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3 Keys For Better Core Training

“That doesn’t work!”

This was a feeling I had over the years when I would learn something after attending a continuing education program. Several years ago fitness education wasn’t the monster that many of us see today. You could find a course here and there, but nothing like the every weekend schedule that you could find literally today. That meant I often would have the ability to attend a course and then get to implement and practice the material for some time.

core training

Well before I was teaching at national conferences, I was a student in MANY programs and even consider myself a student today!

Especially when I was red hot in taking courses, functional training was just getting popular. With that, there was a large focus on core training. We weren’t as cynical yet about the idea of core training because it was interesting learning that it wasn’t enough to just do sit-ups, crunches, side bends, bicycles, v-ups, you name it. It was fascinating to learn that core training wasn’t just the abs, or making your abs hurt to the point where it hurt to laugh and cough.

Unfortunately, because so many of the ideas at the time were new, we were still working out the practical part even though we had much of the science available to us. That led me to many times thinking that one’s ideas about core training were really interesting until I started to implement them with clients and myself. Time and time again I was disappointed by the results even though I thought I had used all the core training drills right!

Over the next 25 years, I would learn so much more about the body and as the industry started to refine the ideas that it had learned, I gained a GREATER appreciation about core training. Sadly, because I think so many people had experiences like mine, they wrote off core training or just went back to the common ab exercises they had always done. So, how can we help people appreciate what core training means and how it can be used more effectively and get better results in our workouts? I think these 3 common mistakes help us do both!

Mistake #1: It Isn’t Just About Abs

Even though quite a bit of time (heck, over 30 years at this point) has passed since functional training started, we still have a pretty lousy perspective on what it means and the impact it should have on our training. There may be no better example than how we approach core training. Due to our lack of really appreciating what the core is meant to involve or its role in movement, most end up going back to old ab exercises claiming they work just as well as the term “core” is just a fancy’s way to talk about the abs.

Nothing could be further from the truth! As I have written about quite a bit, the core refers to 35 muscles working synergistically to make us stable, mobile, powerful, and resilient. It is the perfect harmony these muscles must use to make complex motions appear seamless and have a huge influence over many things we do in the gym. That means muscles of the pelvis and even the upper body also play a big part in our core training.

One of those is the lats. While we typically think of the lats as the muscles we want to build to create that nice “v shape” in our clothes, or help us to dominate exercises like pull-ups, the lats are much more than that. What we learn in anatomy textbooks is typically only 20% of what the lats do. Why do our textbooks do that to us? Well, most of our anatomy is looking at how we examine cadavers. When we have a dead body in front of us we don’t have an active nervous system and we can’t examine real movement. That is why the following quote from 100 years ago is something I share often in my presentation.


The above extensive quote refers to the fact that the way we view the lats is typically only about 20% of what they are designed to do in movement. If we look at their design and attachments, we realize they are strong core stabilizers. They tie in right with the glutes and the obliques as well. That means that our lats HAVE to be part of our core training. How do we do that?

Coach Robin Paget does a great job of the simple, yet very powerful way of engaging the lats in our DVRT movements. The main reason we have handles on our Core and Power Ultimate Sandbag is so that we can make this connection in pulling the handles apart. In doing so we connect our grip to our shoulders/lats, the tension and position of the arm allows us to get proper engagement as well. Inevitably, someone will ask, “can I do the same with a band?” A good question, as they look similar right?

DVRT Master, Cory Cripe explains some of the more subtle aspects of how we use grip and tension in ways that some misunderstand to make even familiar core exercises way better!

The BIG difference is the load that the Ultimate Sandbag also provides. In doing so, we not only get the lats, but feedback to the rest of the core to create the brace we need for stability. What about kettlebells? Surely I can do that with kettlebells too?!

Well, there is something of this when we do things like goblet squats, but as physical therapist, Jessica Bento explains, there are issues we should consider as well.

Learning to engage our lats makes all the difference in our core training. Doing so while also teaching the core how to brace properly is even MORE SO!

DVRT Master, Cory Cripe shows how this connection works and the impact it can have on many fitness goals like improving mobility as well!

Mistake #2: Our Spine Is Meant To Flex!

The internet is definitely not short on contrarians. As we gained a better understand of core training we learned that a major function of the core was to RESIST unwanted movement. That meant some of our most popular exercises, like sit-ups, were counter productive and actually created a lot of negative stress on the spine. The contrarians would say that our spine is meant to flex and that we are more resilient than many in the functional training circles would say.

core training

You see how some common core training exercises are actually causing high issues in the lumbar spine!

