First off, let's start by defining what the core actually is. If you were to ask most frequent gym-goers what their core is you might get a response such as “it's your abs". According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Goodman, 2004), the core musculature are all the muscles that are responsible for creating and controlling movement of the axial skeleton in the thoracic spine and lumbopelvic region. That means that not only are the abdominal muscles and oblique muscles part of the core, but also the spinal erectors, rhomboids, trapezius, and gluteals. All of these muscles connect to the axial spine and are part of your core.

So now that you know what the core muscles are, what really defines a functional core musculature? Again if you ask your friend who frequents the gym, they might say having a “six-pack" means you have a functional core. But let us look back at what the core musculature does, it creates, and controls movement of the axial skeleton. There are plenty of people out there who have a “six-pack" but they cannot functionally brace their spine or lumbopelvic region.

The reason being that when most people train what they think is the core, they do it with the training goal of increasing the aesthetics of their abdominal musculature. Being that a lot of these people train in the most familiar form of training in the gym, which is isolation of muscles to create hypertrophy in a desired area, they never utilize the muscles of the core in a way that can transfer to actual day to day activities outside the gym, that is what defines true functional training (Willardson, 2007).

The classic philosophy of training in the gym is to isolate the muscle groups to maximize fatigue and stimulate growth. This is a highly effective way to create more muscle tissue, hence the classic way of training for bodybuilding (Schoenfeld, 2010). Weighted sit ups, dumbbell side bends, and leg raises are classic resistance training exercises that work the core. There are a few problems with this style of training though. When these types of isolated exercises are done, they don't really resemble anything that someone would do in the real world. In other words, there are very few movements that resemble a sit up or side bend in any other context outside of training in the gym.

Another problem with the isolationist style of training the core musculature is that many of the crucial muscles that are necessary to properly brace and move your core are neglected, such as the transverse abdominus, the spinal erectors, and the upper back muscles. In addition, such moves as the classic sit up and leg raise stress the low back due to improper bracing strategies. This is pretty common, as the mindset for training the core that has been past down from generation of gym-goer to gym-goer is the same as that for training most other muscles, and that is isolate and work to failure (although it is safe to argue that no muscle should be exclusively trained in isolation). This can also be dangerous as when the muscles in the core reach fatigue, they cannot brace the spine properly, predisposing you to injury. Indeed, to achieve a truly strong core you must train functionally.

Functional core training has become more prevalent nowadays, but to the average person, they will probably have little to no idea what it is. To start, functional core training will put emphasis on most, if not all, of the muscles surrounding the core: the abdominals, the obliques, the spinal erectors, the rhomboids and traps, and the gluteals. In addition, the exercises you perform are much more relevant to activities and movement you will perform outside of the gym. That is because, as stated earlier, it is necessary to train all the core muscles to control, create, and stabilize the movements of the core (Willardson, 2007). This is necessary so that actions we perform and the movement we create will be efficient and keep us free from injury.

I have trained dozens of people who can perform 100 sit ups in a row without a sweat, but cannot hold an active plank for longer than a minute without shaking like a leaf on a tree. Not to say that a plank is the end-all be-all of functional core training, but it has much more relevance to real world application compared to the sit up. The problem is that when people think of the core they usually only think of the aesthetics necessary to post a good social media picture. But I will tell you, there is no point in being able to see your abs if you throw your back out, or get a shoulder impingement, or have sciatic pain every time you workout. So that being said, I have laid out two core training program. One is an aesthetic based program and the other is a functional core based program so you can see the differences.

Aesthetic Routine:

  • Sit up 3x20
  • DB side bend 2x15 each side
  • Leg raise 3x15
  • Supermans 2x15 each

Notice that each of these exercises works primarily one of the core muscles at a time. In addition, they are performed in movements mostly dissimilar to any movements done outside the gym. In fact the leg raise, if not done properly can actually have adverse effects on you core (mainly your low back). Yet people do these exercises frequently without thinking about the actual training effects they yield.

Functional Core Routine:

  • Plank variations 2x: 60 each side
  • band anti-rotation series 2x:30 each side
  • single leg deadlift 3x8 each
  • single arm bench press 3x8 each
  • Hip bridge 3x15

In this routine, there are no isolated core musculature movements. The plank variations are good to isometrically contract the abdominals, obliques, erectors, and hip muscles. The band anti-rotation series are simple yet effective exercise to focus on preventing and controlling movement in the transverse plane, which is never properly worked in a traditional training program yet is crucial for such activities as walking and to prevent running injuries. When you look at the next few exercises, the single arm bench and single leg deadlift, you might say to yourself “but those aren't core exercises"; but by executing traditional weight lifting exercises with only one side of the body at one time, this challenges the core musculature to stabilize the hips, spine, and shoulders to a much greater degree (Behm, Leonard, Young, Bonsey & MacKinnon, 2005). The hip bridges are a crucial part to the functional core workout as they place emphasis on the hips and low back which are usually neglected or trained improperly during traditional programs.

So, the points to take away from this article: training the core for function over aesthetics is quite different. Functional core training uses full body movements and emphasizes using most, if not all, the core muscles to increase efficiency of movement and decrease injury risk. Traditional aesthetic training does not have much application outside the gym and can actually put you at greater risk for injury. By altering exercises you already do, you can integrate functional core training into your routine rather easily and increase the productivity of your workout.


Goodman, P. J. (2004). Connecting the core. NACA's performance training journal, 3(6), 10-14.

Willardson, J. M. (2007). Core stability training: applications to sports conditioning programs. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21(3), 979-985.

Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

Behm, D. G., Leonard, A. M., Young, W. B., Bonsey, W. A. C., & MacKinnon, S. N. (2005). Trunk muscle electromyographic activity with unstable and unilateral exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(1), 193-201.

About the Author: Bobby is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Sacramento, CA. He works with a wide variety of clientele from elite athletes to elderly rehab patients. His background is in athletic performance and he has a degree in exercise science and is in the process of obtaining a master's degree in movement studies. His philosophy is to train the body in a holistic fashion to develop safe and efficient movement patterns, regardless of ability level. You can tweet him @Bbest_CSCS or email him at

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