Core Secrets

In the summer of 2009 I posted an article titled ‘Gut Check’ that outlined core exercises for beginners. It’s a great place to start your abdominal training if you’re a beginner because the movements are simple, effective and have several progressions to increase difficulty as you become more efficient.

One of the themes at FMTraining is to train as hard and as smart as possible. It goes without saying that to have visible abs you need to have a low body fat percentage; that said, this article will shed some light on the topic of core training and what should really be done to maximize core strength and development.

A Note on Sit Ups & Crunches
Tip 3 of the 6 Pack Attack challenge outlined that regular sit up or crunching movements are not the best way to obtain visible abs.  This is not only because leading back health expert, Dr Stuart McGill, has found that repeated spinal flexion can cause disc herniations, but also because of the functionality of the movement. Let’s take this further: when do you need to display strength in a movement similar to a sit up?  In everyday life you arrive in the standing position by following a very similar process to the Turkish Get Up. After that you are fighting against gravity to stay in an upright position and many people end up hunched over as the day progresses thanks to muscle imbalances… and gravity. In sports it is seldom the case where efforts are exerted through spinal flexion. Some examples are:

  • Football players brace themselves in an upright torso position when being tackled.
  • Rugby players scrum, run, tackle, pass and do just about everything else with a neutral spine.
  • Tennis players are always twisting and turning but do not repeatedly pull their spine into flexion during competition.
  • During cricket the bowler’s spine twists without real thoracic/lumbar flexion, while the batsman’s torso is also in an upright position.


The reason that there are limited sporting or real life examples of when strength in spinal flexion is needed is due to the body being able to exert more force through a neutral spine.  That said, there are sports where sit ups and crunch variations are essential. For example, in MMA when the fight goes to the ground and a person is on their back, spinal flexion strength will be one of many necessary assets to have. Thus strengthening that movement by doing sit ups and crunches is justified.

The thing to remember is: unless you are involved in a sport that demands strength when the spine is flexed, why risk injury and bad posture by doing lots of sit ups and crunches when alternative exercises exist?

Four Core Movements
Regular readers will know by now that when it comes to core training, I like the unconventional exercises. The exercises below are less popular than traditional crunch variations (probably because they are harder to perform) but are way more effective at recruiting all the musculature of the core. Instead of getting a sore neck and back (as experienced by doing high rep sit ups) you will be getting a complete core package.

This exercise is performed with a 60kg barbell in the video below; however, variations can include placing your hands out to the side or holding onto a fixed object or a partner’s feet. Needless to say, with the barbell the stability of the shoulder will also be trained. 


This is an advanced exercise and again involves upper body strength to support the movement. If you can do the full version of this movement correctly then your core is strong.

Barbell Suitcase Deadlift
By using a barbell the difficulty is increased. This is an exercise where the body must fight to avoid rotation.

Turkish Get Ups
This exercise was featured in the Exercise of the Month series last year and a comprehensive guide can be found here.

Unless you are training for MMA or a sport that requires ‘sit up strength’ then repeated sit ups and crunches can’t be justified. Use your energy to get better at the above exercises and you will certainly have a solid core and a healthier back.

Now you know how to train the core smart, it’s time you go and train it hard!

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