in herniated discs. This in vitro research seems to indicate that lumbar flexion is a potent herniating mechanism, and anti-crunch proponents have extrapolated from the data that humans possess a limited number of flexion cycles throughout their lifetimes.
Accordingly, they’ve gone out on a limb and recommended that spinal flexion exercises such as the crunch be avoided at all costs. While this may seem logical on the surface, there’s more to this topic than meets the eye.
Someone needs to step up and grow some balls and address the 2000-pound gorilla soiling the carpet. We know dozens of respected strength coaches, physical therapists, personal trainers, researchers, and professors that all have serious doubts about the danger of crunches, yet none wish to discuss it out of fear of being chastised.
The line must be drawn here!
Fitness is Religion
Humans have a basic need to fall into camps, rally behind a leader, believe in supernatural phenomena, and rebel against scientific principles. Throughout history scientists have been punished for questioning current dogma. Sadly, it’s no different in the fitness industry.
Many fitness professionals have been seeking a culprit for low back pain and jumped aboard the anti-crunch bandwagon without question. These folks have adopted absurdly rigid views of the lumbar spine, believing that you should go through life moving this region as little as possible to spare insult to the spine, to the point of altering normal biomechanics in daily living.
Taking it a step further, they then intimidate others into jumping on the bandwagon and get downright emotional when confronted on the topic.
This is the antithesis of scientific thinking. We’re just happy that we won’t be house-imprisoned like Galileo for hypothesizing that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.
After delving into the topic, reviewing the literature, and applying our critical thinking skills, we’ve concluded that like every other exercise, a reasonable dose of spinal flexion exercise is potentially good for you and need not be avoided.
We presented our position in a review paper published in the Strength & Conditioning Journal and while we won’t rehash everything in the article, we do continue to question the recent “anti-crunch” movement and suggest a plausible alternative theory.
In our journal article we addressed the following issues, which will only be succinctly summarized below.
For more detailed explanations and citations, we encourage you to pull up the article and read it in its entirety.
Methodological Issues in Research Against Lumbar Flexion Exercise
Removal of muscle. The experiments used in the studies used to refute lumbar flexion exercise used porcine (pig) cervical spines with muscles removed, which alters spinal biomechanics.
No fluid flow in cadavers. Cadaveric spines don’t function the same as living spines as fluid doesn’t flow back into the discs as it does when tissue is alive.
Range of motion in porcine spine. Porcine cervical spines have smaller flexion and extension ranges of motion than human lumbar spines.
Doesn’t mimic crunch exercise regimen. When most people do crunches, they might do a few sets of 10 to 20 reps or so and then wait a couple of days before repeating. This allows the discs to repair and remodel. In the studies used to bash lumbar flexion, thousands of nonstop cycles were performed, which does not replicate a strength and conditioning regimen. It should also be noted that cadaveric spines do not remodel while living spines do.
Genetics. In the world of intervertebral disc degeneration, the role of genetics is huge. It appears that some individuals are quite prone to disc issues while others are not, suggesting that optimal programming would require knowledge of genetic traits.
Range of motion in the crunch exercise. Many years ago, an NSCA journal article described proper performance of the crunch exercise, which involved 30 degrees of total trunk flexion, most of this motion occurring in the thoracic spine, not the lumbar spine. If the lumbar spine doesn’t approach end range flexion in the crunch exercise, then the studies wouldn’t be applicable to the crunch exercise.
IAP controversy. There’s a chance that models used to estimate compressive forces during the crunch have been overestimated due to failure to take into account the role of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). If this is the case, then the studies could have used too much compression along with range of motion mentioned earlier, which would render the studies inapplicable to crunching. However, there’s conflicting research in this area and it’s likely that the effect isn’t significant.
Potential Benefits of Lumbar Flexion Exercise
Increased fluid flow and nutrition to posterior disc. Lumbar flexion enhances nutrient delivery to discs by increasing nutrient-carrying fluids to the discs.
Increased remodeling of tissue. Proper doses of spinal flexion likely strengthens the disc tissues, which would therefore increase tolerance to lumbar flexion exercise and prevent future injury.
Sagittal plane mobility. Some studies have linked lack of spinal mobility to low back pain, however the literature is somewhat contradictory. At the very least crunches can prevent losses in spinal mobility, which might be important in low back pain prevention.
