Ground-Based Core Training

core-training“You play sports on your feet!”

“If you’re not standing up, it’s not functional!”

“Life is 3D – don’t forget about rotation!”

Chances are if you’ve been training for a little while, you’re heard one (or all) of these quotes.

And don’t get me wrong – there’s definitely some truth here.

But it’s not the whole truth, and it’s definitely the case for everyone.

Let’s look at why ground-based core training is a great idea for many athletes, as well as outline a handful of exercises you can go into the gym and use today.

The Core Training Progression

The end goal for all of us is to be doing real-world “core” exercises.

Squats.

Deadlifts.

Overhead presses.

You’ll get no argument from me on this. But the question becomes:

Is this person physically prepared to do this?

Do they have an optimal core stability strategy?

Or do they use a hip flexor/spinal erector dominant strategy that locks them in extension?

Many would call this an “open” or “scissored” posture, and it’s sub-optimal not only because you’re only using the posterior muscles, but you’re also crushing the back side of your spine (vertebrae and discs) in an effort to create stability.

If this explains you or your athletes, you need to re-build your core stability strategy.

A typical progression would look something like this:

Core-Progression As you can see, the end-goal is standing up, or vertical based core exercises like squats, deadlifts and overhead presses. You can read a similar article here: Big Lifts and Core Training.

But what if doing these exercises causes you pain?

Or you simply inefficient and not making progress?

At that point in time, I’d argue it’s time to work your way back through the progression.

Tall and half-kneeling are awesome because they strip away compensations and force you to create more optimal stabilization patterns. Here’s a short video, in case you’re not up to speed on tall- and half-kneeling.

Even still, some people just aren’t successful here. If you have to coach and cue someone relentlessly and they still aren’t getting it, move back to quadruped.

And if they still aren’t successful even in quadruped? Then it’s time to go back to Square 1: Prone and Supine Exercises.

Why Prone and Supine Core Exercises?

Prone and supine core exercises are fantastic because they give us a ton of external stability from the ground up.

Think about this: If you’re standing up, the only “external” reference point as to where your body is in space is your feet. Otherwise, your body better know where it’s at!

As you move backward throughout the above progression, you are constantly giving your body more and more external feedback points to determine it’s location in space.

Prone and supine is the last stop because not only are you getting a ton of external feedback, but you’re also getting a ton of external stability as well!

The progression outlined above (vertical, tall/half-kneeling, etc.) also fits seamlessly into the developmental sequence that babies go through in their first year of life. I’m definitely not an expert in that regard, so I’d lean on smart guys like Bill Hartman, Gray Cook or Charlie Weingroff to explains the ins-and-outs in that regard.

The key here is master and dominate the sagittal plane first. For example, when we’re assessing a client or athlete on the table, let’s say they demonstrate poor hip internal rotation.

Our old-school approach would be to simply stretch them into more hip internal rotation to get that motion back. This lead to dubious results – you may get more range of motion, but it was often at the expense of passive restraints such as the ligaments and joint capsules!

What we failed to realize was that, quite often, we weren’t looking at a mobility limitation, but rather a poor starting position that restricted motion.

Now instead of stretching, we will try a repositioning exercise or “reset” first, in an attempt to get their pelvis and lumbar spine to a more optimal alignment. If we do this and get an immediate change in mobility, we know that we need to restore position first.

This is a really long-winded way of saying that if you don’t have optimal sagittal plane function through your joints (in this case your pelvis and lumbar spine), you will struggle to demonstrate full frontal and transverse plane range of motion.

In today’s article we’re going to focus on supine exercise variations, because these are fantastic for building the anterior core. Many clients (and most athletes) leave in various degrees of lumbar extension/anterior tilt, so a strong and stable anterior core will help offset this and better allow them to control extension.

(Side note: I gave an entire Elite Training Mentorship webinar on controlling extension a few months back. I also demo and coach a bunch of the exercises listed below, so if you want more feedback on how to perform them correctly definitely check it out.)

Ground-Based Core Exercises

A week or so ago I was training a new distance client at IFAST. She had a steady diet of supine/ground-based core exercises in her program, because my goal was to get her a sagittal plane first.

As we were going through the program, she mentioned to me:

“All of this is the same, but just a little bit different.”

Exactly.

With that being said, I’m going to give you a bunch of the big-bang cues here, and then with each exercise a quick write-up as to why I like it or use it in my programming.

Ground-Based Core Training Cues

  • Exhale hard, ribs down.
  • “Roll” your pelvis back underneath you.
  • Flatten/smash/press your low back into the ground.
  • Reach long (when integrating the upper extremity).

Core Engaged Dead Bugs

This is one of my staple core training exercises, especially early on in a program. The band gives an immediate co-contraction/firing of the core, and there are tons of progressions and regressions you can use.

Wall Press Abs

I love wall press abs (and feature them a ton in my Bulletproof Athlete program) because while the core engaged dead bug variations are great, many people don’t have access to a longer band.

