A Giant List of Effective Core Exercises| Part II

Core Training

You made it!  

What follows is the sequel of the original A Giant List of Effective Core Exercises| Part I

Feast your eyes on exercises 16-30. 

16.  Sandbag Training

Sandbags are a shape-changing piece of fitness equipment capable of building raw strength and conditioning.  

*** Exercising with objects of varying textures is a subtle detail that can really take the functionality of your workouts to another level.   

Sandbags do not have a great texture.  They naturally want to slip through your fingertips and slither out of the bear hug.  

This is part of the value of training with sandbag… the fight!

Every repetition with a sandbag is a fight. 

The clean-squat-press exercise is a classic sandbag combination.  

* Tip:  Do not overstuff the sandbag.  Over-stuffing the outer shell with filler bags reduces the instability component.  More space inside the outer shell means greater instability and shape-changing during exercises.

To build raw strength, load up the sandbag and grind through squats, presses, carrying and pulling exercise just as you would with a barbell or any other strength-based tool.  

17.  Slow Mountain Climber Variations

Yoga often refers to this exercise as “knee to nose”. 

The prone position (chest down) is a disadvantaged position for the body to make this happen. 

Arch the back and hollow out, push the shoulder blade out and back (protract) and slowly bring one knee up as far as you possibly can. 

18.  Weighted Plank Variations

If you can successfully dominate bodyweight-only planks, add weight and try the same variation.  It will be harder.  If you’re a go-getter, figure out how to put the weight on your back by yourself.  At the present moment, I don’t yet own a weight vest.   I am not sure why, but I don’t.  So, I shimmy a heavy sandbag onto my back and hold planks while balancing the sandbag.  The process of getting the sandbag onto my back is a workout in itself. 

19.  Tuck Planche 

Tucking the thighs tight to the stomach while supporting bodyweight using only the arms.  It’s a difficult task with many regressions to make the task more palatable.   

The tuck planche requires core compressional strength and eventually endurance as the duration of the hold increases. 

20.  Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Core training in a standing position on a body of water in the sunshine?  Yes, please. 

The first couple of strokes on a stand-up paddleboard is all of the proof you’ll need to understand how active the core is while exerting on a SUP

Core strength is essential for moving the board through the water. 

21.  Sleep

Zzzzzzzzzz. 

The benefits of 7-8+ hours of quality sleep are very important for body composition, daily function, mental clarity as well as recovery and regeneration from the stresses of exercise.  

Yet, the value of sleep remains largely unknown and underemphasized.

We also live in a world where sleep deprivation is worn like a badge of honor.  

In my dreams, the world corrects and we revert back to celebrating the power of sleep. 

I won’t pretend to be a sleep expert, but I have an understanding of how “off” my body and mind feel when I don’t get an adequate amount of sleep.

If you’d like to learn more about sleep in a super entertaining, yet informative interview, check out Joe Rogan’s interview with guest Dr. Matthew Walker.  The link to this episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast can be found here. 

Dr. Walker has also written a fantastic book on all things related to sleep, “Why We Sleep:  Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”.

22.  Kettlebell Swings (variations)

All movements are core movements. 

Kettlebell swings, while not a direct core exercise, work primarily the trunk, hip and hamstring muscles. 

Entire books and training programs have been designed to teach the value of kettlebell swings and how swings can improve power, cardio conditioning, strength, and body composition. 

Nutrition is king for fat loss and body composition, but if I were forced to hand-select a few exercises to simultaneously burn fat and build muscle, I’d got with a steady practice of kettlebell swings and Turkish Get Ups. 

Listen to Pavel Psatsouline (the godfather of kettlebells) talk about kettlebell training extensively on The Joe Rogan Experience.

23.  Dead Bugs

Ly on your back with chest facing the ceiling, actively press your low back into the floor (curling your pelvis back neutral/posterior), lock arms and legs in the extension point them toward the ceiling. 

Slowly lower opposite arm/ opposite leg to the floor to start the movement.

Ideally, you’ll make soft contacts with the floor or stop 1-3 inches above, and come back to the start position.  However, use an abbreviated range of motion if you feel your pelvis shifting to make up for lack of control. 