Rectus abdominis hypertrophy. When taking into account the entire body of knowledge on hypertrophy research, it’s abundantly clear that dynamic exercise is superior to isometric exercise in increasing muscle mass. Much of this has to do with the increased muscular damage incurred from eccentric activity as well as the increased metabolic stress. Bottom line, if you want to optimize your “six-pack” appearance, spinal flexion exercises will certainly help to achieve this goal.
Performance enhancement. Contrary to what some have claimed, lumbar flexion is prevalent in many sport activities. Thus, concentrically/eccentrically strengthening the abdominals may very well lead to increased athletic performance.
Anecdotes and Other Arguments
Now let’s look at some anecdotal evidence to support our claims.
If we’re indeed “limited” in the number of flexion cycles, where does the number lie?
Several fitness professionals have suggested that humans possess a limited number of flexion cycles and believe that we should save these cycles for everyday living such as tying one’s shoe rather than wasting them on crunches. Realizing that anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove squat, it’s still interesting to ponder and can provide a basis for theoretical rationale.
- In 2003, Edmar Freitas, a Brazilian fitness instructor, performed 133,986 crunches in 30 hours, thereby setting a world record. This beat his previous record of 111,000 sit-ups in 24 hours set in the prior year.
Manny Pacquiao, one of the world’s best boxers, performs 4,000 sit-ups per day.
- Finally, Herschel Walker, football legend, Olympic bobsledder, and current MMA hopeful, has been performing 3,500 sit-ups every day since he was in high school. He started doing sit-ups daily when he was 12 years old. Considering that he’s now 49 years of age, this equates to 47,267,500 sit-ups. That’s almost 50 million flexion cycles performed under compressive loading!
Granted, the argument could be made that perhaps all these individuals have screwed up spines and if you were to obtain MRI’s from each you’d see appalling evidence of herniations and degeneration, but we doubt this is the case. Instead we believe that this is clear evidence that the spinal discs can remodel and become stronger over time to resist damage incurred from spinal flexion exercise.
Another argument could be made that these folks are “outliers” and their freakish genetics allow for such incredible flexion cycles. We disagree, and believe there are likely many individuals that have unknowingly met or exceeded this number in their lifetimes. Instead, we believe that this is evidence that muscular balance, abdominal strength, and flexion exercise can protect the spine.
Should We Just Shoot Ourselves?
If we cherry-picked select disc studies to determine which forms of exercise we do, we wouldn’t be allowed to do literally anything.
We found 13 studies to indicate that spinal flexion is a bad idea. (Callaghan and McGill, 2001; Drake et al., 2005; Tampier et al., 2007; Drake and Callaghan, 2009; Marshall and McGill, 2010; Adams and Hutton, 1982; Adams and Hutton, 1983; Adams and Hutton, 1985; Lindblom 1957; Brown et al. 1957; Hardy 1958; Veres et al., 2009; Court et al. 2001). This means no crunches and sit ups.
We found 11 studies that showed that combinations of spinal loading aren’t a good idea. (Gordon et al. 1991 (Flexion and Rotation); McNally et al. 1993 (Flexion and Anterolateral Bending); Shirazi 1989 (Lateral Bending and Rotation); Kelsey et al. 1984 (Flexion and Rotation); Adams et al. 2000 (Complex); Marshall and McGill, 2010 (Flexion/Extension and Rotation); Drake et al. 2005 (Flexion and Rotation); Veres et al., 2010 (Flexion and Rotation); Schmidt et al. 2007 (Lateral Bending and Rotation, Lateral Bending and Flexion, Lateral Bending and Extension); Schmidt et al. 2007 (Lateral Bending and Flexion, Lateral Bending and Rotation, Flexion and Rotation); Schmidt et al. 2009 (Lateral Bending and Flexion, Lateral Bending and Extension). This means no exercises such as twisting sit-ups or Russian twists.
We found a couple studies showing that spinal extension is a big no-no (Adams et al., 2000; Shah et al., 1978). This means no Supermans.
Several studies show that spinal rotation is bad (Krismer et al., 1996; Aultman et al. 2004; Farfan et al. 1970). This means no cable chopping motions. And you better not be performing these on a vibration platform as that would produce a double whammy to the spine. Vibration has been shown to be bad for the discs (Dupuis and Zerlett 1987).
There’s research to suggest that lateral bending is bad for you (Costi et al. 2007; Natarajan et al. 2008). This means no side bending. Similarly, asymmetrical lifting has been shown to lead to negative results as well (Natarajan et al. 2008). This means no unilateral exercises or weighted carries.
