6 Core Training Methods.

In the last post HERE we looked at core stability in a static position, which is a great place for anyone, particularly beginners to start.

Now lets add in some movement.

The role of the core musculature is to work reflexively in order to stabilise the spine. This means it must be able to respond in the blink of an eye to any force that is placed on it, be a force generated within our own body (throwing a punch) or a force being received from the outside (receiving a punch)

Any and all sporting actions, actually scratch that, any and all actions require the muscles in the core to fire. We don’t fire them consciously  they kick in as a response to whatever it is we are trying to achieve.

So why not train them with exercises that challenge them in a reflexive manner?

Here’s a few examples of how to do this:

1 – Round the World
Most kettlebell lifters will be familiar with this, but it can be done with a weight plate just as easily (maybe not quite as easily due to grip requirements..)

Simply pass the weight from one hand to the other in front of you, continue it round and swap it behind you so as to trace a complete circle around the body.
This is standard practice in many of my warm ups as it trains the body to constantly adjust to a shifting centre of gravity.

2 – Weighted carries
Dr Stuart McGill, the worlds foremost expert on low back and core training calls the farmers walk “a moving plank”

And he knows a thing or two.

So grab a kettle or a dumbell, hold it by your side and go for a bimble. Simple eh?
Do a powerclean and walk with the weight up at shoulder height as you meander round the room.
Hold it locked out overhead as you walk. Just ensure with this final variation you keep the shoulder locked down, you should feel the weight through the back rather than in the shoulder.
These three variants are super simple and require a single weight, which will load the body on one side asking for greater levels of stability from the core region.

This is how Dan John does core work

This is how Dan John does core work

But can we use two bells? Damn right!
Be aware that you now potentially have double the load, so take care, especially as you pick, put down and turn around.

Then try off setting the bells, hold one high and the other low, ie one overhead and the other by the side. Obviously swap at regular intervals.

3 – Pretty much every bodyweight exercise ever invented.
(Barring the silly ones used in your local Aerobics class)
In the last post I already mentioned that moving in the plank position is usually called a push up, this should give you a bit of a clue.
Many who first start out on Pull Ups and Chin Ups are often caught out on how much they feel their lower abs work.
Bridge for the posterior core
Roll on the floor for dynamic stability in every plane
Animal Movements, well, that’s too big a list for one wee post, but come along to my bodyweight workshop and you’ll get the idea. I must also get back working on the Animal eBook I promised….

4 – Lifting Heavy Stuff
Especially Squats, Deadlifts, Overhead press (standing), Windmills and Turkish Get Ups.
Heavy lifting requires the core to stabilise against an external force. Not only that, but a force that is changing its vector as it progresses through the lift. Perform the lifts unilaterally and core activation goes up even further.
This is particularly apparent in the Get Up, there is so much movement in the lift the core musculature really must form a solid unit in order to get yourself up from the floor and onto your feet while holding something heavy in your outstretched arm.

If it's good enough for Iron Man.....

If it’s good enough for Iron Man…..

And by the way, once you can do a Turkish Get Up, get that thing loaded and stop pansying about with babyweights. You should be able to work the Get Up with a weight heavier than you can press, and we expect you to get at least 1 rep with half your bodyweight.

5 – Hittin Fings
When we talk about the core being reactive and switching on in an instant, few things are better at creating this effect than hittin stuff really hard.

As I work out of a martial arts studio and many of my clients are martial artists, this is kind of bread and butter to us. We rarely use hitting as a core training drill as the guys spend hours hitting the bags and pads as part of their regular training. We do though have them smashing a tyre with a sledgehammer.

For non martial arts types, learning to throw a decent punch into a heavy bag is one of the most satisfying things you can do, it’s also “functional” in case you ever have to knock anyone out! But really, a punch requires the core musculature to stretch and contract to get power moving from the hips into the shoulders and then become a solid unit on impact to drive the power through the target.
A good bag session should leave you with sore abs and tired legs.

