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Direct Core Training: Magic Bullet Or Overhyped Gimmick?

Myth busting is a hobby of mine and I have busted the myth that core strength is the limiting factor for success in the main calisthenics static holds (Front lever, back lever, planche, human flag etc), years ago. Newsflash: core strength is rarely, if ever, the missing link in the journey to any of those stylish holds.

That said, is core strength important as a general entity? Do we need a massive surplus in calisthenics?

If you listen to the hype in the media you’d be forgiven for thinking the average calisthenics athlete is all core and nothing else. I’m surprised nobody has marketed a program aimed at calisthenics enthusiasts………

‘The core dominance solution’?

‘The upper body specialisation program – perfect for core dominant bodyweight athletes’?

‘Less core, more upper body – the plan to finally get massive as a bodyweight athlete’?…….

You see, the reality is: the core gets strong as hell through bodyweight training by default in most cases. You don’t need loads of direct work to reap the gains. Basic training of the ‘elements’ at any level will attack the core real good!

Are there exceptions though? Could you actually need direct core work?

There are a few scenarios. One basic one is if your goal is to do a specific core exercise itself. Some people want to get toes to bar for CrossFit purposes. Some want to do dragon flags. Others drool over the standing ab wheel rollout. Or maybe the V-Sit puts lead in your pencil?

Interestingly though, those 4 moves above are my tests for whether you need direct ab work or not.

How comfortably can you do those? Can you do all 4? If they’re all accessible with relative ease (5-7/10 on an RPE scale), then I can confidently say you will rarely if ever stall on a bigger move due to core weakness.

A strong core is far easier to attain than a bulletproof scapula in all the unorthodox angles and positions many calisthenics elements force you into.

Anyone with a decent background in the barbell and weight training world should be able to acquire those 4 staples without excessive trouble – providing they’re not super tight in the case of the toes to bar & V-sit.

Front squattin‘ had my back right from day one in this regard!

But for those without such a background, of course core strength/stability could well be a weakness and a viable one to attack. I’ve seen this many times with clientele and the good news is, it doesn’t take long to fix and level up!

Basic indicators for core strength ‘deficit’

In terms of calisthenics carryover there are two basic positions I like that serve as ‘2 in 1’s’ to both test and develop core strength and stability.

  1. The Classic Hollow Body Hold
  2. The Posteriorly Tilted Plank Hold

The Hollow Body Hold

The hollow position will tell you how much leverage you can overcome and control while still keeping the core engaged. A good baseline here is a comfortable 30 second hold, in which the pelvis stays posteriorly tilted (butt/tailbone tucked under/lower back flat) and the legs and arms are both locked out as far away from each other as possible.

Hollow body hold with plate overhead

Note: The obsession with the lower back being totally flush flat with the floor is slightly overrated. In my experience I’ve found anyone with big glutes (many women) won’t be able to get fully flat to the floor, yet their pelvis is still in a posterior tilt and their abs are very much on. So you have to keep these factors in mind when trying to asses this.

If you find you need to have the legs up at a 45 degree angle in order to keep the back flush and core on, that’s completely fine. This can be improved over time. You may also find you need to have the arms by the sides as opposed to overhead. This is acceptable too. These modifications are reducing the load via leverage to an amount your core can currently handle.

‘PPT’ Plank

The posterior tilted plank is essentially a flipped over hollow body with the arms locked in place as supports. You can do these on the elbows or hands. The most important thing here is to keep the bodyline locked and almost hollow.

Technique Thursday - Planks: bodyweightfitness
(Image credit: reddit’s AMAZING BWF forums – an example of the ideal, hollow/PPT plank vs the non-ideal, arched APT plank on rings)

And like the hollow body, the intensity can be scaled by manipulating the leverage. Walking the toes back and opening the shoulders overhead places more demand on the core muscles to prevent your spine going into extension (one of the PRIME functions of the abdominals). This has great carryover to the ab wheel or ring full rollout, too!

Best lower body exercises | Weight Training Guide | Standing abs, Exercise,  Fitness body
Muscle anatomy of the standing ab wheel rollout

A 30 second + hold on a comfortable RPE scale is the target here and then you will find you’re better able to apply these bodylines to harder drills such as levers eventually and even push ups, pull ups, dips, rows and basically all major moves.

Even if you’re more advanced & experienced, and found you breezed many of the 4 markers we looked at earlier, you can STILL BENEFIT from visiting these drills every so often as it’s amazing how you can slip into bad habits. You can subtly start letting the pelvis get loose even on simple moves like push ups. I’ve seen it and experienced it personally.

Maybe you throw these in as a warm up just to get a feel for the ideal body shape every so often? Maybe you do them as a finisher? There’s no right or wrong way, just use them when you need them.

One last factor…….

Anti-extension of the spine is a key component of abdominal training and general function, with important connotations to calisthenics. But another key player is flexion of the hip aka compression.

This is paramount for leg raises, L-sits, V-sits, handstand pressing and more!

The hanging or supported leg raises are good tests for this. I like to break them down into three stages:

  1. Knee raises
  2. Leg raises to 90 degrees (L-sit)
  3. Toes to bar aka full hanging leg raises (V-sit shape)

Once you get to the toes to bar stage you’ll find you’re limited by hamstring mobility/hip flexion strength. The best test for this is the mighty stall bar leg lift drill from the gymnastics conditioning world.

This variation forces you not to cheat by angling the torso back courtesy of ‘front levering’ to lift the legs, compensating for a a lack of true compression.

To improve this, it’s wise to go after both loosening of the hamstrings AND active compression of the hip/hip flexor raw strength. This yields the fastest and most long lasting results in my opinion.

So there you have it, a basic blueprint to asses your personal core function. Past a certain stage, most athletes don’t need that much direct core work unless a specific weakness is detected. If a weakness is found, consistent work for 4-8 weeks should make a notable change and past that you can scale back down to a maintenance frequency again.

The core? Important but only a pauper to the real king; the scapula.

Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think of core training below. Swear by it? Never really do it? Unsold one way or another until now?

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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