4 Coaches Reveal Their Best Exercises for a Functional Core

Fitness pros define "functional core training" and give their best tips

If you scroll through fitness themed social media, you’re likely to see posts of people with six packs performing exercises that “crush your core”. Some posts even claim these exercises will give you a “instant six-pack”. They try to make you think if it works for them, it will work for you too. Perhaps the next time you train, you’ll give it a shot.  

But don’t be seduced by Instagram six packs: you need actual effective core exercises that will help advance your future performance in and out of the gym or sporting arena.

That’s functional core training.

Don’t just take my word for it. Let the following coaches explain what the core is and how to train it. A well trained core can help you look good, move well, and hit new personal records.

Instragram Model Abs Photo
Image via maradon 333/Shutterstock

1. Ariel Osharenko, PT, CSCS

  • Kneeling Pallof press
  • Step up with overhead kettlebell hold
  • Side plank

There are a lot of misconceptions about the term “core.”

It was initially defined as the ability to stabilize the spine to avoid abrupt/abnormal movements in the spine.  Stability is provided by passive tissues (spinal joint, bone structures) and active tissues (muscles that surround the spine) for muscular endurance. 

Currently, there’s evidence to suggest that people, especially athletes, will suffer from a low back injury due to core muscular endurance deficits. (1Lifting heavy weights without engaging the core can lead to spinal dysfunction and disorders. This can lead to further injury, decreased speed, poor power transfer, and loss of energy.

Because the core muscles are divided into front (anterior), back (posterior) and sides (lateral), they need to be trained on all planes of motion.

Choosing core exercises will depend on each athlete’s specific sport.

The Pallof press

For example, a football lineman will benefit from a single arm Pallof Press, both in kneeling and standing position. It resembles the action and movement of pushing another player on the field.

[See our complete guide to an effective Pallof press]

Step Up with Kettlebell Overhead

Single leg exercises, such as single leg step ups with overhead kettlebell hold, may work better for a basketball player. This movement challenges the stability of the entire core and mimics being pushed from the side while jumping or running on the court (think driving to the basket).

Side Plank

For athletes and non-athletes alike, the side plank resembles the challenges placed on the torso muscles while performing simple activities of daily living, such as carrying grocery bags or removing a suitcase out from overhead compartment on an airplane. 

[Related: 10 plank variations for a stronger core]

2. Kathy Ekdahl, CSCS

  • Pallof press

Functional core training is about training the entire kinetic chain to move in a safe and effective way to improve and enhance the activities of daily life. 

Training the core should always include exercises that improve core stability, which keeps the spine stable. This, in turn, makes controlling the center of gravity better, which leads to safer movement.

I’m a big fan of the Pallof press. Standing anterior core exercises create a feeling of “bracing” and tension in the abdominals; a big help when lifting heavy objects.

Standing Pallof Press Cues

  • Choose a resistance level on par with your baseline core strength. (A wider stance is easier than a split stance, standing is easier than half or full kneeling)
  • Hold the cable/handle/tube close to your body, then press your arms out straight.
  • Keep your arms centered on your body, around sternum height. (Be aware of leaning or rotating of your body. Watching your form in a mirror can be helpful to maintain a centered position.)
  • Keep the weight low initially. When your arms are fully extended (lever increase), the exercise difficulty increases.
  • You should feel this in the anterior core and waistline, but not the lower back. If you feel it in the low back, decrease weight or back off.

3. Dr. Bo Babenko, Physical Therapist 

  • Crocodile breathing
  • Overhead carries
  • Hanging exercises

The terms “functional” and “core” are two of the most misunderstood and overused in the fitness industry.

“Functional core”, to me, comes down to the ability to create a brace.

Crocodile Breathing

The exercise of crocodile breathing, or any type of breathing as an exercise, is as functional as it gets. Crocodile breathing focuses on deep breaths into the belly while laying prone (face down) for 3 minutes a day, every single day.

Carries

Life demands that we brace and stabilize, so my top functional core exercises focus on anti-rotation. One arm carries, both farmer and overhead, tend to be phenomenal ways to improve grip while also engaging the entire trunk musculature. 

Hanging Exercises

Hanging exercises are not usually the most “functional”. We are not often in situations that require supporting our entire weight off a tree or ledge, but it engages the shoulder complex and fits within my definition of using your body.

4. Travis Pollen, CPT and PhD Candidate in Rehabilitation Sciences 

  • The ab wheel rollout

“Functional core training” means exercises that target the core in a movement that’s relevant to a person’s activities during daily living, gym movements, and/or sport. One of the best functional core exercises is with the old-school ab roller, which targets the anterior core.

The key is to roll out only as far as you can control your lumbar position, without slipping into hyperextension. As you roll the wheel out farther and farther, the extension stimulus gets stronger and stronger. Range of motion can progress over time.

Building anti-extension strength transfers both to the gym and the real world. In the gym, a strong rollout can improve your ability to stabilize your midsection during pull-ups and overhead pressing.

Outside the gym, it’ll prepare you for any time you lift something overhead (e.g. putting a stack of heavy plates in an overhead cupboard).

Wrapping up

There’s no need for fancy core training. The best core exercises should improve your performance on the field, at the gym, or in the garden.

Reference

  1.  Borghuis J, et al. The importance of sensory-motor control in providing core stability: implications for measurement and training. Sports Med. 2008; 38(11):893-916.
Shane McLean

Shane McLean

Shane McLean is a Certified Personal Trainer who’s worked with a wide variety of clients, from the general population client all the way to ex-Navy seals and college athletes.

Shane is a big believer in seeing exercise as a gift for the body and never a punishment — exercise should be as enjoyable as possible and never just a “work” out.

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