A step up again is to punch with some kind of restriction, try holding a weight in the opposite hand as you punch, or punch from a seated position  These will force you to stabilise even harder in order to generate force.You can see the punching drill with a kettlebell towards the end of this clip, in fact you can see points 2, 3, 4,and 5 all in one workout:

6 – Directional Changes
sprint absQuick changes in direction are a great way to challenge to core region. This where things like sprints, shuttles, agility ladders, battling ropes and reaction drills come in. When we move quickly we move around our midsection. A proper gait pattern will see the shoulders and hips swinging in opposite directions, meaning that the muscles in between them, ie your core, are constantly flexing and extending. The more vigorously you do this, ie sprinting, the harder then flex and extend.

Now suddenly change direction.

Assuming you have good basic strength, mobility and running mechanics, sprinting with direction changes will do wonders for your midsection. If you aren’t a runner or have tight hips, stick to the agility ladder as the smaller movements have less inherent risk than when in full flight.

The battling rope is a great core developer as well as mean cardio, to create a wave in the rope, you must first create that wave within your body and that takes control to do, especially as the arms are moving independently.

Have some fun playing with each of these suggestion.



4 Core Stability Drills, and a Few Variations.

Last week we answered the question “Why is core strength so important?”
Which seemed to go down well,
judging by the amount of shares that post had. Thank you all very much, I’m happy to help.

Speaking of which…this blog has made it to the Breaking Muscle final 20 in their top ten fitness blog competition.
We got there because you all voted for me.
Thankyou again, you are all awesome.

So anyway, back on point.

Core Strength and how to develop it…

What does the core do?

It is becoming ever more widely accepted that the core musculature is primarily for the prevention of movement.
In other words it stabilises the spine.

This little tidbit of information ought to give us a clue as to how best to train it for strength.

We need to train the core in such a manner that there is little to no movement in the spine.
But in what direction?

The spine can flex and extend in the Saggital plane
It can flex left and right in the Frontal Plane
It can twist and rotate
It can move in a combination of planes and directions simultaneously.

planes of the body

So, we need to learn to effectively counter these movements.
In other words build the ability to resist flexion/extension in the Saggital Plane, resist lateral flexion and prevent twisting.

Here’s a list of the go to exercises to build this kind of stability:

  • Superman / Bird Dog
    This is a great place to start and suitable for pretty much everybody.
    Start on all fours in a kneeling position, now really slowly slide one arm and the opposite leg out until they are fully extended. Think of reaching for the walls.
    Hold full extension for a minimum of three seconds, longer is better.
    In this extended position, ensure the spine is kept neutral (no sagging head or lumbar) and try to eliminate any and all wobbling and shaking.
    See the sagging back, or exaggerated lumbar curve.Not good.
    See the sagging back, or exaggerated lumbar curve.
    Not good.

    Now thats better, a strong, neutral spine.Also notice the gluteal activation..
    Now thats better, a strong, neutral spine.
    Also notice the gluteal activation..

    A slight advancement is to pretend you have a pen sticking out of your heel and start drawing circles, or writing your name on the wall behind you. Just be sure that the pelvis is stationary and the leg moves from the hip joint.
    1 to 3 sets of 5-12 reps is ok, depending on your needs.


  • Planks 

    This simplicity itself, rest on your elbows and toes with the body held in a perfect straight line.Now don’t move.plankCan you stay there for 2 minutes? If not, why not? Sort it out, 2 minutes is a minimum standard, and we don’t do minimums!Once you hit the 2min mark, the Plank is no longer classed as an exercise, it becomes renamed as “Rest Period”

    So we take it up a notch. Here’s a few ideas:

    Three point planks – lift a leg or an arm without any change in alignment through the spine.

    Two point planks – Like the superman above, lift one leg and the opposite arm. Don’t wobble!

    Weighted Planks – balance a weight on the back, you may need a mate to help it balance.

    Moving planks – these are often called Push Ups.

    Side Planks – you are now balanced on one arm and the same side leg.

    Whatever variant you choose, the spine must be kept in perfect neutral, otherwise, it aint a plank and you’re not getting the desired benefits.

