The core is a perpetual focus in the world of exercise.
However, while countless athletes have added core workouts into their training, not everyone knows all the specifics that go into a true core training progression.
Part of the issue is that many people only associate the core with their abdominal muscles, when in reality, the core comprises muscles from your chest down to your legs.
And the other issue is that your complete core encapsulates so many parts of your body that your training can include such a wide variety of exercises — and choosing the most relevant ones to your specific training can be a difficult process.
So, let’s take a moment to understand what elements go into a true core progression, and what exercises can allow for a well-rounded training program.
Steps to Build a Functional Core
The first step to any effective training program is muscle activation. That is, making sure your muscles know how to turn on so you can properly recruit them during activity.
Not everyone realizes that muscle activation is a skill you can (and should) train. While it’s technically an ability we all have, certain lifestyle habits, like sitting for long periods of time, can cause our muscles to “forget” how to properly activate when we need them most.
As you prime your muscles for activation, you’ll also be practicing some static stability work to make sure your muscles are properly stabilizing your spine. This is essential to both protect the spine from excessive loading, as well as ensuring your abdominal muscles are staying fully engaged.
You’ll then get to take that activation and stability and apply it to the first initial stages of strength training, which will include a combination of dynamic stability, muscular endurance, and some introductory strength work. With your muscles properly activated and engaged, your endurance will help them stay active all throughout, and you can apply that skill of stability into some more functional movement.
The further your progress, the more challenge you get to add, whether that be in the form of extra weight, increased resistance, or more complex dynamic motion.
However, as with any new training progression, it’s imperative that you pay attention to how your body responds to your new workload. There are a handful of common symptoms that should alert you to stop and reassess the intensity of your exercise. If you experience any numbness or tingling, lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, or increased local pain (particularly in the pelvis or saddle region), make sure you cut your workout short and give yourself ample time to recover.
The Best Core Exercise Progression
Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for, right?
Keep in mind that this exact training program may not meet all your particular training needs or goals, but we’ve laid out the bones for a solid starting point. As you read through, you’ll likely notice that many of the exercises require similar types of muscle activation, stability, and strength, just at varying levels of difficulty (for a true progression!).
When it comes to honing your own program, make sure you not only implement a true progression of exercises, but also a hearty variety of workouts based on what muscles or movements you need to target. Variety is key for well-rounded skill development.
Phase 1 — Beginner Core Exercises
The very first chunk of workouts are predominantly focused on activating the proper muscles and ensuring that they provide adequate stabilization for your spine. Because you’re dialing into the basics, most of these exercises will be low intensity with limited to no added load or resistance.
The duration of your activation phase depends on how “dormant” your muscles are; most people have to spend several weeks to truly ensure that they’re channeling the right motor patterns, muscle recruitment, and static stability.
#1. Deadbug with Alternating Arms and Legs
1. Laying on your back, brace your core in a neutral position and elevate both your legs and arms at a 90-degree angle.
2. Lower one arm and the opposite leg downwards in a slow, controlled motion. Once you reach full extension, return to your starting position and repeat on the other side.
3. As you move your limbs, make sure your rib cage doesn’t flare outwards or lift off the ground — if it does, this is a sign that your core isn’t staying fully engaged through the movement. Primary Benefit: core muscle activation, lumbar stability.