Walk into any gym in America and you’re likely to see a bunch of really bad core training ideas—Crunches, Side Bends, “ab finishers.” Often you’ll see them performed by several different people all at once.
Perhaps you’ve even been one of them. Maybe that’s been you curling your spine every which way, trying to chase “the burn.”
If so, don’t feel bad. Old-fashioned (and wrong) techniques, trendy (but ineffective) gimmicks and a whopping dose of broscience have all but ruined core workouts. Which is why most of them don’t, you know, work.
Or worse, they involve equipment that seems popular and safe, but that’s actually seriously risky—we’re looking at you, Seated Twist Machine.
We don’t want you to be a statistic. And we don’t want you wasting your time when you train. Which is why we’ve worked with our experts—including the world’s leading spine biomechanist, as well as some of the smartest athletic trainers and performance coaches out there—to identify the five most common mistakes people make when they train their core.
Learn them, then avoid making them, and you’ll feel and perform better.Mistake 1: Your core workout uses completely wrong exercises
Listen, in case you just want to skip ahead and see what the right core exercises are, here you go.
That link leads to another article detailing 27 great options for athletes and coaches. There’s enough to make limitless combinations. Use them to build the best core workout of your life.
Now on to those not-so-great options…
Earlier we ragged on moves like Sit-Ups, Crunches, and Side Bends.
Why don’t we like these old-fashioned moves? Simple. Because they don’t train the core to do it’s actual job. And over time, doing these exercises can get you hurt.
According to Dr. Stuart McGill, a renown spine researcher, the core is not really meant to initiate movement, as it dos when you perform a move like a Sit-Up.
Instead, the real job of the core is create stability and stiffness in the torso. You could equate this to the feeling you’d have in your midsection if you braced yourself for a punch in the stomach. The bracing helps protect the thick vertebrae in your lumbar spine, along with the cartilage discs separating those bones.
Properly braced, lumbar vertebrae can handle a lot of force up-and-down—just watch any powerlifter Squat with several hundred pounds on their back for proof. But the anatomy of the lumbar spine makes the area less suited for the type of twisting and bending you can achieve with your upper back or neck. In fact, that type of movement has the strong potential to herniate one of your lumbar discs—especially if you’re handling a load.
So, can someone who has a healthy spine and a decent base of core strength do Sit-Ups or Crunches and be ok? Sure.
But ask yourself: Does it make sense to train using exercises that involve movements that are proven to cause injury?
(After all, McGill says that with enough bends, the lumbar discs will suffer damage. It’s not “if,” but “when.”)
So instead of old-school “movement” exercises, a growing number of elite coaches and trainers are using “anti-movement” core exercises, which teach your core to resist movement in multiple planes of motion.
The most basic example of this is the Plank. When you hold a Plank, the core muscles on the front side of your body work to prevent your lower back from arching, or dipping toward the floor. “Moving into extension” is what the Exercise Phys types call it when your lumbar curves this way, so appropriately, a Plank is called an “anti-extension” exercise.
Similarly, there are also anti-rotation moves that—you guessed it—teach your core to prevent twisting and turning. Anti-lateral flexion moves teach your core to prevent bending sideways.
Why does all of this matter? Simple. A core that can brace and resist movement makes your body more effective at moving and generating force. Improving our core stability increases your power, efficiency and control in nearly every sports skills imaginable.
If you carefully choose your core exercises, not only will you amp up your sports performance. You’ll also improve your long-term health. So in case you missed them the first time, here are 27 of our favorite core exercises
Mistake 2: You’re doing way too many moves
Yeah, we know that sounds funny when we just offered you a list of 27 core exercises. But here’s the thing: We wouldn’t ever recommend that you do that many moves in a single workout, unlike a lot of the popular ab routines out there, which seem to think that the right way to go is to perform 20 reps of 10 or more different exercises back-to-back-to-back.
Will this approach make you feel “the burn”? Of course. It’ll also spike your heart rate, making you think that your workout is pretty tough. But in this case “tough” and “good” are two different things.
It’s far better to take a more balanced approach. Focusing on doing just a few exercises in a session, but do them really well.
