In this article I aim to not only provide the four best core exercises for beginners but provide a very clear rationale for each exercise selection and help you develop a better idea of how to develop a robust core over an extended period of time. Single exercises are drops in the ocean, you need to build an understanding of why you’re performing a specific exercise and how it is going to develop over time.
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Having an understanding of what we are discussing when we are talking about the core musculature is crucial to your understanding of exercises selection. I do not provide this in order to over complicate things, but to provide those with the interest the resources required to do a dive deep on the anatomy.
The core musculature is a complex system of muscles that provides stability, support, and movement to the spine, pelvis, and torso. These muscles work together to maintain proper posture, transfer force between the upper and lower body, and protect the spine. The core can be divided into several layers, each with its own set of muscles. Here's a breakdown of the key muscles in the core:
In resistance training, we break different exercises into different muscle groups of different movement categories (think squat, hinge, horizontal press etc). The core often just gets grouped into one movement category. However as we have seen the core is made up of a wide variety of muscle groups and therefore needs to be broken into different movement categories.
Please note that I have omitted the rotation core movement pattern as I do not feel it is required for beginner, in fact I often avoid it for the first few month of training when working with a new client.
The first movement category is one that often goes unworked in traditional gyms. Let’s be honest, most people doing abdominal work are thinking about their aesthetics as much as their performance. This results in people mainly focusing on the abdominals themselves and not the musculature like the deep core or the obliques. Resisting rotation allows us to effectively work the muscles of the deep core and build a solid foundation for performing exercises like the back squat and the deadlift, where the ability to generate a tight core will be crucial.
Resisting lateral flexion is a little like resisting rotation in the sense that we rarely see it worked in traditional training programmes that focus uniquely on the abdominals. It involves unilateral loading, this creates a need to resist the load in order to maintain a square shoulder position. Resisting lateral flexion is the most effective at progressing the stability and strength of the muscles of the obliques.
This is the sought of exercises people think about when they think about core exercises. However it is often where we see the most ineffective exercises like endless sit ups that result in very few adaptations. In anti-extension, the abdominal muscles are resisting extension as they are in constant flexion. In order to be in constant flexion, there needs to be a good positioning in the hips to create a posterior pelvic tilt . Without a posterior pelvic tilt, we cannot overload the anterior core. This makes learning to successfully create this anterior pelvic tilt while targeting the muscles of the core absolutely crucial for long term development. So for beginners, learning means starting at the beginning and the beginner position is the deadbug hold. The deadbug allows us to learn this pelvic positioning through pressing our lower back into the floor and squeezing the abdominals as tightly as possible.
This is the most rare core exercises category, but for me and my clients it is absolutely crucial. Thankfully the muscles of the lumbar spine are stressed and can create adaptations in both resisting rotations and resisting lateral flexion, but performing exercises to help the grow specifically can be a great way to develop the muscles of the core. Back pain in of itself is a huge societal problem, this exercise category can be the difference between having back pain and not, obviously not for all cases but its importance cannot go understated. The bird dog is my favourite exercises to develop the lumbar spine for beginners. It allows isolation of the lumber spine and can be done with almost (not all) any client. It is important not to arch the lower back when the arm and leg are in extension, it can take work away from the muscles of the lumbar spine.
If you are training twice a week you can easily integrate these four exercises into your training plan either through adding core segments at the end of the sessions or pairing them to other movement categories likes squats etc. Here are two examples of core super-sets that you can use in your next session.
Complete 3 rounds
Complete 3 rounds
Here are four examples of progressions for each movement category, this is to help you understand how you might progress each position over time to ensure that your training is staying effective as you progress. Just note that on the single arm farmers carry, weight can be added to make these effective for any level and the same goes to band tension on the pallof press.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.