What is the Best Core Exercise??
“What is the best core training exercise?”
This is a common question for those of us who are seeking to bulletproof our body, enhance performance and look damn good around the midsection. You may have even asked someone this yourself (or at least thought about it!).
And at the risk of sounding like a smart ass, I am going to have to answer this one with, “The best core exercise is the one you are executing properly!”
I could also answer this, “The best core exercise isn’t too easy, but is definitely not too difficult where you can’t complete it appropriately.”
So with that, you can see that the best core training exercise for any one person is going to change overtime as they become stronger and more conditioned through the core.
And the best place to start your core training is to make sure that you understand exactly what it is you should be focusing on, and making sure you have mastered the basics.
It is with mastering the basics that you bulletproof your body to prevent injury, or rehab yourself back from any injuries / nagging pains. It is also with building this solid base that you will be able to achieve new levels of performance and train with higher intensity core exercises. Not to mention that you will also be working towards a lean, stronger more defined midsection…but building your base is first!
How to Build Your Base, Master the Basics and Unlock Higher Level Training
First, your core has the main job of preventing movement about the hips and spine, and transferring energy throughout the body (top to bottom, bottom to top, side to side, etc.).
Because of this, if your core is not functioning properly, or strong enough for the task at hand, there is likely too much motion occurring at the hip and spine (especially the lower back). When you have too much motion occurring, especially over a long period of time, it is inevitable that the joints and tissues (muscle, tendon, ligaments, joint capsules, etc.) will begin to breakdown and there will be pain.
Don’t believe me? Check out what Dr. McGill has to say about what the core is designed to do, and some other gems (oh, he is only one of the worlds foremost experts on back health).
So with that, you must first learn how to control your hips and spine from extending, flexing, side bending and rotating when it shouldn’t. Here is how you can do so!
1. Quadruped hip extension and flexion (cat cow)
The quadruped hip extension and flexion exercise allows you to understand how to use your core (mainly your obliques) to manipulate your hip position. Once you understand this feeling (how to swivel your hips), you can then use this to find a neutral position, and try to keep that position when other forces are trying to make you lose that position!
Here your goal is to use your ability to find a neutral position, and keep this neutral position when you extend both the arm and opposite leg. This exercise being from a supine position is great as you gain feedback from the floor. If you feel your low back arching off of the ground, or being aggressively smashed into the ground, you have lost the position. Only reach the arm and leg out as far as you can without this happening.
The birddog exercise is just the opposite of the deadbug, at least relative to gravity! But, the goal is the same…as you extend the arm and leg, you are trying to prevent the back from overarching. Here you are also trying to prevent the hips from rotating, or moving side to side.
This requires you to find the neutral position and keep it (think of your zipper being tucked up towards your ribcage) when the weight and movement of your arm and leg are trying to make you overly arch the back, as well as rotate at the hips.
Now that you know what it feels like to achieve and maintain a neutral position, it is time to start strengthening the core, and building endurance in a neutral position. The plank does just that!
5. Side Plank
Like the plank, the side plank helps to strengthen and enhance the endurance performance of your core. This time you are targeting more of the lateral core as you focus on preventing the hips from dropping to the ground, and the spine from side bending. BUTTTTT…don’t forget to maintain a neutral hip position (don’t let your low back overarch, as this is a typical mistake in a side plank).
6. Anti-Rotation Press
As the name implies, the anti-rotation press is challenging you to prevent rotation at the hips and spine. As you press the cable / band away from your body your goal is to keep everything but the arms from moving. This first requires you to achieve a neutral position (using the abs to keep the “zipper up towards the rib cage”) and then working to prevent rotation.
These baseline exercises help you ensure that you understand how to use your core, and position your hips and spine in a neutral state. First and foremost this will allow you to prevent any pain or overuse injury.
And second, mastering these basic exercises set the foundation for you to perform higher level core training exercises, as well as higher level exercises as a whole. With higher level exercises (more resistance, higher technical complication, etc.) you will have a greater chance to achieve your overall health, fitness and performance goals.
Up next we will take a dive into how you progress the basic exercises, as well as how and when to add in higher level exercises to even further your progress.
Check out the next article for these progressions.
And remember, every exercise is a “core exercise” especially when you take these baseline exercises and perform any other exercise with these principles of “anti-motion” in mind!