Core Training for Weightlifters and Functional Fitness Athletes

Core training is a staple for athletes of all sports. The “core” is a term used to refer to the individual muscles that surround our spine to promote stability and absorb potentially harmful rotational and shearing forces on the spine. Included within the core are: the rectus abdominis, the internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae.

Core training is often a hindsight for many athletes and coaches, seen as supplemental training exercises that can be performed after main lifts if time warrants. While I agree that weightlifters and functional fitness athletes need to spend the majority of time under or over a barbell, I do feel the need for many beginner and intermediate weightlifters and functional fitness athletes to place increased emphasis on the overall improvements in:

  • Stability of the core to promote better patterning during explosive movements.
  • Increase core stabilization and anti-rotational abilities.
  • Increase neuromuscular control of the core musculature to enhance bracing and postural awareness.

Why Train Core?

Although squats, pulls, and assistance lifts can develop strength and stability in the core, I find increased value for adding more core specific training during training session. Whether they are performed as movement primers during warm-ups, as corrective exercise, or paired with accessory lifts, the increased volume and emphasis on sound postural alignment and core stabilization can increase the performance and injury resilience of my clients and athletes.

When determining what exercises to select for my athletes and clients, I find it helpful to gain a deeper level of understanding at the specific limitations (mobility, control, or muscular imbalances) of the individual, and how it relates to a particular movement (overhead positioning, squatting, alignment in olympic lifts). Poor mechanics often are compensated by the body and brain elsewhere in the body, either by mobilizing an otherwise stability dependent joint, or vice versa.

Below, I have chosen 8 core exercise that have increased muscular development, awareness, and control during other lifts. It is important to note that coaches and athletes must then transfer these new adaptations to the main lifts (squats, pulls, presses, olympic lifts) to gain the highest level of application to their weightlifting and functional fitness training. It is important to note that unlike common core training practices, quality of a movement is critical to the muscular development AND neuromuscular patterning to facilitate sound posture and performance. Coaches and athletes should remain in control of the movement and contraction as low speeds prior to increase the complexity and explosiveness of a movement.

Weighted Planks and Side Planks

Sound core stabilization is critical while under loads, making weighted planks and it’s variations (side planks, chinese planks, etc) a great training exercise to further enhance those abilities. Prior to adding loads, athletes should assume proper pelvic alignments while bracing to ensure a smooth transferring of the exercise movement to standing variations (a squat walk out is essentially a standing weighted plank).

Pallof Press Variations

The Pallof Press is a great exercise to develop core stabilization and anti-rotational abilities both statically and during dynamic movement. The ability to control the pelvis and spine during rotational movements minimizes stress on the spine and allows for great hip joint mobility. Additionally, this is a great primer exercise to help athletes “connect with their core” to further enhance bracing and breathing capacities.

Landmine Rotations

Anti-rotational training can increase injury resilience on spinal issues during explosive and overhead movements (excessive rotational stresses on spine). The additional stabilization allows for the hips to stay in proper alignment which is highly beneficial for squatting and pulling.

Weighted Back Extensions

A video posted by Mike Dewar (@mikejdewar) on

The lower back (erector spinae), glutes, and hamstrings all play a role in hip extension and core stabilization. Lack of stabilization and strength of the lower back and hips increases movement of the spine to compensate, often resulting in excessive lumbar extension to counter poor hip extension and core stabilization. When performing these exercises, coaches and athletes need to be aware of lumbar extension masking poor hips and glute strength, often the case with many athletes, which can result in lower back injury during extensions, squats, pulls, and human locomotion.

Strict Leg Raises

While performing these strengthening exercises, I urge athletes to focus on contracting the rectus abdominus while minimizing spinal flexion (rounding lower back) to increase muscular development. Increased muscular development and control can promote enhanced an athlete’s ability to resist destructive forces under ballistic and explosive movements and allow for great spinal stability.

Weighted Side Bends

Increase strength in the obliques and lateral flexion movements helps to stabilize the spine (anti-rotation) during exercise. Additionally, the increased range of motion of this exercise allows for greater control and strength of the obliques at end ranges.

Band/Cable Chops

This dynamic anti-rotational training exercise can be performed from various angles, loads, and resistance (cables or pulleys). Much like the Pallof Press and landmine rotation, this exercise enhances core stabilization and awareness during dynamic exercises, which can transfer over seamlessly to sporting and training -movements.

Barbell Hip Thrusts

While this targets primarily the glutes and hamstrings, I like to add this exercise into “core routines” to further develop the hips while focusing on not over extending the lumbar. Often athletes lack hip extension (via poor glute strength and control, immobile hip flexors, and/or poor core stabilization), so this exercise is a great way to promote glute development and establish greater core stabilization of the spine (minimize lumbar extension) during hip extension.

Final Words

Core training plays an important role in to overall development and longevity of an athletes, regardless of sport. Specific core stabilization exercises should be selected on an individual basis and first used to correct poor movement and postural patterning. Once an athlete has made the connection, intensity and complexity can be increased (load, velocity, etc) to have a great transfer over to sporting movements, such as; squatting, pulling, sprinting, jumping and formal sports.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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