Here’s where things get interesting. We found 18 different studies showing that static or dynamic compression is a very bad idea (Virgin 1951; Liu et al. 1983; Lai et al. 2008; Lotz et al. 1998; Tsai et al. 1998; Iatridis et al. 1999; Lotz et al. 1998; Kroeber et al. 2002; MacLean et al. 2003; Hsieh and Lotz 2003; MacLean et al. 2004; Ching et al. 2004; Masouka et al. 2007; Veres et al. 2008; Lai and Chow 2010; Nakamura et al. 2009; Wang et al. 2007; Huang and Gu 2008).
This not only means no squats, deadlifts, and core stability exercises, it means no physical activity involving free weight exercise whatsoever, since muscular contractions create compressive loading on the spine. We should have known that though, as heavy lifting is bad for the back (Lee and Chiou 1994; Kelsey et al. 1984), as is overactivity (Videman and Battie, 1999). So now we know that weightlifting and intense training is out.
It goes on and on. We’ve found studies suggesting all sorts of every day activities are bad for the back, even sitting down and bed-rest. Maybe we should all just shoot ourselves before we become completely debilitated?
Do Crunches Screw up Your Posture?
The theory goes something like this: Crunches shorten the rectus abdominis. Since the rectus abdominis spans from the sternum/rib cage to the pelvis, continually shortening the muscle will pull down your ribcage, ultimately resulting in kyphosis (i.e. a round-back posture). It’s an interesting theory. It’s also completely unfounded.
As with many theories, the essence of this claim is based on a kernel of truth. Specifically, placing a muscle in a shortened position for a prolonged time causes it to assume a shorter resting length. For example, if you immobilize your arm in a cast at a flexed position for several weeks, your arm will tend to remain flexed once the cast is removed.
This is due to an adaptive response whereby the elbow flexors (i.e. biceps, brachialis, etc.) lose sarcomeres in series while sarcomeres are added to the antagonistic extensor muscles (Toigo & Boutellier, 2006). This has been coined “adaptive shortening.”
Perhaps you can see the flaw in hypothesizing that performing a crunch will shorten the rectus abdominis, namely, crunches aren’t solely a shortening exercise! Rather, the crunch also includes eccentric actions where the rectus abdominis is returned to its resting length.
Thus, any potential negative effects of shortening contractions on sarcomere number would be counterbalanced by the lengthening effect of the eccentric actions. The net effect is no change in resting length.
Some anti-crunch proponents also argue that performing spinal flexion exercises (i.e. crunches) overly strengthens the rectus abdominis so that it overpowers its antagonists, thereby pulling down on the ribcage.
This is a straw man argument. Certainly it’s true that an imbalance between muscles can cause postural disturbances – I’m sure you’re familiar with guys who hit chest and arms every workout and end up so internally rotated that they have trouble scratching the back of their head. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t perform bench presses and arm curls.
The issue here is one of poor program design, not an indictment of specific exercises.
Regarding crunches, the same principle holds true. Sure, if you perform a gazillion crunches every day and don’t train other muscle groups, you’re setting yourself up for a postural disturbance.
But this is a non-issue if you adhere to a balanced routine. Performance of virtually any standing, non-machine based exercise will heavily involve the core musculature, particularly the posterior muscles that antagonize the rectus abdominis (Schoenfeld, 2010, Lehman, 2005). It also should be noted that the average person tends to have weak abdominals (Morris et al. 2006), so they could very well benefit from performing spinal flexion exercises.
To sum up, there is no convincing evidence that performing crunches as part of a total body resistance training routine will have any negative effects on posture.
Do crunches lead to additional dysfunction, such as breathing dysfunction and glute dysfunction?
If crunches did indeed pull down on the ribcage and induce kyphosis, then one could speculate that breathing and glute functioning could be compromised. However, as just mentioned, this likely isn’t the case.
Anecdotally, hundreds of thousands of athletes in the past few decades have achieved terrific success in spite of doing crunches. If crunches did lead to shortening of the abdominals, given that a majority of people including athletes seem to display an anterior pelvic tilt in their daily posture, one could argue that it would be wise to perform crunches to pull up on the pelvis, which could theoretically decrease anterior pelvic tilt and lead to a more neutral lumbo-pelvic posture.
Are crunches a nonfunctional exercise?
