The Complete Guide to Core Training

The core plays a pivotal role in our performance as an everyday athlete. Learn about the fundamentals, function, and exercises to help build a bulletproof midsection.


Torsa Studios
Core Fitness Strength Notes Training

We’ve touched on the importance of the core many times previously. The reason we put such great emphasis on the core itself is due the lack of understanding and clarity about its function.

Last week, we discussed three unique lower body exercises for your training programme. This week we're going back to the foundations.


The core is a broad term that includes all the muscle in the body’s midsection, made up of abdominal muscles as well as back muscles and gluteal, hamstring, and hip rotator groups.


The abdominal muscles, which make up a large portion of the core, by design are stabilizers, not movers. Taking sport as a prime example, it’s all about core stabilisation and hip rotation. The primary purpose of the core is the prevention of movement.


James Porterfield and Carl DeRosa state “Rather than considering the abdominals as flexors and rotators of the trunk, for which they certainly have the capacity, their function might be better viewed as anti-rotators and antilateral flexors of the trunk”  


This relatively simple concept back in the late 90’s led to a shift in how elite level trainers programmed core training, away from ab crunches and side bends, and toward the concept of anti-rotation. With that in mind, core training is really about motion prevention, not motion creation.



Preventing injury

We’re not going to explore in-depth about the role of the core in injury prevention, but the highly-respected physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann stated in her book “A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5-S1 level”.


In simple terms, this means that the common lumbar range of motion you see personal trainers trying to create may not even be desirable, in fact, potentially leading to a higher chance of injury. The ability to resist or prevent rotation may be more important than the ability to create it.


This means, rather than doing exercises and stretches that attempt to increase lumbar range of motion, such as seated and lying trunk rotational stretches, we instead should focus on controlling the range we have.




Programming core

The question of when the core should be trained has been frequently debated. In past years, the favoured approach would be training core at the beginning because it emphasises it’s importance, especially when we’re talking about improving sports performance, where core is often integral to the athlete’s success.


Nowadays, the general consensus is to implement core throughout the workout, almost as an active rest component. It’s important that core work be made a priority, but it’s not like maximal strength work. Most core work is isometric, and will probably do more to activate or up-regulate muscles, rather than fatigue them. A strong core will result in less injury and will undoubtably improve your compound lifts.




Core training weekly progression

The progression of core is fairly straight forward. For exercises that use weights, three sets of 8 to 12 reps are done initially. Stabilisation exercises are usually performed with three sets of 25 seconds done in 5 sets of 5-second holds. Physical therapist Al Visnick said “If you want to train the stabilisers, you need to give them time to stabilise––one second holds won’t work the stabilisers as effectively as 5-second contractions.”


For exercises using body weight, progress over a three-week period as follows:


Week 1: 3 x 8

Week 2: 3 x 10

Week 3: 3 x 12


After the third week, progress to a slightly more difficult version of the exercise, reduce the number of reps, and again follow the same progression.



The categories

There are three main categories for basic core exercises.


The primary function of the anterior core muscles and a strong focus should be put on this category. Like we mentioned earlier, for decades we have developed the anterior core via flexion (bringing the shoulders toward the hips in a crunch or sit-up, or the hips to the shoulders in a knee-up or reverse crunch). Research now shows that these muscles are stabilisers, not flexors.


Antilateral flexion

Develops the quadratus lumborum which is the deepest abdominal muscle, as well as the obliques. Antilateral flexion is resisting lateral flexion (sideways bending) at the spine.



Resisting rotation at the spine and could well be the key to core training. Antirotational strength is developed through progressions of antiextension exercises and through the use of diagonal patterns and rotational forces. No Russian twists, twisting sit-ups and so on.





Preventing extension of the lumbar spine through training the anterior core is the starting point for core work. The term anterior pelvic tilt is when your pelvis tilts more down than forward, and can be a result of poor posture and the lack of correct training. By strengthening through preventing extension through the core and working on stabilising the pelvis, you can work to eliminate your pelvic tilt, which in turn will do wonders for both performance in the gym and preventing back pain.




Front plank

Every athlete should know how to hold the perfect plank for 30 seconds. It’s the fundamental antiextension exercise, but it’s often done incorrectly.