  • The Dead Bug or the Hundred Drill from Pilates 

    Lie flat on your back, that the arch of the back sink to the floor. Now lift the legs up and point them at the ceiling, same with the arms. This is the dead bug position. Hold it for time until it becomes comfortable.I prefer the Pilates method to count time, they call the position the Hundred and hold if for 100 breaths. Simple.Once this is all good, you can add to it. Here’s possibly the best presentation on the Dead Bug on the web, it’s from the inimitable Dan John, have a look:

  • The “Philippi”
    This is cool, it takes all the above stuff off the floor and into an athletic setting, it also trains the core to work reflexively, which is it’s real job.I’ll let Mark Philippi himself tell you more about it, this clip is an excerpt from a DVD he made with Mike Mahler, the drill is the first three minutes of this clip, the rest is an interview with Mark on program design, also well worth a watch:

In the next post we’ll take it to another level by moving away from pure stability and looking at stabilising the core in motion.



Ask Dave: Why is core strength so important?

Over the weekend I was over in Galway as a guest of the inimitable Sarah Smith, owner of Galway Kettlebells, where I taught my bodyweight training workshop.

The workshop is always a blast to teach, each time I run it I’m more than impressed by the level of questions that get asked.
On this one though I got a doozy.

A 17 yr old martial artist was on the course, a bright wee lad who is relatively new to the whole fitness / strength & conditioning world.
So often the best questions come from those with the least knowledge, and like I said, this was a corker.
He asked,

“So why exactly is core strength so important?”

Usually I am asked about developing core strength, this is the first time I’ve been asked one of the most important of all questions, “Why?”

To really answer, first of all we all need to be on the same page as to what exactly the “core” is, I personally use three definitions dependent on the context I’m working from.

Lets go over these three definitions:

1 – The Water Bottle Concept

This idea came to me while teaching seminar on Kettlebells to group one day. I asked the group, who were mainly young fitness instructors for their opinions on how to define the “core”
Needless to say I got a lot of blank looks followed by stumbling descriptions and a lot of pointing at the stomach.
At that moment I grabbed my water bottle and used it to illustrate a simple view of the core as a singular unit as opposed to a jumble of parts. Here’s a short version how the speech goes (for a full version, get the Level 1 Kettlebell Manual):

A plastic water bottle, even an empty one, can support a good portion of my bodyweight without any issue. Assuming I can balance on it, it can support my entire bodyweight with a degree of deformity occurring.
Now if put the tiniest hole in the bottle, or simply unseal the lid, it will collapse under a fraction of that weight.
How does the sealed bottle hold me up where an open one collapses? It is after all the same bottle made of the same thin plastic.

A sealed empty plastic bottle supporting a 10kg plate

A sealed empty plastic bottle supporting a 10kg plate

But if we remove the lid....

But if we remove the lid….

It’s the internal air pressure that supports my weight. The walls of plastic merely present the air escaping so that there is sufficient pressure to support me. As soon as the air finds a way out, through a weak spot in the plastic, the bottle collapses.
This is almost exactly how our abdomen works when we are generating high levels of force. The air pressure in the torso stiffens the body so that the hips and shoulders can use it as a platform to push from.
The water bottle even helps us with the anatomy.
The front side is our Rectus Abdominis, or “6 pack.” Directly opposite this on the back of the body is the Erector Spinea. The sides represent our obliques.
The label illustrates the Transverse Abdominis nicely as it goes around the bottle, albeit on the outside rather than the inside.
The base of the bottle is the Pelvic Floor and the lid represents the Diaphragm.When all of these elements are working together, we are strong. Individually they are pretty much useless.

How does this help us?
It shows us how the core works as a unit, stiffening to both protect the body ans also to transfer force from one end of the body to another.
For our martial artist, that means when his fist lands, the core stiffness so that the force is transferred not just into, but through his opponent with minimal recoil reverberating back through himself.


2 – From the Hips to the Shoulders

I don’t use this one as much as the water bottle idea, but I find it useful for getting the contact athletes and fighters to reconsider their training needs.
It’s a simplified version of the next definition that follows this.
The way I like to illustrate this is with 2 pens and an elastic band.
Put a pen through the band and hold it steady, now put the other pen through it and start twisting. After a few twists hold that pen steady and release the bottom one. What happens?

