Everything You Need To Know About the “Core” – Part I – The Basics

Posted: December 12, 2014 by dannytwoguns in Articles

One of the buzziest of the buzziest buzz words in fitness – the “core.” Right up there in the 8-Minute Abs, Six-Pack Solution and all of the other gimmicks we see and hear.

What mainstream media calls the core isnt import but the actual “core” is very important, don’t get me wrong at all.

Actually, in Twoguns Training Systems, the most important part of the workout is the RAMP (Range of Motion, Activation and Movement Prep) aka our version of the warm up, but immediately following that is the second most important part of the workout and that is the core section. It is prioritized as the first portion of strength training in all of our programs.

Now the problem is how misused and abused the term “core” is. When people generally think about the core all they think about is the rectus abdominus aka the “six pack” muscle, the “square shaped” muscles that make up the center of the bottom half of your torso. And considering how small a portion this is of one’s actual core, this becomes a problem.

For years and years, training the “abs” or “core” consisted primarily of doing various of crunches and other spinal flexion exercises – exercises where you use bending the spine forward in order to “feel the burn” in those six pack muscles. Painful lower backs and a lot of research by spine specialists then showed conclusively that constant spinal flexion is 100% a mechanism for injury to the lower back and spine – this means that if you are still doing them for some reason – stop. The discs of your spine will thank you greatly.

A positive thing happened as a result of that information coming to the forefront – people stopped doing crunches as much. This is a good thing. The problem?

Enter the Plank Revolution. Sit ups were replaced with planks.

“What’s the problem with that? Planks are a good exercise.”

Planks are indeed a good exercise. Core exercises should be centered around the torso/spine/abdomen area “resisting” movement. A plank is a great example of an anti-extension exercise. The body has to fire the core to resist the spine from extending (aka bending in a way that would stick your belly out / bring the back of your head closer to your heels) – a great thing for strength, function etc.

The problem? The Plank Revolution seemed to have made everyone assume that they are able to safely do so and should be able to safely do a plank.

The reality is this is far from the case, the average person and practically every beginner is not strong enough to do a plank correctly or effectively and everyone assumes that the plank is the most basic of core exercises and that they can do them.

It isn’t.

This is a good plank… Everything in line, head to toe. Shoulders stable, hips stable, neck stable. It looks like you would be in a good standing position if you were in that position and standing.

12 11 Mandi Good Plank

This is a bad plank. The picture obviously exaggerates but I’d say a lot of people are guilty of one or all of those things. Neck out of position, butt in the air, shoulders unstable and most dangerously, a whole lot of extension or sagging in the lower back. It would look awkward if you were standing in this position and it is worse planking in this position.

12 11 Mandi Bad Plank

A plank is an anti-extension exercise, if you aren’t strong enough to resist the spine from extending, this isn’t the exercise for you. And that is ok.

And lucky for you, that doesn’t make you a bad person either. And I will share with you some of the tools to help you get stronger and be able to safely do a plank and all of its advanced variations safely and effectively.

However, one quick caveat – You cannot build stability and strength on a foundation that doesn’t not have the mobility to support it. It is ineffective and an inevitable injury. However, I cant tell by not seeing you if you have a mobility restriction that needs addressed. The average female does not have a mobility restriction (though not always) and the average male does have a mobility restriction (though not always).

A quick and easy test is if you cant scratch the middle of your back or you cannot touch your toes, you have a mobility restriction and need individualized programming (Call me at (814) 882-8001 for that). But just because you can scratch the middle of your back or touch your toes, doesn’t mean you don’t have a mobility restriction. One of the worst Active Straight Leg Raises (a screen that tests lower body mobility and hips) I’ve ever seen was on someone who could touch well past his toes, so we never guess, we always assess. Long story short Mobility then Stability then Strength.

Back to the basics – first we need to understand that the “core” is like a 3-dimensional cylinder on top of a pair of glutes, not just a flat 2-dimensional six pack. It has a front, a back, sides and it also has a top and a bottom – and another bottom, your literal “bottom”.


In the simplest way of explaining…

– The front is what we could consider the six pack muscles and anti-extension muscles.
– The back is the spinal erectors and lower back area and “anti-flexion” muscles.
– The sides are the transverse abdominus and obliques and anti-rotation muscles (also anti-lateral flexion muscles).
– The top is the diaphragm and the bottom is the pelvic floor a unique assortment of muscles.
– And then that sits on top of your glutes – a rather important set of muscles that cant be overlooked.

While there isn’t any true way (or would you even want to) to specifically isolate all the little muscles of all these areas, you do want to perform movements that utilize all of them through actual movements that address all of those and not through attempting to isolate your “internal oblique” for example. They work as a unit, which obviously means you should train them to act as a unit.

We will cover the majority of that in Part II but to close out Part I, I wanted to finish the loop I started with the plank and attack “anti-extension.” A plank is a medium level anti-extension exercise and most people do it incorrectly because they physically cannot perform it well and safely because they aren’t strong enough. So how do you get them strong enough? Through more basic anti-extension exercises.

Two of those exercises are the “Dead Bug” and the “Bird Dog.” This in no way means that if you are strong enough to plank that the Dead Bug and Bird Dog aren’t good exercises and when you do these exercises truly correctly, they aren’t easy exercises. Some classify the Bird Dog as anti-rotation and it certainly has those qualities, but the main goal of the Bird Dog is to resist extension through asymmetrical loading and we like to get anti-extension strong before then progress to harder anti-rotation exercises, so we use it in anti-extension (we’ll talk about that more in Part II).

As said, both exercises allow the spine to resist extension, but with shorter levels and less total load than plank variations. Every human should be able to do these exercises perfectly.

Here is a good Dead Bug. Head in good position, lower back flat on the ground, stationary knee stays high, stance knee above hip, moving heel as close to the floor as you can get it without touching.

12 11 Mandi Good Dead Bug

Here is a bad Dead Bug. Bad head position/overused neck, lower back off the ground, stance knee below hip, moving heel not close to the ground.

12 11 Mandi Bad Dead Bug

Here is a good Bird Dog. Head in good position, lower back flat, stationary elbow locked, moving arm externally rotated, moving heel in line with butt, toe toward shin.

12 11 Cindy Good Bird Dog

Here is one version of a bad Bird Dog. Extended neck, arched lower back that isn’t resisting extension, moving heel higher than glute.

12 11 Cindy Bad Bird Dog

Here is another version of a bad Bird Dog. Flexed neck, rounded spine, lazy glute on the moving leg.

12 11 Cindy Bad Bird Dog II

These two exercises are half of the recipe to getting good, safe and efficient planks. Stay tuned for Part II to see the other half and the rest of the core progressions. Any questions or curiosities, don’t hesitate to contact us over on Facebook.

  1. Jesse says:

    Reblogged this on Half Dead at 30.

  2. […] Part I – “The Basics” of this series we addressed the “beginner” anti-extension exercises and why the plank […]

Leave a Reply