The Best Time to Train Core

By: Kyle Arsenault CSCS 

You may have heard something like this before…

“You shouldn’t train core before your main lifts because it will fatigue your system and you won’t be able to train as intensely.”

Or maybe you have been told the opposite.

“You should train core before your main lifts to activate the system and encourage more stability.”

Or maybe you’ve heard both but don’t give a damn about core training and still spend all of your time hopping from machine to machine and finishing up with 30-60 minutes of “cardio” on the treadmill or bike…if this sounds like you, you have bigger issues to address where your core training should fall in your program!

But for many of us, we have heard conflicting information as to where core training should fall within a training sess. It’s time to figure it out.

Core Training Principles

For an easy anatomical definition, we can think of the core as the musculature of, and between, the hips and ribcage (as well as other structures such as fascia, tendons, etc.).

For an easy functional anatomy definition, we can think of the core as the musculature and structures that work to stabilize the joints of, and between, the hips and ribcage and work to transmit force from the lower extremities to the upper extremities and vice versa.

For this reason you can see that training the core effectively would be to train the musculature and other structures to efficiently stabilize the joints of, and between, the hips and ribcage. This is essential so that when movement is produced, or when outside forces are being exerted upon the body, force can be transmitted with minimal loss of that force, and subsequently, with as little motion as possible about the joints.

If the joints that are supposed to be stable/centrated/stacked (in proper position) during movement and transmission of force are instead unstable/de-centrated/not stacked (out of proper alignment) then force is loss, joints are compromised and injury is much more likely to occur…all unwanted scenarios when we are trying to enhance athletic performance, stay healthy and sport body like King Leonidas (or his Queen for the ladies).

And with that in mind, below is not one, but three different times where core training can, and should be incorporated into your program to help you maximize strength, avoid injury and put a whoopin’ on some Persian punks (I’m a big fan of 300 if you couldn’t tell).

Where Core Training Should be in Your Program

1)      Activation (pre dynamic warm up)

In order to effectively stabilize the trunk, the core musculature has to work in unison with appropriate timing. By activating the core in an efficient pattern with exercises such as supine leg marches, quadruped reaches (birddog) and back to wall overhead reaches, you are encouraging the core to fire/work in an efficient and proper manner.

The goal with each of these exercises is to keep the lower back from moving (no arch or rotation) and the ribcage from “flaring” from a neutral position as the arms and/or legs move.

2)      Your “1a” Exercises

 In my programming I use my “1a” exercises (or 2a, 3a, etc.) to get my athletes ready for their “1b” exercises, and this usually includes a core component. During these exercises I do not want to fatigue the athlete’s core to a point that it will negatively affect the subsequent exercise, but instead I want the core to “activate” in a more specific pattern.

For example, if I want my athlete to crush a Reverse Lunge as their “1b” exercise, I will likely have them complete a “1a” exercise from a static lunge (split stance) or half kneeling position where they are focusing on perfect form while trying to prevent motion at the trunk.

A Split Stance Medicine Ball Chop works well to engage the core and pattern the lunge before trying to crush some weight on a Reverse Lunge, for example. Other examples would include a plank variation before a bilateral squat or an overhead anti-extension (such as an overhead medicine ball tap, overhead RIP Trainer reach, etc.) before a deadlift.

These “1a” exercises can also be another opportunity to incorporate some of the lower level exercises from point #1 if the athlete is not yet capable of performing the higher level core exercises described.


3)      Post Training or Energy System Work

Once the bulk of your program is complete, you can, and in many cases should, challenge your core stability in a fatigued state. When fatigue enters the equation, appropriate activation and timing, specifically core stability, is compromised which promotes faulty movement, loss of strength / power and overall performance and injury potential.

By adding higher level core stability exercises (to YOUR capabilities of course) at the end of your training session can help to challenge and strengthen the core when it is most likely to fail. Try adding higher level plank variations such as fallouts, slideboard bodysaws or weighted plank rows (renegade rows) at the end of your session.

For more of a rotational challenge try incorporating higher level anti-rotation presses such as the anti-rotation walkout, wide stance cable chops or split stance lifts or chops.

And one of my favorite ways to challenge core stability, as well as enhance an athlete’s work capacity and conditioning, is to finish a session off with some energy system work that includes weighted carries (especially uni-lateral carries), battle rope variations and bear crawl variations.

The focus is to complete as much work as possible while maintaining a stable trunk through core stability. Try putting together a finishing circuit or some density work with one or more of these exercises.

When is the Best Time to Train Core?

As you can see there are varying degrees of core training that should be used for different purposes throughout your training session.

The goal of core training, no matter where it falls in your session, is to challenge the core to stabilize the trunk, reduce excess motion at the trunk, and transmit force effectively.

I encourage you to first activate and understand what it feels like to maintain a stable trunk, next strengthen the core in specific patterns to promote better performance of a subsequent exercise, and lastly challenge your core stability and strength when you are fatigued.

Try implementing these principles throughout your training session and enjoy a stronger and higher performing core (and yes, a more chiseled one as well).




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