It would only take a quick search to find a million different exercises to “tone" and “tighten" your core, however, finding exercises that increase performance are harder find. It is easy to confuse an exercise that burns the muscles of your abdomen and an exercise that will actually translate to strength gains. For functional strength training I prefer to focus primarily on teaching the core to hold tight and prevent unwanted movement of the spine, ribs, and pelvis. The last thing you want while performing a heavy deadilft is for your back to round into a dangerous position.

Here are five exercises you can add to your program or training day to enhance your core strength. I predominately use kettlebells at my gym because of the versatility of the implement, but these movements are not only limited to kettlebells.

Goblet Squat:

This isn't a flashy exercise so some people inadvertently skip over it, but the goblet squat is golden for applying proper alignment to an exercise.

  1. Start by having a kettlebell sitting between your feet. Hinge down and grab the bell by the handle, safely stand up and explosively lift the bell to your chest and jump your hands to the horns of the bell. The bell should be about 6" from your chest with your elbows forward and close to the bell.
  2. In this position you can find great trunk positioning by reaching your scapulae around your rib cage to activate your serratus anterior. Take a long breath out, to depress the ribs, and find a posterior tilt of the pelvis. This is the position you will maintain throughout the squats.
  3. Inhale and bend at the hips and knees as low as your body can safely go without lifting your heels or toes off the floor. Most people define a good squat as hips below the knees, but when focusing on core alignment you should only squat as low as you can while maintaining proper positioning of the ribs, spine and hips. As you improve your core tension and mobility you will eventually reach a rock bottom squat.
  4. Pause at the bottom of the squat to make sure you aren't bouncing and losing your core tension. You can use a mirror to the side to make sure your pelvis remains in posterior tilt. If you lose balance at the bottom, try holding the weight further away to counter any ankle tightness.
  5. Brace the core and extend the knees and hips to return to the top of the movement. Make sure your toes, balls of the feet, and heels are all pushing through the floor on the way up. You should finish with hips still in posterior tilt and core braced.

This has helped many of my clients understand what I want when performing all other types of squats. By fully activating the abdominal muscles I have seen an improvement in squat depth, 'butt wink', and generally increased strength in my clients and myself. If you don't have a kettlebell you can use a TRX suspension trainer to counterbalance yourself or a dumbbell if you want to perform this exercise weighted. The options are endless.

Hardstyle Kettlebell Swing (double or single handed):

Once you are able to find this optimal positioning throughout a slow controlled exercise, the next challenge is to apply it to a faster moving and open chained exercise. The kettlebell swing is a great exercise for training the hip hinge to develop power and conditioning. The movement pattern should resemble a deadlift, but with the weight traveling forward and backwards.

  1. Try to get into proper alignment when you are are grabbing the bell off of the floor. This means having a straight back, head up, feet fully grasping the floor, shoulders packed, and core braced. Don't try to pick up the bell relaxed, that is how we get hurt.
  2. Swing the bell back between your legs and powerfully extend the hips and knees while exhaling to send the bell floating in front of you. The float is very important in finding your core positioning so be sure to give it enough power.
  3. Do not swing the bell above chest level as this will put you in an unsafe, uncontrolled position. If it keeps wanting to float higher then I suggest using a heavier kettlebell. If the bell doesn't make it to chest height just focus on finding proper core positioning and the power will eventually develop.
  4. Let the kettlebell swing back between the legs without letting the handle drop below the knees. This is common mistake and will result in back fatigue and a loss of power in each swing.
  5. Perform 5-10 reps each set or less if you feel like your technique is slipping. Be sure to stay tight when returning the bell back to the floor. Setting the bell back down should look exactly like it does picking it up, but in reverse. Make the entire set count.

Finding the proper core position will prevent any back fatigue or pain and you will learn to find your strongest posture while performing a ballistic exercise. Doing single arm swings will also add in a dimension of anti-rotation to further challenge the core. If you don't have a kettlebell the best alternative exercises to mimic the swing would be a barbell deadlift or even hip bridges off of a bench.