By taking a less-is-more strategy, you’ll be better able to tell how well your core performs at specific functions. You’ll get a clearer picture your own core strengths and weaknesses. You’ll more effectively target the areas you really need to work on, and make more targeted improvements.
Simply put: It’s better to do a few things well than many things poorly.Mistake 3: You do all of your core moves at the end of your workout
You’ve heard of the “ab finisher
,” right? Well, let’s just say that if that’s all you’re doing for your core, then what you’re doing won’t cut it.
Look, we get why people think they should perform their core routines at the end of a workout. They don’t want to wear out the core muscles they’ll need to protect the spine during heavy lifts. They like to wrap things up with something challenging. They like to catch a glimpse of their pumped-up six pack in the locker room mirror before hitting the showers.
That’s all fair enough. But honestly, there are a lot more compelling reasons to do core work at the beginning of a training session. In fact, failing to do any core work ahead of your workout is a missed opportunity.
The core serves as the foundation for movement. For example, during a Deadlift, your core muscles tighten and help keep your spine locked in place as you pull what could be hundreds of pounds off the floor.
If those core muscles aren’t properly prepared, how can they be the pillar of strength they need to be during that movement?
The danger here is real. With insufficient core engagement during a Deadlift, your spine might bend forward (or “fall into flexion”) during the pull, putting your spine and its discs in jeopardy—all because you were saving your core work for a killer crush session at the end.
The solution here is simple: Add core work to your warm-up. In fact, do it right at the beginning of your warm-up to activate your core musculature and make sure it’s ready for the more intense exercises to follow.
You don’t need to go overboard. One or two moves will cut it. one or two core moves, such as the Core-Engaged Dead Bug, Bird Dog or Single-Leg Lowering, for a single set of 5-10 reps.
These moves will warm up the core, help restore your posture and even help you correct faulty breathing patterns or movement patterns, making the rest of your warm-up—and workout—that much better.
Mistake 4: Your workout isn’t changing over time
The only way to get stronger is to challenge your body. When you place a new stress on your body, such as adding more weight to a barbell, your muscles adapt and get stronger.
Your core muscles are no different. However, too often people follow core routines that they’ve taken off the Internet or were shown by a friend, which don’t include any progression whatsoever. You wind up doing the same exercises for the same number of sets and reps every workout.
Over time, you’ll hit a plateau. The moves will get easier. At first that’s because your core muscles are getting stronger. But eventually, it’ll just be because they’re “used to it.”
The only way to build a truly strong core is to treat the exercises you do like you would the Bench Press, Squat or any other strength move. Always strive to challenge your muscles.
There are three primary ways to make a core exercise more difficult:
Do more reps. This is the easiest and most basic way to challenge your core. However, it has limitations and risks—getting bored, losing focus, taking all dang day. So as you get stronger, and you will eventually need to also try one of the next two strategies.
Do a more difficult variation of an exercise. Most exercises have regressions and progressions. For example, you might start with a Kneeling Plank and then move onto a standard Plank. Or you might start with Physioball Rollouts, and later move up to Barbell Rollouts.
Increase the load. Simply increase the weight you carry for core exercises like a Farmer’s Walk. Or progress to a thicker band for resisted exercises such as the Pallof Press. It’s a bit trickier for other core exercises if you don’t have a weighted vest.
You can also change the speed—but not in the way you think. Faster isn’t better here. Slower the exercise down, focus on your form and breathing, and watch how much more difficult even seemingly simple, “easy” moves like a Bird Dog can be.
Mistake 5: You don’t have a plan
With all this said, there’s one key element you need to be doing to ensure that your core is getting stronger: Write down what you do every single workout.
Keep track of the exercises you do and for how many sets, reps/time, weight used and rest. Note if you feel like you can increase the difficulty in the next workout. This takes the guesswork out of progression. You know exactly where you stand and can see your numbers climbing.
But if you really want to strengthen your core, you need to take it a step further. Just like with your strength training, you need a plan—one that develops all of the aspects of the core with safe and effective exercises, and sensible progression over time. That way you can go into every workout never having to guess or wing it. And you’ll know that what you’re doing today will help you build toward tomorrow.