Imagine a full glass of water in a skinny tall glass balancing at the navel region (or just above) while you move the extremities, yet keep the torso “quiet” and still. 

A lot of the exercises in this article have some room for technique deviation.  But in my opinion, strict technique is only way to practice dead bugs. 

Alternate each side for repetitions.  3-5 sets x 8-20 repetitions. 

24.  “Twisted Tea” from the #OMU (Instagram)

This is my new favorite “core” obsession because it lacks the dull robotic range of motion that many gym exercises have.  

I have to give credit to the “#OMU” crew on Instagram for introducing me to this multi-planar core drill. 

Assume a high plank position with arm extended out in front of the body. 

“Draw” the largest circle possible, spiraling down to the floor, reaching in and out of the legs, etc. 

When you reach the endpoint, reverse the motion and take it back to the start position. 

Each rep is extremely long, challenging and very interesting. 

So far, I have only used a 2.5lb and 5lb weight plate on this drill, and my obliques were sore for days after. 

25. Overhead Loaded Squats

Basic exercises become increasingly difficult when weight is overhead, which raises the center of gravity and requires more joints to contribute to the activity. 

The overhead position is challenging for a lot of people, often due to having stiff upper backs (thoracic spines) and stiff/unstable shoulders. 

Again, positioning weight overhead raises the center of gravity causing the torso to lengthen.  The core muscles make the adjustment and work overtime to stabilize the body. 

The overhead position is very challenging for the joints, moving from the shoulders to mid-back, to hips, to knees and finally down to the ankles.  Each joint must have adequate mobility and stability to control the weight overhead. 

Overhead squats are a fantastic exercise and therefore worth mentioning on this list, but they are also the exercise with the most pre-requisites.  Make sure you’ve done your mobility and stability work before slinging weight overhead. 

One way to observe your readiness is to practice overhead squats with a wooden dowel… and film your technique. 

26.  Windmills 

This is a classic, often forgotten kettlebell drill. 

The weight is supported overhead with elbow locked (but soft).  Hips are pushed to the side while the upper body lowers to the floor.  Softly touch the free hand to the floor and return to the starting position. 

Windmills are one of those movements I program infrequently, but I really see value in establishing motor control and know-how. 

In a real-world setting, we won’t always be perfectly vertical while supporting objects overhead.  Sometimes, we have to bend, twist and hinge while maintaining control from shoulder to elbow to hand. 

27.  Janda Sit Ups

I do not program sit-ups in my own training regimen and also do not prescribe for others. 

I feel there are FAR better uses of gym time. 

However… Janda Sit Ups will numb your soul.  You’ll hear angels singing and see the face of God during every set of Janda Sit-Ups.

Janda Sit Ups help to further isolate the rectus abdominals by reducing hip flexor contribution during each sit up.  This means the abdominals are responsible for doing more work.

The effectiveness of the Janda Sit Up is all in the setup and technique.  While a training partner is good to have for these, I do think Janda Sit Ups are possible to execute alone using a well-placed stretch resistance band. 

With the knees at roughly 90 degrees and heels on the floor, anchor a resistance band (at knee height or slightly above) around squat rack, door, piece of furniture or anything else sturdy.

Stretch the band out and wrap it around your calves, 3-4 inches above your ankles.  The band should have some stretch loaded into it, which will require your glutes and hamstrings to actively pull against the band during the sit-ups. 

You’ll have to play around with the band height and tension until you find a sweet spot.

Before and during the sit-up action, contract the glutes and hamstrings to initiate reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors.

My first couple of experiences with Janda Sit Ups resulted in a level of muscle soreness that humbled me to my core (no pun intended). 

The first couple of reps it’s hard to know if you’re doing it correctly, but in general, if you have the sensation of not being able to peel your back off the floor to sit up, you’re on the right track. 

28.  Hanging Knee Tucks 

Hanging Knee Tucks kill a few birds with one stone.

First, hanging for extended periods of time builds grip strength/endurance, provides traction for the spine, stability for the shoulders. 

Second, the motion of raising the knees up to parallel with the waistline (or ideally above) is a challenging exercise for the core, particularly the lower abdominals.