That’s right, the bottom pen spins as the band unwinds. That’s exactly how a Thai boxer throws a kick, wind the top so that the bottom whips around.



Now if the bottom pen is out hip and the top pen is our shoulder, then the band is our core. What connects the hip to the shoulder? A whole host of muscles, including everything talked about in the Water Bottle idea and adding in the Glutes, Lats, Rhomboids, Traps and so on and so forth.
Look at thrower, be it shot put or baseball, doesn’t matter. See how the et their hip all the way around so the torso is twisted like our elastic band visual. Then, as the torso teaches its maximal stretch it snaps the shoulder through, whipping th arm out and propelling the
ball at rocket speed towards the target.
Every muscle that was involved in that stretch can be construed as the core. It’s not just your abs, it’s the entire connection between the hips and shoulders.

3 – The Spine

This is the real core.
It is a series of 33 bones, 24 of which are able to articulate against the bone above and below it. The spine can flex, extend and rotate, essentially moving in each and every plane. It also protects our spinal cord and acts as an anchor point for a huge amount of muscle.

If we really want to talk about our core, we have to talk about the spine.
In the world of power generation and athletic movement, the spine is a BIG player. Let’s use throwing a punch as an example:
A punch starts in the ground, we extend our rearmost ankle and knee which pushes our rear side hip forwards. This all happens fairly fast with each joint accelerating the next.
Now assuming our abdominal muscles have enough elasticity and strength, the hip turning while the shoulder is stationary will torque the midsection, the spine will become twisted and many the muscles the attach to the spine will either become lengthened (stretched).
The spine then will unwind, releasing that stretch and literally slingshotting the shoulder forward throwing out the arm and knocking out the person opposite you.

If you get nothing from that other than the word “slingshotting” I’m cool with that, just as long as you use that word at something today in conversation. Drop me a comment letting me know how you get on….

Cue one of my favorite self defence coaches, Mick Coup, talking about the punch:

The flexion / extension of the spine in the saggital plane is used by strongman and Kettlebell lifters during presses and jerks to propel weight efficiently overhead with a whip or wave like action.
Combine the forward flexion with rotation and you have a tennis serve, reverse it and you have a suplex throw.

Really, the spine is the core. Muscles are designed to move joints and the spine has 24 articulating vertebrae, as well as the sacroilliac, the atlas and others. That’s a lot of joints, all of which needs to be controlled by muscular contraction.

Now, does the core need to be strong?


It also needs to be mobile, or “elastic” as I prefer to think of it.
So don’t just do your strength work, be sure to do some mobilisation work too.

I hope this offers some food for thought, I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions on the topic.
I’ll talk about strengthening the core in another post.



Low Back Pain and Overhead Pressing

Just this week I opened up a WG-Fit Facebook page in response to several requests from my regulars. Click here to join in on the conversations that have already started.
Part of what I hope to achieve on the page is a regular Q&A where page members can ask anything they want about training and other community members can help out by answering or by reading the answers given. Already on the page I have several other coaches and couple of physio’s, all of whom I intend to press-gang into “spotlight” sessions, essentially a live Q&A on the facebook page where you can grill them to within an inch of their lives.
It’ll be cool.
Anyhow, we’ve already had a question.
The pages 1st question came to us from Don Whelan:
“I have a question .. it would obviously be easier to explain in person but for the sake of having something to chat about :) … I get lower back pain when doing any high volume r high weight overhead work :/…I self diagnosed(always dangerous) as a combo of pelvic anterior tilt and crappy shoulder mobility… because I cant move my shoulders fully vertical i have to arch my back slightly to get them there, so that on top of the arch at the bottom of my back because of the pelvic tilt makes it pinch ! squeezing my arse and pushing my hip forward(kind of a thrusting motion) relieves this but I don’t feel a solid overhead then… any thoughts ?”
Firstly, I know Don, he trains with me regularly. he’s also a member of the Wild Geese BJJ team.Don has great flexibility and like a lot of bendy folk, he’s relatively weak. Something we’re working to remedy.
So why are bendy folk weak? Simple, they struggle to stabilise the body, and an unstable body cannot generate power. The power leaks out all over the place and they can be very prone to injury.Anne Dempsey, who teaches the 4pm Yoga class every Saturday will tell you, “You’re better of being strong and tight than weak and flexible.”
Before we start an argument on the pro’s and con’s of flexibility, lets get back to the question.

