Core Training: No risk, all reward

Written by Blake KoehnJanuary 12, 2024
Cover image for the Core Training: No risk, all reward article

Most fitness programs will include core training as a foundation to additional programming. However, all to often, exercises chosen prove to be ineffective or worse, detrimental. In this brief article I am going to provide a summary of the big ticket items when implementing core training and how best to apply for your specific goals and preferences.

"Abs are made in the kitchen."

The two most common reasons to train the core are aesthetics and function. The first is largely dependent on diet, and the second on appropriate exercise selection. Core training can be viewed as the armor to protect against injury, allow pain free movement and push yourself in a safe way. Injury prevention, muscular endurance and function and improved aesthetics are all byproducts of well designed core training. By implementing a variety of strategies, you will have the tools needed for your desired results while reducing the likelihood of unnecessary injury.

"Proximal stability, distal mobility."

The spine is not a primary mover. Movement should begin with the ball and socks joints of the hips and shoulders. Without sufficient movement patterns of the hips and shoulders, the lumbar and thoracic spine attempt to meet necessary range of motion requirements. A common example is rounding the lower back when touching your toes. Add resistance to a similar movement in the gym (deadlift), and the compression forces gradually build until a tipping point is surpassed. Training for endurance and stability of the spine, with movement from the shoulders and hips, allow sufficient movement in daily life, physical activity and sports.

Smart choices, consistently applied.

Commonly prescribed spinal flexion, extension and excessive rotation under load lead to problems by creating the vulnerable internal environment that is realized later in future training sessions, activities or daily life. Sit ups are a very common example of an "ab" exercise that's included in training programs. The repetitive spinal flexion is a recipe for disaster, especially if someone is doing so frequently or with additional resistance. Smarter choices, primarily neutral spine exercises, will not only prevent common injuries but also lead to better results. The difficulty in appropriate core exercise selection is the latency between poorly chosen exercises and time to realize the negative consequences. Often times it is the wear and tear, similar to tearing a fabric, that leads to common back injuries. This is often because most "back" injuries are disc related and the intervertebral disc are interwoven layers of collagen that delaminate progressively over time.


Repetitive stressors delaminate this collagen as a result of repetitive movement error. Again this is not always the case, but in regard to core training you often facilitate or aggravate this injury mechanism through poor exercise selection. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Appropriate exercise selection strengthens the core muscles and allows bone, disc and spinal ligaments to adapt positively to the stressor provided adequate programming.

Abnormal results are a result of doing the common thing for an uncommon period of time.

Exercise Selection

Staying within your "biomechanical envelope" to avoid unnecessary end ranges and shear forces is a safe, effective way to strengthen your core. The below exercise are examples of low risk, high reward exercises that can increase in challenge through various progressive strategies. As important as the challenge, each of the below reduce or eliminate the common high risk characteristics associated with most core training. By removing spinal flexion, spinal extensions and spinal lateral flexion, the likelihood of injury is reduced. Appropriate programming, taking into account interpersonal differences, will allow those who want to incorporate various movements into their program to do so in a safe, effective way.

Side plank


Bird dog


Stir the pot


Weighted carries

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*The above exercises are examples of what to be included in an overall workout plan. There are additional modifications and variations but the principles applied offer the best approach to consistent, pain free training.


F.I.T.T. Principle

Progression through increased frequency, duration and/or resistance is necessary path for increased results. Of the above components, "type" may be the least needed to vary. To keep things fun and challenging, add hand weights, light weights, resistance bands or a combination of the three. By increase "frequency" and "time" along with resistance, you can challenge yourself without end in a safe, effective way.

The principles of core training largely coincide with the foundations of all other areas of training. Remember the F.I.T.T. principle and the concept of graded exposure/progressive overload, and you will be headed on the right track.

S.A.I.D. Principle

Specific adaptation to imposed demand is the principle behind the adage of you adapting to what you do. When you implement a stressor and allow sufficient time for adaptation, you become more resilient to the same future stressor. It also highlights the specificity of adaptation. Although some carryover may exist, the primary adaptation is to the specific activity you're implementing a stressor to.

Remembering that it is in the combination of movements (both in the gym and in everyday life) that create either an adaptive or maladaptive response is important. You can probably think of people who've had back injuries both in and outside the gym. Although the vulnerable environment is often exacerbated in the gym, due to the added resistance to poor movement patterns or exercise selection, it is both the everyday movement and resistance training that ultimately leads to injury/pain.

Dr. Stuart McGill details this adaptation process, highlighting the importance of training for a specified goal. To train for spinal flexibility and spinal stiffness simultaneously is likely a recipe for disaster if the timeline is long enough. The exception is likely intentional programming, taking into consideration the desired adaptation.

From working with clients of all ages, and personal experience, back injuries are among the most difficult to permanently recover from. Often times pain can be reduced through modification techniques and elimination. However, full return to pre injury activities is a lesser common result. This further highlights the important of correct exercise selection. As Dr. McGill has mentioned, "You can get away with it, until you can't."

For complete core training programs, intended to progress over time by implementing the above strategies, view below:

-> Core Training Plans <-


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