I prefer to do fewer repetitions, opting for longer duration holds with the knees tucked.  Aim for 5-10 seconds per hold, with 5-8 reps of a longer duration holds will have your abdominals and grip burning. 

Looking for a burn out session?  Simply hang from the bar with knees tucked until something about the exercise fails (grip, core, etc)

29.  Zercher Sandbag Squats

Hooking the arms under a sandbag is both a bicep scorcher and a worthy challenge for the core as it battles to maintain body position, even in a non-moving static position. 

Add a squat and the difficulty is increased.   

30.  Explosive Flexion Slams

Slamming a weighted ball on the ground is essentially explosive Olympic Lifting for your core.  The lats also get a nice stimulus during flexion slams. 

Power development in all planes of movement is a great thing. 

If you’re going to do flexion slams, consider using a no rebound ball, versus slamming a ball that re-arranges your face. 

Done.

This concludes Part II of the giant list of core exercises. 

✅ Check out the finale 👉 A Giant List of Effective Core Exercises| Part III

Great Alternatives to Abdominal Crunches: Anti-Extension Roll Outs (aka: Ab Wheel Roll Outs)

Quick Tips

Crunches are dead?

It’s been said that traditional abdominal crunches are a dead exercise, and I mostly agree with this position.  Actually, I don’t think crunches are as bad as most people claim they are.  The micro-trauma to the lower back is definitely there and further shortening the abdominal muscles even more than they already are in people who sit a lot can be disastrous.

But the biggest issue that I have with crunches is that I have no idea what they are good for?  There are one of the most non-functional exercises I have ever seen.  Laying flat on your back, performing hundreds of tiny little crunches to make your belly burn is ridiculous to think about.  Flex, extend, flex extend, flex, extend.  My personal belief is if I cannot justify why I am including something in a workout, than it should be discarded immediately.  I cannot justify crunching.

I’ve transitioned my stance on crunches to the following statement:  “I don’t hate crunches, but I do think there are much better alternatives to the traditional crunch that deserve exploring”.

Websites and magazines that are bashing crunches rarely provide any alternatives in their articles.  If you’re going to tell the world how shitty an exercise is, tell us what to do instead.  Ranting about how shitty crunches are isn’t doing anything for anyone.  Sure, maybe you’ll raise some awareness to the cause, but help us find a better solution to the problem.  

Building on that point, simply naming an alternative isn’t enough.  You have to not only identify a better alternative, but then teach people how to properly execute that alternative.  This is a value that I really want to provide on this blog moving forward.  No secrets or Jedi mind tricks, just good information that you can apply immediately.

Video: Anti-extension roll outs look like this:

What it is: Anti-extension roll outs are a core exercise variation for the anterior (front) of your torso, which as the names implies, are designed to reinforce your body’s ability to resist falling into extension.  If you watch the video above, you can see how gravity wants to pull my body towards the floor as I roll out further into extension.

How to do it: The cues for an exercise like this are rather simple.  Actively pressurize and brace your core prior to initiating any movement.  As you begin to roll out, consciously avoid breaking at the lower back while maintaining a straight line from knees to the top of my head.  Doing this makes this exercise very challenging, especially as you increase the distance that the hands travel away from your knees, which increases the range of motion.

Regressions: How to make ab roll outs easier:  If you’re a beginner or simply lack the strength and the stability to execute a full roll out, fear not because there are several options to acclimate yourself to this exercise.  The first option would be to roll out on an incline, which would ease you into extension and also give you momentum as your return back to the start position.  The second option would be to roll out toward a wall, having the wall provide a contact stopping point when the wheel hits the wall.  This is a great option because you can be extremely precise with the distance the wheel travels, progressing each week as you gain strength and stability.

Progressions: How to make ab roll outs harder: If you’re strong, there are several progressions to make this exercise killer.  The first option is to roll out on a decline.  The decline will cause the wheel (and your body) to gain momentum and travel faster away from the knees, and also make it more difficult to return to the start position.  In other words, the extension part of the exercise and the contraction back to start part of the exercise both become more challenging.  The second option is to anchor one end of a resistance band to an immovable object- like a bench, squat rack or door- and loop the other end around the handles of the ab wheel.  The band provides forces that act to pull you into extension sooner, and also gives added resistance on the return to the start position.  This is a flat ground variation of the decline roll out.

