It is rare to find someone that approaches core training with balance. Many powerlifters skip core work altogether, as they feel they get enough stimulation through squats and deadlifts. Conversely, there are those who work their abs every single day as they assume that the more ab work they do, the closer they will be to a six pack.
So, which approach is best? In my opinion, neither. I think that everyone—regardless of whether they are training for strength, aesthetics, or athletic performance—should train their core muscles at least once, but preferably twice, per week.
To clarify, by “core” I mean all the muscles of your stomach and lower back, including your transverse abdominus, multifidus, quadratus lumborum, thoracolumbar fascia, rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, illopsoas and erector spinae.
I recommend regular core training not because of any aesthetic benefit but because of the carryover to your main lifts. You cannot expect to squat or deadlift large numbers if you have a weak core. When you get to heavier weights, it is often the core that stops people from progressing further. Have you ever seen a powerlifter fail a squat or deadlift with a rounded upper back? That’s a lack of core strength revealing itself.
Having a strong core will ensure maximal power and ultimate athleticism. It will also improve your posture and mobility, and it will also help you to remain injury-free.
Many beginners I work with lack body awareness. This means that performing something which may come more naturally to a more seasoned lifter, such as a hip hinge, will be more difficult for them. They will not typically know how to engage their core properly in order to keep their back straight during a deadlift or to stay upright during a squat.
One of the quickest ways to determine someone’s core strength is by asking them to perform a basic plank for at least 45 seconds. If their lower back sags and their stomach hangs forward, they do not know how to engage their core muscles properly. Maintaining a neutral spine and correct posture during a plank is one of the first exercises you should learn how to master. This will then translate to other exercises, making you a stronger lifter overall.
Aren’t squats and deadlifts enough?
Many powerlifters are lazy when it comes to training accessory exercises, especially for the core. I get it: no one wants to bust out 500 crunches after a long and intense squat session.
Although your core is getting worked during squats and deadlifts, it is not enough for intermediate to advanced lifters. Contracting your abs and lower back during the main lifts is rather different to isolating them with purpose. Therefore, you should do at least one targeted core exercise a couple of times per week.
That said, if your primary goal is to get stronger at the main lifts, most of your time and effort in the gym will be best spent training the main lifts. There’s no need to spend 30 minutes on your abs three times a week. Two to four exercises in total per week is enough for most people.
Optimal frequency and sets/reps
Your abs are just like any other muscle group, so you don’t need to train them every single day. As you should know, abs are made in the kitchen, so doing hundreds of crunches every day will not give you a six pack (I wish I knew that when I was 16!).
At most, you should train them every other day, but twice a week is ideal. You only need to do one or two exercises at a time.
Another mistake most people make when it comes to training their core is doing way too many reps. If you are training your core musculature to bring up your main lifts, you have to lift heavy—doing hundreds of bodyweight crunches or flutter kicks isn’t going to cut it. These exercises are not effective and are also bad for your lower back.
The abs are actually fast-twitch muscles, meaning that they respond best to heavy, low rep sets. Do three sets of eight to 12 repetitions. Do not do more than 15 reps per set as, like with any other exercise, you will then be training for endurance—and you want to be training for strength.
My favourite exercises
I have gone from one extreme to the other with regards to core training. I danced full-time for 15 years and did ab work almost every single day. When I stopped dancing and started lifting, I was training more like a bodybuilder, so I trained abs three times a week. I even had an entire day devoted to ab training!
When I turned my attention to more of a powerlifting-style of training, I stopped training my abs completely as I figured that they would be worked sufficiently during other exercises. I also assumed that I had a pretty strong core after decades of training.
Nowadays, I train my core twice a week without fail. I throw in three sets of two exercises at the end of both of my upper body days, meaning I do 12 total sets of core work each week. I change what I do every single week, to prevent boredom and stagnation, but I try to address all of the following each week:
- Trunk flexion (kneeling and standing cable crunches, ab wheel roll outs, hanging leg raises, partner leg throws, knee-tucks on a TRX/swiss ball)
- Rotation (cable woodchops, pallof presses, hitting a tyre with a sledgehammer, Russian twists)
- Lateral flexion (suitcase deadlifts, bent presses, single arm farmers’ walks, side bends, windmills)
- Stabilisation (this includes all exercises where you are under a heavy load, such as squats, deadlifts and overheating pressing—lately, I’ve been trying to do these beltless as much as possible—as well as other exercises such as planks and dead bugs)
- Extension (back extensions, hyperextensions)
While isolated core training may not give you a six pack (especially if you’ve been following a “powerlifter” diet of donuts and pizza), it is essential for bringing up your main lifts and remaining injury-free.
How often do you train your core? What is your favourite core exercise?