  1. Start on the elbows and forearms. Begin with 15-second holds, thinking about one long 15-second exhale. This will help fire up the abdominal muscles. (Trust us when we say a 15-second exhale and hold is a massive challenge.)
  2. A perfect plank should look like someone who is standing. The pelvis should be neutral and should not go into anterior or posterior tilt.
  3. Squeeze everything. Push the floor with your forearms, squeeze the glutes, and tighten the quads, and the deep abdominals.



Swiss ball rollout

This exercise can be described as a short lever (kneeling) plank in which the lever arm is lengthened and shortened by rolling the ball away. Think of the Swiss ball like a big ab wheel. Every athlete should begin with this before progressing onto the ab wheel. This and the plank should form the foundation for antiextension exercises.


  1. Begin In tall kneeling with the abs and glutes tight. Hands are on the ball.
  2. Exhale while rolling forward, moving from hands to elbows. Stay in the tall kneeling position, tight all the way through the body.
  3. Think about squeezing the glutes to keep the hips from extending and exhaling to tighten the core and keep the spine stable. The key is that the core doesn’t move into extension.



When you think of antirotation, think of a force being delivered that is trying to cause trunk rotation, and the athlete’s job is to prevent that from happening. Essentially, there are two categories of antirotation exercises. The first group is progression of the plank that move from what we call a four-point position (two elbows or two hands and two feet) to three-point position (generally one elbow, one hand and two feet). The second category is best described as diagonal patterns, in which forces are reduced at various angle, and the core must counter these forces. The Pallof press which we have spoken previously is a great example of this category of antirotation.



Antirotation plank progression


Any time an arm or leg is moved, a front plank moves from an antiextension exercise to an antirotation exercise, hence why plank progressions are classed as antirotation. We recommend focusing on arm reaches or movements rather than leg lifts etc.



Plank reach


The simplest progression from antiextension to antirotation, the plank reach simply requires the athlete to reach for an object in front of him. The key to the plank reach is to maintain core stability. The athlete must continue to hold the perfect plank position while reaching. Everything should continue to look just like a plank as the athlete transitions from four-point support to three-point support.



Plank row


Commonly known as the renegade row, the athlete is again in an elbow extended position but has a set of dumbbells in their hands. The action changes from reaching to rowing, but the plank position should be maintained as you row one dumbbell off the ground. Again, this is an antirotation exercise and not a strength building exercise, so use a suitable weight that challenges the core, but where you can maintain solid plank position.

renegade row 




Antilateral flexion


We want to see the lateral muscles assume the role of stabilisers. In the past, exercises such as side bends have been used to train the lateral flexion capability of the core. Research has now showed that all of the core muscles prevent motion rather than cause it. The primary obliques actually act to prevent the core from collapsing into lateral flexion.



Side plank


The lateral version of the front plank, this is the best starting point to explore the idea of antilateral flexion. Much like the plank, everyone should be able to hold a perfect side plank for 30 seconds.


  1. Start on the elbow with the shoulder blade pulled back and down. Begin with 15-second holds, again, thinking about one, big, long 15-second exhale.
  2. The perfect side plank would look like someone being fired out of a cannon. Think long and straight. The idea is to resist against the core collapsing into lateral flexion.
  3. Squeeze and keep as tight as possible.

 side plank


Suitcase carry 

The suitcase carry is a walk holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand. The key is to understand that this is actually a loaded dynamic version of the side plank. The progression here can be distance travelled, load, or a combination of the two.

suitcase carry


As you walk, brace your core and ensure that you maintain an upright posture, resisting the lateral flexion caused by the loaded weight. This exercise can be progressed into a farmers carry, which is essentially a loaded carry in both hands, shifting it from a core exercise to a hip exercise.



There you have it, the ultimate guide to core training. The importance of the core is universally recognised in the strength & conditioning industry and physiotherapy. Building a robust midsection will help prevent injury, and increase your compound lifts, leading to more muscle and strength gains.






Boyle, M., 2016. New functional training for sports. Human Kinetics.

Sahrmann, S., Azevedo, D.C. and Van Dillen, L., 2017. Diagnosis and treatment of movement system impairment syndromes. Brazilian journal of physical therapy21(6), pp.71.

Porterfield, J.A. and DeRosa, C., 1998. Mechanical low back pain: perspectives in functional anatomy. Saunders.