• Alex Parry

Strength Training for Core: Complete Guide

Updated: Jan 27

A strong core is a great thing to have, it underpins a bunch of fitness qualities, and improves physical performance across all sports. In this article, we're going to cover...



Does strength training work your core?


100% yes. Strength training provides a significant core workout in pretty much every movement that you perform, and research shows that people who regularly strength-train have stronger core musculature than those who do not. This makes sense when you consider that squats, bench presses, overhead presses and deadlifts all require significant core bracing.


Plus movements like press-ups are essentially planks, whilst one arm rows are essentially an anti-rotational core workout. Heck, even bicep curls require some degree of core activation.



Is strength training on its own enough to develop core muscles?


Well, this mainly depends on what your goals are.


If you just want to have a stronger core as part of an overall health and fitness plan then strength training on its own is probably fine.


However, if you want to compete in sports with high core strength or endurance demands, then general strength training alone won't be enough.


For example, consider a gymnast who has to perform routines like this...



Having worked as a strength and conditioning coach for elite gymnasts, I can tell you right now that there is basically ZERO chance that regular strength training will get you even close to that level of core strength.



What is the best way to build core strength?


Again, the best way to build core strength is going to vary based on your goals, as well as on your own personal strengths and weaknesses.


To truly answer this question for YOU, we need to understand 2 fundamental things...


1) Basic core anatomy and how it relates to movement

2) The difference between core strength and endurance



1) 'Core' Muscles


Your core comprises way more muscles than most people think...


core muscle anatomy
Diagram from MyFitnessPal

Rectus Abdominus: Your 'six-pack' abs. Good for creating flexion at the hips.


Transverse Abdominus: Your deeper stabilisers that underpin movement.


Internal and External Obliques: Your 'side' muscles that help to create and resist rotation and lateral flexion.


Quadratus Lumborum: Your lower back muscles that provide hip stability


Multifidus: Your deep spinal stabilisers


Erector Spinae: Your larger back muscles that assist with hip extension


Pelvic Floor: Your deep pelvic muscles that support your organs


A good, well-rounded core programme will ensure that each of these muscles are addressed with specific movements.



2) What is Core Strength Versus Core Endurance?


When we talk about core strength, we often aren't very precise with our wording.


In sports science, 'strength' specifically refers to a muscles ability to produce maximal force.

Typically, this can only occur for a small amount of time. So core strength is incredibly important in things like high intensity/high effort squats, jumps and throws. But what about activities that take longer? Things like running, swimming and playing most team sports?


In these situations what becomes far more important is core endurance. Core endurance is the ability of your core muscles to produce submaximal forces for a longer period of time.


All of which means that...


"You need to think about your goals, and decide whether core strength or core endurance is most important, then reflect that in your training"

For core strength: Focus on challenging muscles with heavier loads and more difficult exercises for shorter times.


For core endurance: Focus on adding repetitions and/or increasing the times you perform exercises for.



Strength Training for Core Exercises


Through years of training athletes, I've found that a well-rounded strength-training programme with enough exercise variation and movement variety goes a long way when it comes to your core. Make sure that your base programme includes things like...


  • Squats (Back squat, front squat, goblet squat)

  • Lunges (Forward, backward, side, rear foot elevated)

  • Hip hinges (deadlifts, RDL's, kettlebell swings)

  • Pushes (press-ups, barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press)

  • Pulls (barbell rows, dumbbell rows, pull-ups)


Then you can start to add more targeted exercises onto this base programme.


Personally, I've found that an effective way to do this is to divide core movements into 4 key movement patterns (or rather 'anti-movement' patterns, in which you're fighting against specific movements)


Anti-Extension Core Exercises


  • Planks

  • Deadbugs

  • Aleknas




Anti-Rotation Core Exercises


  • Paloff Presses

  • Lying windscreen wipers


Anti-Lateral Flexion Core Exercises


  • Side Planks

  • One arm weighted carries


Anti-flexion exercises


  • Birddogs

  • Back extension Holds


On top of these patterns, I also like to add in...



Diaphram and TVA exercises




Strength Training for Core at Home


You'll notice that a lot of the exercises above are completely bodyweight based: planks, side planks, aleknas, birddogs and lying windscreen wipers. These exercises also require zero equipment, so you can pretty easily put together an effective core training programme at home.


And do go thinking that just because something is bodyweight based that it isn't strength training; strict windscreen wipers and aleknas are tough exercises.



Core Strength Training for Beginners


As a beginner, developing core strength through training is all about starting with what you can manage comfortably, and then gradually increasing the difficulty over time. For most beginners I like to start with simple core work like deadbugs, birddogs and side planks on knees, performing 2-3 sets of each 2-3 times per week.


Over time you can progress onto more challenging exercises, as well as adding load.



Sample Core Strength Programme for Intermediate Lifters


This is a well-rounded programme that works every core muscle group across a wide variety of movement patterns and loads. It is best for people who are already performing a well-rounded general strength training programme as described above.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

(Weighted) Plank 2 x 20-40s

Bird Dogs 2 x 6-8 each side

Paloff Press 2 x 6-8 each side

Side Plank 2 x 30-60s each side

90/90 Breathing + TVA Activations

Deadbugs 2 x 6-8 each side


Frequently Asked Questions About Strength Training for Core


How do I know if my core is strong?


The simplest way is to try out a selection of core exercises and see if you can perform them with good technique. If you find yourself unable to do them, or you're shaking like a leaf, then chances are your core could use some extra strength work.


Similarly, if you perform the exercise but your technique gets really poor, then that's also a sign that your core could use some extra work. For example, if you start arching your lower back in the plank, then that's a sign of core weakness.



How do you strengthen a weak core?


You follow a progressive programme of core strength training. Start with exercises, sets and reps that you can manage, and add to them over time. For example, if your lower back arches in the plank after 30 seconds, then a good workout for you would be to perform 3-4 sets of 15 to 20-second planks with good form.



How to build core strength from nothing?


I promise you there's no such thing as having no core strength. Even if you've been lazy as hell the past few years, you'll still have some level of core strength just maintained through day to day living.


You just need to start with easier exercises and slowly progress over time. Great beginner core strength exercises include plank up against the wall, side plank against the wall, and bird dogs in which you only raise a single arm or leg.



Next Steps


Alright, that's enough reading for today, time for action...


1) If you're not following a general, well-rounded strength training programme, then start doing so as soon as possible.


2) To build on your current routine, add in specific core strength exercises, making sure to target the various muscles and movement patterns we've talked about above.


3) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.


4) And if you need a more comprehensive approach to designing your training programme, feel free to explore my 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching option.



'Til Next Time


Alex




Alex Parry, MSc, BA


Alex's experience includes 7+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 3 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.


He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting

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