3-Month Position PNF

This is a newer exercise that I’ve been using, and I absolutely love it. Not only do you get anterior core, but you also get serratus on the vertical arm, and lower traps on the moving arm.

And if you’re sexy and you know it, as you reach with that moving arm think about taking a deep breath and pulling air into the same-side chest wall. This simple tweak can make this awesome exercise even better.

The first time I did these, my abs and lower traps were absolutely crushed the next day. Definitely give them a shot!

Band Supported Leg Lowering

I’ve seen these from Gray Cook in the FMS progressions, as well as from Pavel in his book Bulletproof Abs.  It’s an awesome exercise because you not only integrate the core, but drive hip separation – as one hip is maximally flexed, the opposite hip is moving into extension.

Kettlebell Pullovers

I talked about these a while back in my article, “Lats: Friend or Foe?“. Not only are they going to strengthen the anterior core, but they also work to inhibit the lats as well.

Summary

While there are definitely sexier core training exercises out there, most of us need to master the basics.

And I’m not one to cast stones here while living in my glass house!

Come to IFAST almost any day of the week and you’ll see me working on these exercises. They are powerful, and can make a huge difference in how you move, feel and perform.

Good luck and let me know how you like ’em!

Stay strong

MR

P.S. – If you’d like to learn my entire core training philosophy from anatomy to assessments to programming and coaching, make sure to check out Complete Core Fitness.

41 Comments

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  1. One quick question. How would you training someone who couldn’t get on the ground? I have a few clients who need this type of approach, but they cannot get down to the ground safely. I use Pallofs and raised planks.Any other suggestions?

  2. Mike one of your best posts yet. Use a couple of these in my programs and now I’m going to add a few more. So may of us live in extension( including myself) due to lack of anterior core strength.

  3. Mike,

    Great post. I finished watching one of your videos are realized I have no lumbar flexion at all during a toe touch. I can definitely touch my toes, but the lumbar-sacral area is flat enough to lay a book on top without it tilting forward or backward. I do have the the hyperlordotic spine and anterior tilt which I’ve been trying to correct for years. Then it just hit me like a ton of bricks when I did my toe touch. Do you have any information you can share or point me toward in trying to get back my lumbar flexion? Thanks.

    • Chris –

      Often we’ll use some sort of reset to get that back, but you can really use just about anything in your arsenal. ART/massage/foam rolling, mobility drills like cat/camels (focusing on flexion/posterior tilt vs. extension and anterior tilt), anterior core work, etc.

      It takes a focused and dedicated approach, but you should be able to get the motion back. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

  4. Very informative, Mike! My question is similar to one below about a client not being able to get on the ground. She can get supine, but feels like she is going to vomit if she does more than 15 seconds of exercise in that position. Any ideas on what causes that feeling? Should I just work her in quadruped? Thanks!

    • Thanks Sara!

      Re: your client – has she been checked by a medical professional? That’s really strange, and haven’t dealt with anything like that with my clients.

      However, like you said if she simply can’t be supine, try prone and quadruped. Both would be better than the alternative!

  5. Hi Mike,

    Very informative article, as always, thanks.

    I have question regarding “Ground-Based Core Training Cues”:

    “Roll” your pelvis back underneath you.

    Flatten/smash/press your low back into the ground.”

    Are this two correlated? As one leading into another?

    Aren’t we, if we flatten our back against ground, going into lumbar flexion? Is this more related to those that are living in lordotic posture to get into normal posture?

    Can you point me where can I get more info on ” healthy” lumbar flexion? There was (or still is) trend that we can’t flex our spines.

    Thanky you,

    • Robert –

      Thank you!

      Yes, all those cues are geared towards the same end goal. I like to have an arsenal of cues, because you never know which one will “trigger” the response you’re looking for.

      And yes, we are going into a slight degree of lumbar flexion. I’m honestly not worried about this, though – too often our clients are locked in extension, so by getting them into a bit of flexion we give the abdominals a chance to catch up.

      The goal is to posteriorly tilt a bit so that when they stand back up, we get them to a more neutral position.

      Last but not least as far as “healthy” lumbar flexion, a starting point is being able to touch the toes. However, clients and athletes can really cheat this one, so I want them to be able to touch the toes and reverse their lumbar curve.

      Many can touch the toes, without ever unlocking the lumbar spine. This is problematic and should be addressed.

      Hope that helps!
      MR

  6. Awesome stuff as always Mike! Thank you. Thanks especially for doing a good job with respiration patterns on video content as this is so important and so often over-looked.

    • Thanks Brian. As you know, breathing is such a critical piece of the puzzle – glad it’s finally getting due credit in the fitness industry.

  7. Hey Mike great article/post. Do the names of the exercises that contain 3 month named that way because you literally do them for 3 months? Thanks

    • Doug –

      The name is from Developmental Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS). It’s 3-month because that’s the position a 3-month old baby should be able to assume if it’s progressing/developing properly

  8. Awesome article, Mike! You are not theorizing on this stuff. It is exactly “real world” correct, at least in my experiences retraining my stability patterns.