Is our spine meant to flex? Yes! Does it do so well under load? Well, this is where spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill explains this common confusion…

“Flexion movement of the spine strains the layers of collagen in the spinal discs. When loads on the spine are small, movement is healthy. We often recommend the cat‐camel motion exercise taking the spine through an unloaded range of motion. Thus, there is a time and place for flexion motion. When the spine loads are high in magnitude with repeated flexion motion, the collagen fibres delaminate in a cumulative fashion. Slowly the nucleus of the disc will work through the delaminations and create a disc bulge. The greater the load, and the greater the repetitions, the faster this will occur (Tampier et al, 2007, Veres et al, 2009). Several other events occur depending on the amount of stretch on the spine ligaments at the end‐range of flexion. For example, cytokines linked to acute and chronic inflammation accumulate with repeated full‐flexion motion exposure (D’Ambrosia et al, 2010).

I have been misquoted along the lines, “McGill states that XXXXX bending cycles cause disc herniation”. There is not a single number – it is a variable. Many variables influence the rate of the herniation process. For example, the shape of the persons disc influences whether the herniation will be focal (Yates and McGill, 2010) and responsive to McKenzie types of rehabilitative exercises, or not (Scannell and McGill, 2009). These responsive discs are predominantly limacon‐shaped. In contrast, ovoid discs survive twisting cycles better. The thickness of the spine also influences the rate of gradual herniation – thicker spines have higher bending stress and herniate faster with flexion cycles. For example, a NFL linebacker must have larger diameter discs to survive the compressive loading, but these same discs will not do well performing a 1000 situps. In contrast, it has been pointed out to me that there is a fellow in Brazil on Youtube who does 1000 situps everyday, implying by logical extension that I must be in error. But you will notice that he has a very slender spine so the bending stresses are small.

But his thin spine would not survive the loading of a single NFL game. These elements of biological variability preclude the recommending of an exercise approach simply because it was tolerable by another individual. Further, time of day influences the rate of herniation. After rising from bed, the disc nucleus’ are fully hydrated and have much higher stresses during flexion. It is more risky to train repeated bending earlier in the morning. Occupational studies have shown avoiding flexion motion in the morning reduced disabling workplace backpain (eg Snook et al, 1998). Different spines mean different injury mechanisms, different resiliencies to motion, and different training approaches. Choose your parents (disc geometry and thus stress patterns came from your parents), then choose your best way to train!”

What are the main takeaways?

-Being loaded and unloaded during flexion are very different.

-We have different tolerance to flexion of the spine so to answer this well for ourselves we have to know our individual tolerance and capacity.

That means you MIGHT get away with doing sit-ups and so forth, but you are asking more of the question of when, not if, issues will arise.

If you scroll through the series above then you see a great example of how we bring core training to more dynamic movements. The goal of good core exercises is that we learn how to keep the trunk stable as we perform more complex movements.

Mistake #3: Twist and Ouch!

The contrarians come back a bit for the idea about our spine needing to be able to rotate. The confusion stems from what part of our body is designed for rotation. Concepts like the Joint by Joint Approach helps us better describe what we need to consider in our training.


You see an alternating pattern in the body between joints of dominance stability (they don’t move a lot) and mobility (they have a a lot of freedom of movement). As it concerns the low back, you see the hips and thoracic spine are above and below the lumbar spine. Two areas that have a lot of movement to them. That means the low back doesn’t have a lot range of motion available, but hips and thoracic spine should!


Drills like Russian Twists also tend to put A LOT of negative stress on the lumbar spine and that is why even though these DVRT drills that Jessica shows don’t outwardly appear like core training exercises, when you think about the fact that our core is suppose to help stay stable as we move our extremities, these drills make a lot of sense!

We can and should teach rotation, but as our great DVRT coaches show, it comes from our hips, NOT our low back!

Scroll through to see proper progressions of rotational core training. 

My hope with these posts is that you are able to filter all the information there is on training right now. Just like anything, there is good information and there are those that are trying to be controversial to get attention. Understanding the science though helps us give you confidence that what you are doing is the RIGHT type of training to look your best, be your strongest, and most importantly be your healthiest!

Want to learn more about the truth of functional training? Check out our NEW 2 hour webinar where we cover the “Top 5 Functional Training Mistakes” and how to create better training and keep yourself healthy! You can get it for under $10 with code “save25” HERE

functional training