A house requires a strong foundation to remain standing. So, too, does the human body. Help your clients cultivate this all-important core foundation!

As trainers, we often repeat to our clients what we have come to believe for ourselves: nothing tops the importance of creating a rock-solid core. While the majority of our clients believe us, “core foundation” exercises do not fall into everyone’s favorites category. As a result, only upon incurring a sidelining injury does the client begin paying closer attention. We can help optimize such an individual’s recovery and subsequent strength by recognizing his/her weaknesses and capitalizing upon empowering those areas of the body.

Training for a Lifetime

The execution of just about every core exercise relies upon strength; it runs far deeper than developing washboard abdominals, the appearance of which seems to signal a stopping point for many lifters, as in “I have achieved a six-pack; I can relax now”.  According to Scott Johnston, a climber, former World Cup Nordic skier, and co-author of Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber As Athlete, “Core exercises build a foundation of strength for more sport-specific movements.”

Understanding Key Kinetics

A few specific muscles located within the midsection comprise our core. Not all frame the front of the body; the latissimus dorsi, or lats as we more often refer to them, connect the lower portion of the back to the upper region. Some experts do not categorize these as core muscles; however, their very important role in maintaining good posture and lumbopelvic stability comes into play during execution of many Olympic and powerlifting movements, all of which require a sturdy core foundation and in fact, have been show to recruit more muscle involvement that dedicated abdominal exercises.

The most familiar core muscle group, the rectus abdominus, is often conceived of having upper, middle, and lower areas, despite being only one muscle responsible for spinal flexion. However, certain fibers will contract more strongly during different exercises. The upper region initiates the first few inches of spinal flexion, as when starting a sit-up. We can envision this area kicking into action as soon as one’s head leaves the mat. Lower abdominal muscles are emphasized during moves that require the lower body to initiate the spinal flexion, such as hanging leg raises, or V-up’s and jackknifes, as one attempts to elevate the legs against the force of gravity.

Our deep core stabilizers such as transverse abdominous along with the intrinsic muscles of the back such as erector spinae and company keep the segments of the spine from moving more than they should during activities. Making sure that this important system is not faulty is important before implementing a core strength program. The internal and external obliques enable us to twist from one side to another, while also providing trunk stability and playing a key role in attempts to lift hefty weight loads.

Creating Core Foundation Workouts

Below is a variation of Scott Johnston’s killer core routine. Such a program ensures constant progression, with the ultimate goal of creating a stable, strong foundation. Bear in mind these basic tenets to help ensure its functionality and efficacy:

  1. The exercises mesh well for a circuit, with 30-second rest intervals between exercises. This tends to foster endurance as well as strength. Repetitions of each move should land within the 4-8 rep range (much lower than how most ab circuits are performed).
  2. Be prepared to experience “reaching failure” on some of these exercises, the point when another rep or another moment of holding a move cannot happen. Caution beginning lifters before embarking upon this circuit, so they do not feel unsuccessful!
  3. As you begin, as with any new routine, a learning curve develops. Until you and/or your client feel comfortable doing each exercise with precision form, aim for a single circuit. Eventually, as resistance gets added to some of these moves, more experienced lifters can attempt 2 rounds of the circuit.
  4. Identify the targeted muscles; try to resist the temptation to allow secondary muscle assistors to “help out”. Remind clients to breathe properly throughout each exercise, even when getting winded towards the end of the workout.
  5. Even if a client performs a modified version of a given move, the strength will still come… with time and perfect form.

Have your clients perform the following circuit:

Sit-ups: this move involves the use of the psoas muscle as well as the rectus abdominus, both valuable players when cultivating foundation strength. Feet can be secured under a stable surface if necessary.

Windshield wipers: enter the external/internal oblique muscles.

Lying on back, arms outstretched laterally, palms down. In a hip flexion position, feet together and toes pointed upward, instruct the client to very slowly rotate the lower body only (torso and head remains firmly on the floor/mat) to one side without allowing the knees to bend much (ideally) nor the feet to come apart from each other. Rotate the pelvis to lower the feet to one side, keeping them locked together and knees straight. After gently tapping the floor on that side, return both legs to starting position, paying close attention to moving gradually. Repeat on the other side of the body; return to starting position. This can be modified by bending the knees especially if low back pain is felt.

The “kayaker”: Here the focus is on the transverse abdominal muscle.

With client seated on the floor or a mat, bring knees and hips to a 90-degree position, feet elevated slightly off the ground. With lower body stationary, arms outstretched, and hands together, rotate torso until fingers just brush down on the floor space lateral to one hip. Repeat to the other side. Like the aforementioned movements, execute this one slowly. Client can start without a dumbbell/plate, adding the resistance over time.

Push-ups: Here Johnston incorporates a move designed to engage the erector spinae, essential in a strong core foundation for back extension, as well as the TVA. Keeping the spine in neutral while in motion requires core strength.

Hanging leg raises: Calling ALL abdominal muscles, as well as the hip flexors (primarily). Be sure that this movement is performed by involving spinal flexion in addition to hip flexion. Clients may observe the shoulders working harder than expected; this results from the work involved in minimizing any swinging motion during the exercise.

Side planks: A great strength builder for chest and shoulder stability while concurrently strengthening the oblique muscles which operate in the transverse plane. Execute for a designated length of time, on both sides of the body.

Begin With the End In Mind

In summation, we can compare core/foundation strength to the building of a house: any architect knows to insist upon a deeply poured concrete footing as well as a wide slab for the base. By the time carpenters reach the stage of installing a sub-floor, they know the rest of the building will hold, even when building very large homes.

The same holds true for fitness: by teaching and training the body to withstand considerable force (core stabilization), the connective tissue eventually adapts favorably to the loads applied. Depending upon one’s sport of choice, different exercises can enhance the training by mimicking the patterns through which the body moves when engaged in play or competition. We accomplish this successful outcome by setting the stage for a strong core, making use of multi-joint movements whenever possible. The need for strength in one’s core never ceases; make it a priority in each and every training session.





The Definitive 10-Step Guide to Building a Do-Anything Core

Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!