Whenever one questions the implication that crunches are as dangerous as wake boarding in a tsunami, anti-crunchers quickly counter with something like, “Who cares if they’re dangerous or not? Crunches aren’t functional! They’re a short range movement performed while lying on your back. They can’t possibly transfer to anything.”
As our mentor Mel Siff aptly stated:
Anti-crunchers will point out that the crunch solely involves bodyweight and therefore isn’t heavy enough to transfer to high-force or high-velocity movement. This is absurd, as it’s very easy to hold a dumbbell at the upper chest to increase the exercise’s intensity. You also can perform a kneeling rope crunch using a cable apparatus to increase training intensity.
What carries over best to functional activity depends on the task. Here’s a chart that should help you determine optimal transfer of training.
|Biomotor Ability||Examples||Exercise Category||Examples|
|Trunk Rotary Stability, Strength and Power||Throwing a football or baseball, throwing a discuss, swinging a bat, throwing a left hook||Rotational exercises and anti-rotation exercises||Woodchops, landmines, Pallof presses, cable or band chops and lifts|
|Trunk Lateral Bending Stability, Strength and Power||Stiff-arming, posting up, landing a jab||Lateral flexion exercises and anti-lateral flexion exercises||Side bends, side planks, suitcase carries, cable or band side bends|
|Trunk Flexion Stability, Strength and Power||Sitting up from a bench, bar gymnastics exercises, bracing for a punch to the midsection, resisting being pushed rearward as in sumo wrestling, throwing a soccer ball overhead||Flexion exercises and anti-extension exercises||Crunches, sit ups, hanging leg raises, planks, ab wheel rollouts, bodysaws|
|Trunk Extension Stability, Strength and Power||Carrying heavy loads, picking up stuff off the ground, staying upright in the clinch||Extension exercises and anti-flexion exercises||Squats, deadlifts, back extensions, reverse hypers, farmer’s walks, Zercher carries|
Basically, stability exercises appear to be better for stabilization tasks as well as tasks that require proper inner-core unit functioning, while strengthening exercises appear to be better for dynamic tasks and hypertrophy.
As you can see, an exercise like a weighted crunch could transfer quite well to a myriad of functional tasks, and therefore shouldn’t be maligned for its applicability to functional or sports performance.
Is There a Healthy Balance and Do Discs Heal and Remodel?
It’s been stated by many practitioners that the discs don’t heal. This is misleading. It’s true that they’re poorly vascularized and struggle to receive adequate nutrition, and it’s true that disc tissue doesn’t heal rapidly. Proteoglycan turnover may take 500 days (Urban et al. 1978) and collagen turnover may take longer (Adams and Hutton 1982).
Hence, the discs’ rate of remodeling lags behind that of other skeletal tissues (Maroudas et al. 1975; Skrzypiec et al. 2007).
However, much evidence of disc-healing exists. Common sense would dictate that discs do heal, otherwise anyone that suffered a disc injury would never get better. We’d all just get progressively worse until we could no longer move.
Based on epidemiological studies, it’s clear that there’s an optimal window of spinal loading that is somewhere in between bed-rest and overactivity (Videman et al., 1990).
A healthy balance has been shown to occur with spinal compression (Hutton et al. 1998; Lotz et al. 2002; Walsh and Lotz 2004; Wuertz et al. 2009; MacLean et al. 2005) and spinal rotation (Chan et al. 2011). Positive aspects of spinal bending have been shown to occur in the discs as well (Lotz et al. 2008; Court et al. 2001).
Furthermore, 16 different studies indicate that the spinal discs can repair and remodel themselves. While several papers reviewed the topic (Lotz 2004; Stokes and Iatridis; Adams and Dolan 1997; Porter 1987), others demonstrated that flexion damages can heal (Court et al. 2007), compression damages can heal (Lai et al. 2008; Korecki et al. 2008; MacLean et al. 2008; Hee et al. 2011), prolapses can reverse (Scannell and McGill 2009), herniations can improve (Girard et al. 2004; Wood et al. 1997), the outer annulus can strengthen (Skrzpiec et al. 2007), collagen within the disc can remodel to become stronger (Brickley-Parsons and Glimcher, 1984), and vertebrae, ligaments, and strengthen to resist loading (Porter et al. 1989; Adams and Dolan 1996).
