The Only 4 Core Exercises You Should Be Doing (Hint: Crunches Not Included)

The Only 4 Core Exercises You Should Be Doing (Hint: Crunches Not Included)

I was only 5 years into lifting when it happened...

I was on my final set of deadlifts, and on the very last (5th) rep with 440 pounds, I felt a "pop"...

...and I thought it was a hamstring tear because of where the debilitating pain immediately set in.

It turned out, instead, that at just 21 years old, I'd annihilated my L5/S1 spinal disc, necessitating back surgery and months of physical therapy followed by a slow and systematic reintroduction to the weight room.

With careful attention to your body and regular 'prehab' work (e.g. foam rolling, deep tissue massage, ART, etc.), however...

...This doesn't have to happen to YOU, regardless of your age, training method, or how heavy you lift.

I learned after this pivotal experience the vital importance of PROPER core training (which produces a "bulletproof" midsection that protects your spine)...

...and I want to share with you a core routine that I consider to be top-notch.

I use this routine periodically, and now some 17 years after that fateful back injury, I regularly squat with over 600-700 pounds on my back, and deadlift hundreds of pounds more than I did when I injured my disc...without back issues.

THAT'S the power of strengthening your core.

So, what constitutes a great core routine?

Well, you might be surprised to learn that some of your favorite routines - often regarded as safe alternatives to sit-ups - are actually wreaking havoc on your spine...

One of the foremost authorities on core training (for Average Joes on up to elite athletes), Dr. Stuart McGill, lays out, in the video at the bottom of this post, the only 4 exercises you need to build a bulletproof core and maintain a healthy, strong low back through many years of resistance training.

(I encourage you to familiarize yourself with Dr. Stuart McGill and his work on spine health and performance.  I recommend Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, 5th Edition.)

Here are the four exercises:

 1. McGill Sit-Ups

Dr. McGill insists that crunches (and to a greater extent, sit-ups) produce too much flexion of the spine, which compresses the discs in a manner that ultimately leads to disc herniations (by pumping the nucleus of the disc through the anulus, producing a bulge).

It is recommended, instead, to perform the following variation, which consists of very little movement but trains the abdominals as hard as those that produce risky forward flexion.

In this movement, simply lie flat, raise one leg as shown below, and place your hands just under the lumbar region of your back.  Then simply raise, very slightly, your head and shoulders just enough to "unweight a bathroom scale." 

(To up the ante, start with your elbows elevated just enough so that they're not resting on the floor when you begin the movement.)

2. Stir The Pot

Rather than performing the popular swiss-ball crunch, use the ball for the "stir the pot" movement below.  To do this, assume a push-up posture against the ball (at a 45-degree angle), resting the elbows and forearms on the ball, then simply "stir" the ball around in a circle while maintaining an immobile, stable core.

3. Side Bridge

For this, position yourself on one elbow and raise up into a bridge (straight spine position) with your top leg in front.  Next, place the hand of your top arm on your opposite deltoid and drop your elbow.  This produces tremendous tension in your obliques while protecting the spine.

(If held long enough, you'll see that it can also be very challenging to perform.)

4. Bird Dog

Start by extending your arm and leg out as shown, while stiffening your core as you do so.  Hold in this position for about 10 seconds, then "sweep the floor" with the hand and knee (with the motion at the hip, not the back), and then extend them back out again and hold for an additional 10 seconds.

Next, raise the level of difficulty by "drawing squares" with your hand and foot, moving them in an "out, down, across and up" pattern. 

Watch the video for a full tutorial on this.

Watch the full video below: 

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