    A few progressions on the kettle bell pullover, which doesn’t have to be a kettle bell, btw, a weight plate or dumbbell works fine:

    1. Extend the legs on the floor, keeping spine flat. Pullover.

    2. Raise extended legs off the floor (hollow position). Pullover.

    3. Hold the plate in a static, halfway pullover position at a 45-degree angle to the floor, soft bend in the elbows. Now perform flutters (scissors) with the extended legs. Keys: L-spine stays flat, and the plate does not waver. Hold a 45 back there and do 50 flutters with a flat low back, and your abs will light up like a Christmas tree.

    4. Next progression is to lift both legs to 90-degrees, and slowly return to just above the floor for reps. Static hold of plate.

    5. Finally, simultaneously perform pullover, and leg lift to 90. Yes, it’s a loaded jacknife. Brutal, and advanced. (I call anything I can’t do yet, “advanced”, ha ha!)

    All can be progressed for time, reps, or load. Side benefit: pullovers are a primo exercise for the long head of the tricep, esp. when you start going heavy.

    Anyways, it is so true, that the stronger you can buttress your L-spine with ab co-contraction, the more “effortless” and effective torso stability gets, and the less you find it necessary to crank the low back into an absurd arch. Keep up the good work, you’re amazing. DB

  9. Awesome article, Mike! You are not theorizing on this stuff. It is exactly “real world” correct, at least in my experiences retraining my stability patterns.

    A few progressions on the kettle bell pullover, which doesn’t have to be a kettle bell, btw, a weight plate or dumbbell works fine:

    1. Extend the legs on the floor, keeping spine flat. Pullover.

    2. Raise extended legs off the floor (hollow position). Pullover.

    3. Hold the plate in a static, halfway pullover position at a 45-degree angle to the floor, soft bend in the elbows. Now perform flutters (scissors) with the extended legs. Keys: L-spine stays flat, and the plate does not waver. Hold a 45 back there and do 50 flutters with a flat low back, and your abs will light up like a Christmas tree.

    4. Next progression is to lift both legs to 90-degrees, and slowly return to just above the floor for reps. Static hold of plate.

    5. Finally, simultaneously perform pullover, and leg lift to 90. Yes, it’s a loaded jacknife. Brutal, and advanced. (I call anything I can’t do yet, “advanced”, ha ha!)

    All can be progressed for time, reps, or load. Side benefit: pullovers are a primo exercise for the long head of the tricep, esp. when you start going heavy.

    Anyways, it is so true, that the stronger you can buttress your L-spine with ab co-contraction, the more “effortless” and effective torso stability gets, and the less you find it necessary to crank the low back into an absurd arch. Keep up the good work, you’re amazing. DB

  10. Thanks, Mike. Your timing is perfect, and several of my clients will be thanking you soon, too. Well, thanking you after the fact, anyway (when they’re finished cursing).

  11. Hi Mike,

    Nice article, have used a few of these since seeing your controlling extension presentation in ETM. A question I have is how/why does the pullover inhibit the lats? Keep up the great content.

    Matt 🙂

    • Matt – The lats are strong shoulder extensors. As you go into shoulder flexion (i.e. overhead like you would in a pullover) you’re lengthening the lats.

      The name of the game here is to lengthen the lats while keeping/maintaining core control. This is really difficult for many clients and athletes.

  12. Love it! Mike, what are your thoughts on prioritising anterior core by putting one of these exercises as an “A” exercise in a lower or upper body workout? Would you consider this beneficial for someone in APT/lordosis, or would it not be ideal?

    Many thanks.

  13. May I ask one more question, Mike? I tried a couple of these exercises with two of my clients and they felt it in their lower back. One client is definitely in APT, the other is pretty neutral. Are they just feeling a stretch in their spinal erectors from pressing their low back into the ground?

    • Describe the word “felt?”

      If they felt it as in the natural tendency to want to arch, that’s ok – we’re challenging their body’s ability to resist extension.

      However, if they felt it actually arch or move, then they have gone to far and need to shorten up the range of motion.

      Hope that helps clarify a bit. Thanks!
      MR

  14. Hey Mike,
    Can you point me in the right direction please? If my hip clunks as I extend the leg on the leg extension in Dead Bugs what might the problem be?

  15. Mike (or anyone else who can answer my question),

    It seems that you’re actively dorsiflexing while you perform these movements. Is there a reason for that? From what I understand, PRI believes dorsiflexion promotes healthy spinal, but I’ve never found an explanation about why that’s so.

    Thanks,
    Rob

  16. Hi Mike, I’m relatively inexperienced to strength training so I started with the supine exercises and I find them very effective. I want to try prone exercises, I’m assuming planks are prone, is this correct? Any other examples?

    Many Thanks
    Adrian

    • It’s called that because in the development of a child, this is one of the positions they can achieve at 3-months old. Hope that helps!

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