A Personal Trainer's Guide to 'Functional' Core Training

If you ask most people what core training looks like, they’ll get down on the floor and do a plank hold or some sit-ups. While these exercises have a time and place, it’s time to flip our perspective of what true core training is. We’re so caught up in flexing and extending the spine to work the ‘six-pack’ that we can forget what the core’s main purpose is for most activities.

The core’s big role is to stabilize the spinal column/pelvis and resist unnecessary rotation or perturbations. Additionally, it’s constantly working to transfer weight up and down the body in the most efficient manner possible. Every step you take, your core is working to keep you neutral and balanced. When you go on a long run, it’s leading the way in the maintenance of posture and proper running gait as you fatigue. When we perform the ‘usual’ core exercises such as plank holds and sit-ups, we’re only experiencing resistance in one plane of movement. Unfortunately, this is the least functional and efficient way to train the core.

If we expand our view of what the core is, we’ll quickly realize that it’s a 3D cylinder of muscles working together that range from the glutes to erector spinae, obliques, and more. To activate all of these muscles, we must add a stability/balance/‘anti rotation’ element to each exercise. This may feel backwards, but we end up spending most of our time with a neutral trunk while moving the arms and legs to achieve a proper core stimulus. No crunches needed here!

Functional core training is not about flexing and extending the spine, but rather about resisting rotation to fully maximize the core’s role as a stabilizer.

3 Functional & Efficient Core Exercises for Everyone

The best part about expanding the boundaries of core training is that you get other musculature involved. I strongly believe that a good core exercise should also challenge your arm/legs as well. The more moving parts that you need to recruit and coordinate, the better. If you’re a runner or gym-goer who’s looking to gain more stability and confidence in your form, the three exercises below can help you get to that next level. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a few highlights of ultra-functional movements that will give you great results.

Without further ado…

Single-Leg Deadlifts

Application: 2 x 10–15 reps per side

Cues: Before you begin, tighten your core and picture stacking the ribs over your pelvis. Next, plant one foot and hinge the hips until your back leg extends back behind you. All the while, keep the back + neck neutral and core engaged. If your hamstrings are super tight, you’re welcome to have a slight bend in the knee of the front leg. Once you’ve reached the lowest point that you can control, extend the hips and fire up your glutes to return to the starting position. If you’re using weight, ensure it stays close to your legs throughout to protect the back.

There are two levels to this movement. You can begin with weights in both hands, but eventually, think about progressing to loading up with a heavy weight in the hand opposite to the planted leg. Your number one priority is keeping the back leg straight (avoid rotating it out) while keeping the hips level. If you can achieve this while going through a full range of motion, you’ll be well equipped for your exercising endeavors, as well as other activities of daily life.

Pallof Press

Application: 2 x 10–15 reps

Cues: There are many Pallof press variations, but this one is the most fundamental and important. This can be performed with a resistance band or a cable machine. Set yourself up at mid-trunk height and walk away from the anchor until you feel moderate resistance. Next, press the handle away from you on an exhale, hold for 2 seconds, and bring it back in on an inhale. The goal here is to keep the band at your midline, despite its pull towards the anchor. Ensure that you keep your hips and pelvis level to where you’re facing.

If you’re looking for progressions, you can try increasing the weight or resistance, doing walk-outs, pressing out and up, doing a single-leg variation, adding a lunge into the mix, or doing figure-eights. As I said, the options are virtually endless! Whatever you end up doing, make sure that your core is always locked in and you continue to breathe throughout the entire duration of the exercise.

This is anti-rotation at its finest!

Reach-Through Plank

Application: 45s — 1min, or 20 reps (bag/weight is optional)

Cues: Start in a push-up position. Next reach under and through while keeping the hips and opposite shoulder neutral. Take your time and remember to alternate sides after each rep. I’d encourage you to begin with just the range of motion and then add a dumbbell or sliding weight later on. This is a fantastic whole-body exercise that will challenge your coordination and core stability in all the right ways. Please note, this is an advanced movement, so start with the first two and work your way up. An easy regression is to begin on your knees.

Bonus Exercises to Explore:

Plank Shoulder Taps Bird-Dog (a great beginner option) Kettlebell Suitcase Carries

In Closing,

Effective core training is the opposite of what most people think it should be. This isn’t about attempting to get huge abs through crunches, but all about challenging the anti-rotational capabilities of the entire core. If you’ve experienced instability in your gait, back pain, or anything in between, do yourself a favor and try these 3 simple exercises. Not only will your fitness outcomes improve, but you’ll be building a powerful foundation to prevent injuries and enhance all activities of life.