One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to train their “core” is that they equate strength with aesthetic.
An aesthetic core, i.e. visible abs, may just mean that you have low body fat and favorable genetic muscle insertions. Conversely, if you are as wide as you are tall, but you can deadlift 700lbs, you definitely have a strong core. The point of this article is to explain how to get a stronger core, not necessarily a more aesthetic one.
To uncover your abs and get that aesthetic core, check out my article on the best ways to lose fat.
Strength is the foundation on which all other training is built, and your core is where strength starts. So even if you do want to train your core to be more aesthetic, which would require directed hypertrophy, you should still train your core to be strong in order to support the workload.
9090 breathing is perhaps the most boring exercise that you will ever do, but it might also have the greatest carryover of any exercise to the rest of your training. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if you can truly master 9090 breathing, it will improve all other exercises in your workout.
The point of 9090 breathing is to learn how to diaphragmatically breathe properly.
How to 9090 Breath
9090 breathing is best practiced by putting yourself in a low load situation with no spinal compression. The idea is that if you can breathe properly in this position, you should be able to breathe properly when you are working out with weight.
To 9090 breathe, start by lying on your back and putting your feet up on the wall or on a box or bench.
Your knees and hips should be bent to 90 degrees each, which is where the exercise gets its name.
Breathe in slowly through your nose and think about a balloon expanding inside of your stomach. Think about getting the air low in your gut and not in your chest.
Get as much air into your belly as possible, expanding your core outwards 360 degrees like an inner-tube inflating.
Pause briefly before beginning to breathe out through your mouth.
As you breathe out, imagine a woman giving birth, pushing the air down.
Make sure to keep your core tight and flexed as you exhale, keeping the inner-tube inflated.
Take a brief pause and repeat this pattern.
This is how you should breathe when you train, especially at heavier loads.
A lot of trainers might say things like “keep your core tight”, or “engage your core”, but what does that really mean?
Basically, if your core is relaxed in a lift, you have a weak foundation and cannot efficiently produce force. If your core is tight during a lift, you have a strong foundation and can lift heavier weights more easily, and you get a tight core by diaphragmatically breathing.
Planks are one of those exercises that everyone always starts doing when they begin training, but then quickly stop doing because it gets too easy too quickly.
But at its core (pun intended) the plank and all of its infinite variations (bird dogs, long lever, weighted, side, upside down, elevated, Copenhagen, etc.) are some of the best ways to develop core strength.
However, there is a fundamental flaw with a traditional plank, or any version of a plank that requires you to stay completely still.
Rarely in real life do we need our core to work as a stabilizer while we are not moving. What is much more likely is that we need our core to work as a stabilizer while movement is happening around it.
If you think about when you need your core to be strong and stable (like when you have 400lbs on your back), other body parts are moving while your core is staying still. So it makes sense that when you are doing directed core training you would want to emulate that. The renegade row is a good example of this.
How to Do a Renegade Row
To do a renegade row, grab a couple of dumbbells and get into a standard plank position while holding onto the pair of dumbbells.
Row one of the dumbbells up toward your body before bringing it back to the ground and repeat on the other side.
The trick is to not sway your body back and forth as people are prone to do. The only thing moving should be your arm and dumbbell.
Cue yourself into doing this correctly by balancing a 2.5 lb plate on your back while you do the exercise and try to not let it move as you do your renegade rows.
Other plank variations that use this principle of stability around movement include: bird dogs, around the world planks, plank and shoulder taps, and plank pull through.
Some exercises require a lot of technique and are hard to learn on your own. Suitcase and farmer carries do not have this problem. These are perhaps the simplest, yet most effective exercises for increasing overall strength, especially your core.
The challenge is to stay tight and engaged as you walk with a weight in one or both of your hands. Your body will want to lean one way or the other, so you need to fight that force by creating an equal and opposing force within your core.
How to Do a Suitcase Carry
To do a carry, grab a weight in either one or both of your hands.
Bring your shoulders back and together, puffing your chest out like Superman. Stand erect and make yourself as tall as possible.
Make sure you have a good grip on the weight, feel free to use straps if you are really trying to challenge your stability.
Step heel-to-toe, keeping short strides that challenge your balance.
Don’t cross your feet, each foot should stay in its own lane.
As you perform carries, try not to look at the floor. This is true for any balance and stability exercise. You may think that you are more stable, but really you just create a false sense of stability and end up shifting your body forward, putting unwanted stress on your back.
People forget that your “core” is not just your six pack. It is all the muscles that encompass your midsection. This includes your lower back, and if you are doing a lot of anterior (front side of your body) work, it is important that you balance out with posterior (back side) work in order to prevent asymmetries.
Balancing out whatever direct ab work you do in your program with exercises that strengthen the antagonist muscle group of the spinal erectors of your back is a smart move. The back extension, sometimes called a hyperextension, is a great way to do this.
How to Do a Back Extension
To do a back extension, lie down on the hyperextension bench or a stability ball and secure your lower body.
Make sure that the edge of the bench or ball is at the level of your hip.
Lift up your torso by bending at the waist, then lower yourself down towards the ground.
Make sure to keep your back flat the entire time.
Go as far down as you can while keeping a flat back before raising your body up to its erect starting position.
You can make this exercise more difficult by holding onto a weight as you perform it.
Heavy Compound Movements
If you think about a dead body for a second, and imagine trying to get it to stand up on its own, you are probably going to have a bad time. So why is it that we “livies” can stand upright so easily, while a cadaver cannot? It’s all in our cores; they work as stabilizers to keep us upright.
Now if we did manage to get a dead body to stand upright Weekend At Bernie’s style, and then we loaded up a barbell with a couple of plates on in it onto its back, there would be no chance it would be able to stay vertical. This is my grotesque way of explaining that the heavier loads we lift, the more our cores have to work in order to keep standing up.
For this reason, heavy squats, overhead presses, and deadlifts are great for building a strong, stable core. Deadlifts especially are great for getting those spinal erectors strong that we just talked about.
How to Do a Deadlift
In order to do a proper deadlift, make sure you approach the bar so that it is centered over your feet.
Feet should be no wider than hip width apart.
Bend at the hip like you’re going down for a ground ball before gripping the bar shoulder-width, all while keeping your shoulder blades tucked back. Drive your heels down into the ground and pull the weight up.
While exercises like crunches and leg lifts have their place in developing the aesthetic of the core, they are not as well suited for developing core strength.
Your core’s main job is to create stability for your other muscles to do their jobs better. Your core is your foundation in which all other strength is built, so limiting how strong your core is will limit how strong you’ll be able to become.