Don struggles with overhead work due to poor core strength and more importantly, stability.

As the weight is lifted over head it is changing the bodies centre of gravity. It’s common the see lifters leaning back as the weight goes up, the upperbody and head moving back acts as a counterbalance to the weight held out front, it also allows the weight to kept closer to the base of support, the hips and feet.

The layback also allows for the upper chest muscles to kick in and assist the lift, rather than relying solely on the delts to lift.

This isn’t wrong to do, watch any strongman doing an overhead press or a kettlebell lifter pressing or jerking and you’ll see the same thing happening.

The Military Press as performed in the 1972 Olympic Games

What is wrong is the way the layback happens.
A strong lifter will have a body awareness and strength level that allows for proper movement. Weaker people, usually don’t.
The layback should happen through the Thoracic Spine or T-Spine. This is the upper back where the rib cage attaches.This portion of the spine is supposed to be mobile, it’s where the majority of our spinal movement is supposed to happen.
Problems arise when we layback through our Lumbar Spine or lower back.This part of the spine is meant to stable.When you hyper extend though the lumber you are pinching nerves, squashing disks and opening yourself to a whole host of potential injuries.

So how do we ensure that we keep the low back stable and only lean back thought the mobile T-Spine?
It’s a 2 part answer.
Part 1 – Stabilise the core.Part 2 – Mobilise the T-Spine.
For starters we need to build stability in the core. This means getting all the core muscles firing together so they can prevent any movement in the lumbar. For an overview of this process, check out the “Water Bottle Speech”  that features in the Level 1 Kettlebell Workshop
The simplest and best core drill for beginners is the Plank. Simply get on your elbows and toes, hold the body in a straight line, no saggy bits, and thats it.Now build that hold to 2 full minutes.Once that’s done, repeat the process with the straight arm plank, essentially a the top of a push up.

Here’s a presentation on the plank:
Take note of how the lower back is flattened out in the plank, this will require you to posteriorly tilt the pelvis with the glutes and a brings more tension into the abdominals.
If you can hold these positions for the full 2 minutes, you should be stable enough to lift safely. Once you get the 2 mins, it’s time to put these basic planks to bed and start working on more interesting variations, such as:Supermans (aka Bird dogs)Push Ups (yup, a plank, only moving)

Mountain Climbers

Weight loaded planks

Planks with arm excursions

Side Planks


Turkish Get Ups

All these will develop well rounded core strength & stability with an emphasis on the anterior core (especially the rectus abdominis or “6 pack” muscle) which is largely responsible for countering spinal extension.
Once the core is established, lets look at getting the upper back working.We need to get the scapula (shoulder blades) moving freely. This means opening the chest, stretching the upper traps and activating the lower traps.
There’s a lot in this, i could be typing for the next 4 hours on the topic, fortunately a while ago I made a video covering all the main points.
Here it is:
It is also note worthy that in my observations of the BJJ and the younger lads coming in training. Core strength is very often lacking in these lads, they are quick, they are mobile, but they all have a terribly rounded posture when standing and many seem to have poor core stability.Is this due to the beginners spending most of their time on their back? I’m not sure, but I see a future of chronic postural issues if this isn’t dealt with.Many of the younger BJJ guys, and by young, I’m talking training age, not chronological age, are developing a very kyphotic posture, which in their sport maybe helpful at the start, but over time will lead to shoulder and back trouble.

A good strength & conditioning program should address this and help restore balance to the body.

Don mate, hope this goes some way to answering your question. Thanks very much for asking.
If anyone else has any questions or indeed has anything they wish to discuss with regards to training in any respect, please don’t hesitate to get on over the the WG-Fit Facebook page and have your say.
See you there.