If you’re really a stud, forget about rolling out on your knees.  Stand up and roll out from there.  Yup, that’s correct, you’re going to start bent over with your hands on the wheel, rolling out slowly until you reach full extension- arms extended above the head and chest facing the floor- and then return without any break of the lower back.  I would say that 1-2% of the population will be able to execute a technically acceptable standing roll out.  But hey, it’s something to work toward.

When and where to do it:  Core training can happen wherever you want it to in a workout.  Beginning, middle or end, it doesn’t matter much in my mind.  If you’re especially weak in the mid-section, you might want to save your ab rollouts for the end of the workout so that it doesn’t adversely effect any of your other lifts.  Adding rollouts to a tri-set is very time effective and keeps the pace of the workout high.  It would look something like this:

1a)  Squat

2a)  Chin Up

3a)  Anti-Extension Rollouts

You’d work from 1a to 2a to 3a, then after finishing 3a, you repeat the process until you finish the sets you’ve got planned for the workout.

As for sets and reps, it’s dependent on your current fitness level.  However, ideally you can get 2-4 sets of 8-10 reps for each set, using a 30X0 tempo on the movement itself.  What does 30X0 mean?

3 – The number of seconds that it takes to go from the start position into full extension (end range of motion).

0- The number of seconds spent at end range of motion.

X- The speed with which you return, which in this case “X” means explode.

0- The seconds spent at the starting position of the exercise

Exercise tempo has great influence on the training effect of an exercise.  Time spent under tension is important to exhibit body control in space and also to develop useful lean muscle.  Increasing the time that your core musculature are aggressively contracted will work wonders in your quest to achieve elusive six-pack abs.

My personal take on six-pack abs:  They should be a reward for smart training, never the sole goal of working out in the first place.  If you are doing the right things- eating smart and training smarter- anyone can have a six-pack without putting much thought into it.

Some professionals have included roll outs into circuits, but I am not a fan.  Core training is extremely detailed training.  You should be nearly fully recovered before starting each set.  Fatigue is an exercise technique killer, so I haven’t found intra-circuit ab roll outs to be very smart.  I’d rather save my core work for the end of the training session, when all of my energy and attention can be directed to executing each rep with perfect, or near perfect form.  This is just a personal preference based on my experiences.

—> Other variations I have played with:

Half/quarter reps:  These are more challenging than you might think because your core gets no relief from contraction by going half-way out.  It is tough to stop the movement short and bring it back in.  Sometimes I will execute a full rep roll out, come back in  half way, then go back out to full extension in an alternating fashion.  Your abdominals will be on fire in short time by doing this.

Right/Left roll outs:  Instead of going dead center, roll slightly left and right of your body, alternating every rep.

Decreased base of support:  Instead of supporting on two knees, remove one from the ground surface.  As you roll out, hover one knee above the ground as the other knee supports.  This is extremely challenging.

Slow reps:  Instead of 3 seconds on the way out, make it last 10+ seconds.  This is tough.  Or, make the roll out last 5 seconds, hold extension for 5 seconds, roll back for 5 seconds.  That’s 15 seconds of TUT (time under tension).  1-3 reps of this will make your muscles tremble.

Equipment Substitutions:  While the anti-extension roll out is most commonly executed using an ab wheel, it doesn’t have to be.  Suspension trainers, carpet slides, physic-balls, barbells, ab dollys, power wheels, etc.  I won’t go into detail here because I could write 4 more posts about awesome exercise variations.  I’ll get this done for you.

Here is a clip of what suspension trainer variation:

Anti-extension roll outs are an effective exercise for building the core aesthetically and reinforcing important functional features of the torso muscles.  It’s important to be able to resist forces (known or unknown) that act on the body.  The core is the conduit that connects the upper and lower halves of the body.  It’s important to be mindful of building the core to preserve body health and also to take your performance to another level.  As we age, it is also important to keep the core functioning as it should to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary injuries.

Cheers to more effective core training!

KG