There's a lot of conflicting information out there about how to train your core, and exactly how training core will help your health and fitness.
I've gone through every core program myself, and it didn't help me achieve... any of my goals.
Other coaches tend to agree that except in a few cases, core training is usually a waste of energy.
When I was getting into fitness, I could never tell how important core work was. Some people would swear that it was super important, and others would insist that it’s useless.
It was hard to judge exactly what kind of goals core training was useful for.
No one seemed to be disagreeing that core work would help build your abs, but there were also stories of pretty jacked-looking bodybuilders who claimed that they didn’t do much core work at all. Most powerlifters would say that core work isn’t too important for strength, but here and there you’d hear people claim that poor core strength could be limiting your squat, deadlift, or overhead press. Hell, sometimes you’d hear that squatting and deadlifting were better for training your core than core exercises, making everything even more confusing.
A lot of people can at least agree that if the goal is simply to get lean, defined six-pack abs, then brute-forcing it solely by doing endless core work isn’t the way to go. In that case, it’s better to focus on diet to cut off additional body fat (which will always cover up those abs), and reveal the underlying muscles. This will make them much more visible than simply training.
At the same time, there was (and still is) so much confusing and conflicting info out there. In college, I read that Bruce Lee had done endless situps every day (I’ve talked about my early adoration for Bruce before), and I tried to imitate him. I purchased a cheap situp bench online for about $50 and spent a half an hour a day, straight, doing abs while I watched 30 Rock.
I saw precisely zero benefit to my physique from it, and it didn’t improve my strength. Eventually, I gave up.
I retried the same thing later on when I first started out as a trainer, doing a 20 minute core workout almost every day in addition to my regular workouts. I would do literally thousands of crunches per day, again to no clear benefit. Why I fell for it a second time, I'm not sure.
As I got smarter about training, I eventually cut out core entirely. I started off by switching over to planks, which were all the rage at the time, and which everyone was touting as a much superior core exercise. However, planks made me absolutely miserable - I could plank for about five minutes, but it was hell, and I didn't know what (if anything) I was really getting out of it. So, I experimented with going plank-free, and I continued to see my lifts and physique improve without any core training whatsoever.
It’s been many years since then. Occasionally, I’ve added in a bit of core training, primarily focusing on reverse crunches, planks, pallof presses, antirotation holds, and variations of these. Sometimes, I work in a decent amount of core work for clients in their programs, depending on their needs and goals.
However, I’ve also seen core work come under fire from a lot of serious, important coaches. Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell points out that most people train abs in a horizontal plane, which is unlikely to have carryover to actions performed standing up, and so he recommends a lot of hanging leg raises if anything. Stu McGill (renowned spinal researcher) recommends shorter “plank reps” if anything, and well known strength coach Dan John says that there’s no point to a lot of core work after a certain point. In the Muscle and Strength Pyramids, Eric Helms says that even he doesn’t give his natural bodybuilders much core work.
The general consensus seems to be that, while core work can be useful for beginners up to a certain point, it shouldn’t be a heavy staple of anyone who’s been training for a while. I tend to agree.
I like to give core work to beginners to help improve stability in their lifts (beginners tend to be very wobbly, and need some more specialized core training to help fix basic stability issues), but once you don’t have much wobble to your main lifts, there’s not a ton of use for core work. It won’t directly train the primary muscles, and you’re far more likely to be limited by the force-producing capability of your major muscles than you are to be limited by the stability of your core.
Likewise, “functional” training, with its heavy emphasis on core training and instability, isn’t likely to carryover much to lifting heavy weights due to lack of specificity.
There are some cases where lack of core strength can limit your ability to squat, or your ability to get deep enough into a squat. However, in these cases, deep, long pause squats are generally a much more specific way of training your core than simply doing a lot of crunches or planks.
So in short, while core training is useful to create a certain “base”, especially for beginners, it’s probably not as useful long term. For bodybuilders and lean physique exercisers, it may be helpful to add in a bit of core training to make those abs pop a little bit, but otherwise these muscles don't grow much in response to training.
Doing a ton of ab work can also limit you in other ways. Each day, you have a limited amount of time and energy to work out, and you have a limited amount of activity that your body can effectively recover from and adapt to. Doing endless core work is going to tire you out and waste energy that could be better spent elsewhere, particularly since all core work also involves the (slower recovering) leg musculature to some degree. At a certain point, you’ll have strong abs but doing more core work will just make you feel it in the legs - because you’ve already gotten about as much out of the abs as they can give.
Amusingly, I think a lot of people know this, to some extent or another. When I walk through the gym, I very rarely see people doing much in the way of... any core exercise at all. This is especially true for the biggest, jacked-est dudes I tend to see, who probably wouldn't be caught dead doing any core or stretching.
Here are some exercises I tend to recommend for beginners:
Dead Bugs (good for beginners, particularly if starting with back issues)
Here are some more advanced core exercises that may be useful for stronger lifters, but are much more situational:
Aside from that, chances are that you’re wasting your time.
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