Do This, Not That: Training the Core

Do This, Not That" How to Train the Core
The core. Everybody loves to train their core. It’s one of the most popular things to do in a gym.
And a strong core is important. It keeps the body strong, the back happy, and life good.
Unfortunately, not all core exercises are created equal. A lot of people end up doing the exercises they see everyone else do or that they’ve always done. 
When it comes to core exercises, we generally want the core area to remain stable (i.e. not move), while everything else (like our arms and legs) moves around. Exercises that cause a lot of motion at the core typically put the back in positions that can lead to injury if done enough times. The core muscles are meant to resist motion, not create it.
Below, are exercises that are commonly done along with some better alternatives. These will leave your core strong without putting your back and body in pain.

1. Sit-Ups vs. Deadbugs

Perhaps one of the most common core exercises and a go-to for everyone from P.E. teachers to routine gym-goers. The problem with sit-ups is they put the lower back (and neck) in a very rounded, flexed position every rep. That’s a great way to have a spinal disc injury.
A better alternative would be a deadbug. During the deadbug, we flatten the lower back into the floor and keep it there the entire time while the arms or legs or both move (i.e. core remains stable while everything else moves). This lets us train the core hard while sparing the low back pain.

2. Side Bends vs. Suitcase Carries

Another common exercise to see in gyms everywhere. Grab a heavy weight and bend up and down a million times. There’s nothing better to get rid of those love handles they say. But like the sit-up, side bends repeatedly put the spine into a flexed, rounded posture. Feeling an exercise in one area doesn’t mean you’re burning fat from that area. This makes side bends a poor exercise to do.
Switch side bends for suitcase carries. They look similar at the start. Grab a heavy weight in one hand. Instead of bending over repeatedly, stay upright with perfect posture. Avoid letting the weight bend you. This trains the side core muscles (obliques) to resist that motion. Which makes the obliques stronger and your back thank you.

3. Russian Twists vs. Anti-Rotation Press

Russian twists go by a lot of different names, but the execution is typically the same. Sit on the ground and twist side to side as fast as you can. You’ll usually feel it burning deep in the core (transverse abdominis muscle – the same one that hurts after laughing really hard). The problem is like the other ones; the low back doesn’t like movement. And rotating side to side through the lower back is asking for pain.
A better way to train the muscles is resisting the rotation instead of creating it. An anti-rotation press is great for this. Use a band or cable machine, and press the hands away from you without letting them rotate. Same benefit without the possible injury.

4. Stability Ball Crunches vs Stir the Pot

Another staple in many people’s gym routines. Like the sit-ups mentioned above, but done on a stability ball. The problem is the repeated flexion of the spine can lead to disc problems if done enough times.
A simple solution is to flip around on the ball and do stability ball stir-the-pots. Keep the hips and core from moving while your forearms make circular motions on the ball. This is harder than it seems to do right, so start with a larger stability ball and small circles.

5. Superman vs. Bird Dog

Superman: the hero we all need but a poor core training choice. It’s done laying face down and arching up with your hands and feet. Most people (myself included) hate this exercise, but some still do it because “it’s good for you”. However, hyperextending the lower back, like when arching really hard in the superman, is a big no-no in our gym.
Switch it up to the birddog instead. Start down on hands and knees. Slowly extend opposite hand and leg as far as you can without letting the lower back arch. Now we’re training anti-extension instead of hyperextension. Again, the lower back will thank you one day.
Now you have a little knowledge of what not to do to train your core and some great alternative instead. Try them out in your next workout and let us know how it went.

Andrew Hamerlinck
Director of Training