Every time you move your spine you cause micro-damage to the tissues, which triggers both anabolic and catabolic processes. Ideally, you want to limit the amount of damage, as healing from larger scale damage usually leaves the disc biomechanically inferior.
For example, annular damage is repaired by granulation tissue and the scar never regains its normal lamellar architecture (Hampton et al. 1989). End plate injuries heal with cartilaginous tissue (Cinotti et al. 2005; Holm et al. 2004), fibrocartilage replaces nucleus material (Kim et al. 2005), and a healing of harmed tissue is often replaced by a thin-layer of weaker fibrous tissue (Fazzalari et al. 2001).
A Stress – Eustress Solution?
The study of biomechanics is unique because you must not only consider forces and stresses on human tissues, you must also consider adaptive remodeling. The ideal situation in programming doesn’t avoid stress; it keeps the body in eustress while avoiding distress, which ensures that anabolic agents inside of tissues exert more work than catabolic agents inside of tissues to promote full repair, recovery, and strengthening.
We hope that we’ve provided you some food for thought and encouraged you to rely on logic rather than emotion in decision-making involving exercise safety and program design. An effective practitioner weighs all available evidence and makes appropriate conclusions in a dispassionate manner, without adhering to rigidly held beliefs.
We believe that future research will help hone in on the safety of the crunch exercise and determine proper dose responses, but this research needs to be conducted on living humans and involve pre and post-MRI results with a training intervention that ensures proper crunch technique.
Fix Your Front Squat
Why Should I Be Doing Front Squats?
- Increase depth achieved
- Improve core strength
- Activate glutes
Why You Suck At Front Squats
Your Abs Aren’t Strong Enough
Ab wheel rollouts OR Blast Strap fallouts
Suitcase deadlift OR Paloff press
Your Elbows Won’t Stay High Enough
Seated dumbbell external rotation
You Can’t Stand Tall
- PNF intercostal stretch
- Foam roller extensions
- Trap – 3 raises
Getting a Grip
- Keep the toes pointed slightly outwards, and make sure knees track in the direction the toes point
- Keep the chest up proud
- Elbows high at all times
- Hinge from the hips, and let the glutes fire to come back up
- Press through the full foot, keeping the heel on the ground
- Breathe deep on the eccentric, and hold full of air at the bottom to increase intra-abdominal pressure
- Don’t panic – the legs have loads of fight – or – flight in them. You’ll get out of the hole!
Lifters Who Should Be All Over Front Squats
Getting Out of The “Embarrassing” Category
Front squat workout
|B||Ab wheel rollout||12|
|–||Foam roller extensions||*|
|F||Trap-3 raises||12 per arm|
|–||PNF intercostal stretch|
|H||DB external rotations||12 per arm|
† see video below – be sure not to allow the feet to do anything but hang straight down to get full stimulation of the abdominals. It should look like you’re trying to pull yourself to horizontal.
‡ at a 3010 tempo
Squatting to Oblivion!
Spitting in Church
- Train with increased intensity using big compound lifts.
- Lose the fat. Less fat, less estrogen. ‘Nuff said.
- Get ample rest in between training. Overtraining will also lower your Testosterone, so get more quality sleep.
- Eat more protein and don’t forget the fish oil. That stuff is almost as popular today as a rowing one-footed plank on a Swiss ball.
- Cut back on the alcohol, no matter how many red wine studies you’ve read. Up the water instead.
- Make man boobs a mortal sin instead of a funny joke or reason not to wear white Under Armor to the gym.
Perform the following deadlift workout once a week:
- Load a barbell with 60% of your deadlift 1RM and set a timer for 12 minutes.
- Perform as many single reps as possible in 12 minutes, shooting for a minimum of 20 reps.
- Each rep should be performed with maximal speed from the floor.
- Release the bar completely between reps; rest until you’re ready, and repeat.
- Once 12 minutes are up, retrieve that lung you expelled around minute 9 and record your score.
- If you weigh 200 pounds, set up 275 pounds on a flat bench press, 275 pounds on a deadlifting bar, and place a 75-pound dumbbell by the dip and chin up station.
- Hit the bench for as many reps as possible. Rest 30 seconds.
- Do the same thing with deadlifts, weighted dips, and weighted chins, and record your total number of reps for each.
- Rest five minutes and repeat for 1-2 more sets.Not only will you hit all the big muscles, you’ll get a great workout in less time – with a cardiovascular benefit, too!
Make Your Plank A Pushup Instead
Get Your Sprint On