Suitcase Deadlift:

The next challenge for strengthening the core is maintaining this position with an uneven load. This improves the anti-rotation ability of the core which is just as important as the ability to properly rotate. Anti-rotation will not only strengthen the obliques, but also the small muscles that connect the vertebrae. These will do wonders for preventing back injuries.

  1. The suitcase deadlift is where you will deadlift the kettlebell from the floor unilaterally, meaning the bell is sitting on the outside of your right foot and you pick it up with your right hand. The challenge in this exercise is not allowing your body to bend laterally to hold the weight.
  2. Hinge at the hips in a straight line, grab the bell firmly, straighten your spine and squeeze your armpits. Drive your feet through the floor and stand upright.
  3. Use a line on a mirror to be sure that you are hinging and standing evenly throughout the movement.
  4. While maintaining a straight spine, hinge at the hips and return the bell to the outside of the corresponding foot.

Perform 5 reps on each side and slowly increase weight. You can use a sandbag or a barbell with bumper plates if you don't have a kettlebell to use. This is a great exercise to strengthen the lateral walls of the core and will help to correct unilateral imbalances. The suitcase deadlift has great real world application and will help keep you and your clients free from the injuries of everyday life.

Kettlebell Pullover:

The previous exercises are about training the core while moving the legs, but the pullover is my favorite exercise that trains your body to maintain correct positioning while moving the arms.

  1. Lay face up on the floor with your knees bent and feet planted.
  2. Safely pick up the kettlebell and hold it over your chest by the bell or the horns. In this position you want to find posterior tilt of the pelvis and press your spine to the floor.
  3. Exhale all of your air out, and slightly reach the bell in the air (be careful not to reach through the neck).
  4. Keeping your arms as straight as possible, inhale and then take the bell to the ground over your head and then back up over your chest. Only take the bell down as far as you can while maintaining a strong core, you will eventually reach the floor.

This also happens to be a great exercise for lengthening and activating the lats. Move on to elevated surfaces like a foam roller or bench when your range of motion improves. You can use a dumbbell or cable machine from an elevated surface if you don't have a kettlebell. I utilize this exercise often before training pressing to activate the core with the arms in the overhead position. It is also a great option as an overhead pulling movement if you are not able to perform pull ups.

Kettlebell Rack Carry:

I couldn't possibly write an exercise article without including some type of locomotion exercise.

A large majority of the population is stuck sitting all day so it is a good idea to include moving exercises into a program.

  1. Start with one or two kettlebells on the floor in front of you. Grab the kettlebells in front of you just as you would a kettlebell swing. All of the rules of the swing apply to the clean. Instead of letting the bells swing in front of you and back down, you will use the hip drive to clean them into the rack position.
  2. In the rack position the kettlebells should be touching your forearm and upper arm and the handle should be below your chin while maintaining a straight wrist.
  3. The forearm can be tilted inward, towards the chest, or vertical. In this front loaded position, much like goblet squats, it is easier to find optimal core alignment and then apply it to other movements such as walking.
  4. After you complete your clean, find your core positioning and walk forward with short, controlled steps. Start with 20-30 ft and slowly increase distance as you get better at maintaining good posture and build more core strength. Be careful not to lean too far forward or backwards, don't allow the hips to shift laterally too much, and be conscious of how straight your feet are.

It is a good idea to have someone watch you that understands proper gait to ensure you have good form. You can tell a lot about how someone moves simply by the way they walk. If you don't have someone to watch you then take a video so you can see how your body responds to the loaded carry.

Add these core strengthening exercises to any program or workout and you will see a crossover to all of your other lifts. I recommend keeping the repetitions low at first (~5 reps) so you can focus on your technique and then eventually build up volume. Focus on quality of the movement, not just the amount of work you are doing.

About the Author: Ben Eisenmenger originally worked to be a physical therapist, but realized he wanted to help with injury prevention in the gym setting more than in the clinical setting. He now works full time as a personal trainer at Queen City Kettlebell in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is certified through StrongFirst as a kettlebell coach and also through Functional Movement Systems. He uses movement screenings to help clients identify movement deficiencies and builds programs around correcting these issues to improve strength and performance. He is a lightweight strongman national qualifier and also competes in the Tactical Strength Challenge.

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